PARANAGUÁ, Brazil — Separated by more than 6,000 miles from home, and from the game that he loves, one of the top quarterback prospects in college football wakes up, kneels down on his bed, bows his head on a pillow and prays. The sun is rising in this coastal town in southern Brazil and after Elder Tanner McKee finishes his prayer, he begins another day as a missionary for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
The 6-foot-6 McKee jumps off the top bunk, throws on a Cardinal red Stanford T-shirt and basketball shorts, bounds down the stairs into the dingy kitchen and fixes himself a breakfast of eggs, bread and juice.
A little later, in the entryway of the two-story apartment with barred windows that he shares with three other missionaries, the 2017 Elite 11 finalist and four-star recruit picks up a makeshift barbell — two cylindrical slabs of concrete held together with a metal pole — and starts his daily 30-minute workout.
He performs a series of lifts inside the tiled entryway where there are several footballs, some deflated and collecting dust, that he brought with him to Brazil. An inspirational quote from Latter-day Saint prophet Gordon B. Hinckley is taped to a wall and a table is covered with religious pamphlets. The missionaries say they can hear rats running above them at night.
When McKee is finished lifting, he steps outside, where a faint burning smell lingers in the humid air and birds sing. He wraps some resistance bands around the outer gate and pulls on them to strengthen his arms and shoulders. If you’re wondering about his cardio exercise, don’t worry — he walks 12-15 miles every day through the streets of Paranaguá.
No, this is not a typical workout for a highly touted Division I athlete.
But this is how McKee, who turned 19 in April, tries to keep in shape as a missionary while harboring dreams of playing quarterback at Stanford, where he signed a national letter of intent in 2018. He’s postponed those dreams to serve a mission for two years.
Reality is, McKee, who regularly eats the traditional Brazilian fare of beans and rice, has lost 15 pounds of muscle from his frame in the year since he arrived here. His neck has shrunk a bit and his pants, which were tight on his legs when he arrived, now flap in the breeze.
“If my personal trainer could see me now,” McKee jokes, “he’d kill me … If I had to play a game right now, it would be tough. I’d get crushed.”
In the mission field, his physical conditioning and weight training is limited to these daily workout sessions in the mornings six days a week before donning the standard missionary white shirt and tie.
Chances are serving a mission isn’t the best thing for his football career. There’s a list of elite high school quarterbacks like Ben Olson and Tanner Mangum and others that have served two-year missions whose collegiate careers didn’t work out as planned. Olson was the No. 1 recruit in the country in 2001 and signed with BYU, redshirted, served a mission to Canada, and finished his injury-plagued career at UCLA.
Mangum was an Elite 11 quarterback before his mission. He returned to instant glory against Nebraska with a game-winning Hail Mary subbing for injured Taysom Hill. But he would eventually suffer injury himself and lose his starting position.
Hill, like McKee, was recruited by Stanford. He served a mission in Sydney, Australia, before transferring to BYU and showing flashes of greatness. But his college dreams were wrecked by four season-ending injuries in consecutive years. Remarkably, now stronger, he has rebounded to become an NFL fan favorite with the New Orleans Saints.
McKee is well-aware of the ghosts of quarterbacks past. He knows that many consider this a gamble and that there’s no guarantee of success after a mission.
But he chooses to serve. For McKee, this is a leap of deeply felt faith.
Most of the time, here in Brazil, football is far from his thoughts. His mind isn’t consumed with five-step drops or reading cover-two defenses or the chance to play in the Rose Bowl someday.
“I’m 100 percent missionary,” he says. “I’m not too worried about how I’m going to come back as an athlete.”
Before he left for Brazil, he explained why he decided to serve a mission.
“I want to help everyone understand you can go on a mission and still be successful in your sport. So many people think I am crazy for going. I want to show them you don’t have to choose between faith and football. You can do both. I believe I will be a better football player when I return.”
In early January, McKee learned that Trevor Lawrence, a true freshman quarterback, led Clemson to the national championship by knocking off Alabama. McKee and Lawrence became friends at the Elite 11 quarterback competition. McKee attracted considerable attention at the Elite 11, not only for his strong performance but also because he declined to participate on Sunday due to his beliefs.
“I was just competing with Trevor not long ago. It’s cool he was able to do that,” McKee says. Then pauses and smiles. “We’re just taking different paths. I’m in Brazil, serving a mission. And he’s winning national championships.”
When he was just 8 years old, McKee decided he would serve a mission.
Growing up in Corona, California, McKee, the second of four children, played baseball, basketball, volleyball and football. His parents, Jeremie and Layna, took him to practices and attended his games. He also grew up hearing stories about his dad’s missionary experiences in New Zealand. Not only was he certain he’d serve a mission, at age 9, for some inexplicable reason, he had a strong feeling that he would serve in Brazil. So he was thrilled when he was assigned to the Brazil Curitiba South Mission.
Missionaries don’t choose where they serve — they are assigned by church leaders in Salt Lake City. He’s one of about 67,000 missionaries serving in about 400 missions worldwide. Latter-day Saint men can start missionary serve at the age of 18. While they aren’t required to serve, it is strongly encouraged. Like many missionaries, McKee sees this sacrifice as a way to express gratitude to God for all he has received in his life.
“Heavenly Father’s going to bless me for serving a mission,” he says. “My dad always says, ‘When you take care of Heavenly Father’s business, He will take care of yours.’ I’ll just do my part now and I’ll do my part when I get back.”
Nothing — not even scholarship offers from many of the nation’s most football prominent programs — was going to keep McKee from serving.
But an unexpected trial provided the McKees with even more perspective.
When Tanner was a sophomore in high school, Layna happened to notice a mole on her son’s upper forehead that was obscured by his dark hair. Concerned, Layna took Tanner to a dermatologist, who conducted biopsies on his head, chest and back. The one on his head tested positive for melanoma. Skin cancer runs in the family — Tanner’s great-grandfather had died of melanoma.
“At first we didn’t know if it had spread to his organs,” Jeremie recalls. “He was just 16. We wondered, ‘Is his football career done? Are our lives going to totally change? Are we going to have to battle this for a long time?’”
Layna and Jeremie were referred to an oncology surgeon at UC-Irvine, who recommended surgery to remove the mole as well as two lymph nodes in his neck as a precautionary measure to ensure that the cancer had not spread.
The doctor removed a piece of skin the size of a quarter surrounding the mole and the two lymph nodes and a plastic surgeon worked to minimize the scarring along his hairline.
Before the surgery, the McKees offered many prayers and held a special fast involving extended family. Tanner also received a priesthood blessing from his father.
“We turned the outcome over to the Lord,” Layna says.
When she walked into the recovery room after the surgery, she gasped at the sight of the portion of her son’s shaved head and a red, four-inch incision which “looked pretty gruesome,” Layna says.
As soon as the anesthesia wore off, Tanner smiled and made a throwing motion with his arm, letting his mom know that everything was fine.
“Tanner is resilient and doesn’t get rattled,” Layna says.
Because of that experience, Tanner says he always wears “a ton of sunscreen with zinc” while he’s walking for hours every day in Brazil. He goes back to the dermatologist every six months. In June, he had a dermatologist appointment in Curitiba.
Dealing with melanoma has helped him be a more empathetic missionary.
“I had someone tell me, ‘I just found out that my daughter has cancer,’” he says. “I can tell them, ‘I passed through that as well. This is what helped me.’ Here, I can tell them of my experience. It helps people realize that we, as missionaries, are real people and we have real problems. I tell them about priesthood blessing and I say, ‘Would you like one?’ It’s just a cool opportunity to share with other people.”
Before his junior season, McKee was identified as one of the nation’s top prep quarterbacks. During the Elite 11, featuring the top high school QBs in the country, former NFL quarterback Trent Dilfer compared McKee in terms of style to former New England QB Drew Bledsoe.
From the outset, McKee made it clear to recruiters that he was going on a two-year mission. That may have scared off some potential suitors. But for the most part, the schools respected his decision, even if some couldn’t understand it. Being upfront about a mission made the recruiting process smoother.
As a two-year starter at Centennial High School in Corona, one of the top programs in California, McKee led the Huskies to a 21-4 record.
Throughout McKee’s high school career and the recruiting process, Centennial High head coach Matt Logan was impressed with McKee’s demeanor and devotion.
“I thought it was awesome that he has that type of commitment to his faith. Tanner is a great athlete and a tremendous human being. As a coach, you wish you had 100 of those types of guys every year,” he says. “He’s left a lasting impact at Centennial on the way to lead and the level of commitment he’s shown to the game and his faith. It’s pretty rare these days, especially with a player of his caliber in terms of recruiting rankings.”
In all, McKee had scholarship offers from more than 30 schools, including his church’s school, BYU, and many of the most prominent Power Five programs in college football. He took official visits to Texas, Texas A&M, Alabama, Washington and Stanford.
McKee’s family joined him on the recruiting trips and Tanner frequently discussed his impending decision with his parents.
On his official recruiting visit to Alabama, McKee went to coach Nick Saban’s house for breakfast and rode on his boat.
“Nick Saban called and offered him,” Jeremie says. “He knew Tanner was going on a mission. When we met in Nick Saban’s office, he said he was totally fine with it. He said he didn’t know a lot about missions, but that he would do a lot of research and help educate himself. He said, ‘We have no problem waiting for you.’”
At Stanford, McKee met and chatted with former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
No schools attempted to talk him out of doing a mission, but one Southeastern Conference school would call periodically to see if he had changed his mind.
According to Jeremie McKee, Texas coach Tom Herman said on a recruiting visit to Austin, “Tanner, you’ve made Texas history. To my knowledge, you’re the first kid we knew was going on a mission that we’ve offered in more than 100 years.”
In recent years, Stanford has been a haven for Latter-day Saint returned missionaries. Several have enjoyed successful careers on The Farm, the longtime name of the Palo Alto campus. Last year, there were six returned missionaries on Stanford’s roster.
Jim Harbaugh, who coached Stanford from 2007-2010 and is now the coach at Michigan, and his successor, current coach David Shaw, have aggressively pursued Latter-day Saint athletes who choose to serve missions.
Lance Anderson, a Latter-day Saint who served a mission to Phoenix, Arizona, has served on both coaching staffs. Anderson is in his 13th season at Stanford, including his sixth as the Willie Shaw director of defense.
“You start with Jim Harbaugh and then David Shaw has been extremely supportive and understanding of missionaries. That helps,” Anderson says. “The process has worked great for us.”
Hill was the first Latter-day Saint prospect Harbaugh signed. Since then, numerous returned missionaries, like Dallas Lloyd, Brandon Fanaika and Sean Barton, have played for Stanford.
“It helps for recruits to see that returned missionaries have gone to places besides BYU or Utah and had success and a positive experience,” Anderson says.
Stanford’s coaches don’t communicate with McKee directly on his mission but they keep in touch with his dad. Anderson says he enjoys reading weekly e-mails from various signees serving throughout the world, including McKee.
McKee signed with Stanford in 2018 but he wasn’t the only quarterback to pledge to the Cardinal as part of that group of recruits — so did Jack West, a 6-foot-4, 210-pounder from Saraland, Alabama. West played in two games last year as a freshman and backed up starter K.J. Costello, who is a senior. West is a redshirt freshman.
Stanford did not sign any quarterbacks in the 2019 class. Shaw is looking forward to McKee’s return and his potential.
“He’s such a great fit for us and our community. (The McKees have) seen the progression that our mission kids have had on our team. They’ve been influencers, they’ve been team captains,” Shaw said during Pac-12 Media Day in July. “I challenge them when they come back. I say, ‘You went on a mission for a reason. I want you to bring back this real world perspective to our football team.’ And not to just be another guy but a leader on this football team. The guys we’ve had have truly embraced that … I believe Tanner is going to have that kind of influence on our team as well.”
For now, McKee is not concerning himself with what the depth chart looks like.
So why didn’t he choose BYU?
McKee grew up watching the Cougars play. At home, he has plenty of BYU shirts and hats. His dad graduated from BYU and it was in Provo where his parents met.
McKee, who has relatives that live near the Provo campus, made several unofficial visits to BYU. McKee enjoyed going to Bam Bam’s BBQ with Heisman Trophy winner Ty Detmer, who was BYU’s offensive coordinator at the time.
“He was really the total package when you’re looking for a guy coming out,” Detmer recalls. “He’s a great young man. He’s doing all the right things. As a person, he’s what you’re looking for at BYU. He pops on your list but when you watch him, he’s long, really athletic for his size. He runs really well. But what stood out to me the most was how accurately he threw the ball and how quick he got it out.”
During the 2017 season, when McKee was deciding his college choice, BYU suffered its worst campaign in 50 years, posting a 4-9 record. And at the end of the season, Cougar coach Kalani Sitake relieved Detmer of his duties.
“I had a really good relationship with coach Detmer, for sure,” McKee says. “The BYU coaching staff was awesome.”
McKee says BYU’s dismal season wasn’t the reason he didn’t choose the Cougars.
“I just felt like Stanford was the best overall fit for me,” he says. “I’ve always been a fan. I’ve always liked Andrew Luck. From an educational standpoint, there’s nowhere I’d rather go. I like their style of offense and coach Shaw and being in the Pac-12. It was close to home in California. The coaching staff is great. We talk about football, we talk about non-football stuff and about spiritual things. Everything fell into place and it felt right.”
It’s very likely McKee will end up playing in the Beehive State. Stanford is scheduled to face BYU in 2020, 2022, 2023 and 2025; and Utah in 2021 and 2022.
It’s 7:50 on a damp and dreary Sunday morning in early June. Beneath blue-gray Brazilian skies, McKee and his companion, Elder Pedro Cabral, walk briskly through the streets of Paranaguá, a coastal town of about 150,000 inhabitants located 56 miles east of Curitiba and one of the largest ports in Brazil.
Cabral, a photographer from northern Brazil before embarking on a mission, is in just his second month as a missionary. He stands a foot shorter than McKee. But Cabral manages to keep up with McKee’s long strides. When they walk under large rain-filled trees, McKee playfully pokes his closed umbrella above him, spraying Cabral with water.
On this morning, McKee’s emotions are scattered. The night before, three people he and Cabral had been teaching were baptized. And he also knows that, having served in Paranaguá since February, this is his final full day in this town, he gets emotional knowing he will be transferred to another area the following day.
When the missionaries arrive at a house, they clap their hands as per Brazilian custom.
Later, as a steady rain begins to pour, the missionaries open their umbrellas. They’re trudging through the muddy roads of Labra, the poorest section of Paranaguá. They dodge large mud puddles as they accompany a single mother and her two sons to worship services.
Some families in this area have built homes using wood or bricks or sticks or whatever they can find. Many houses in Labra have dirt floors and no running water. Some steal the electricity from the city to secure some light in the darkness of night. Doors in some houses consist of a pole with a sheet hanging down. It’s not unusual for discarded couches and other refuse to burn in the streets.
The missionaries aren’t naive to criminal activity here but generally speaking, they feel safe and even those with bad intentions consider the missionaries as “men of God.” Still, the elders must be wise and vigilant.
“This isn’t a place we usually come to when it’s dark,” McKee says.
While people in Labra are indigent, many are humble and receptive to the missionaries’ message.
One young boy McKee has nicknamed “Mowgli” because he can usually be found shirtless and barefoot, scrambles up trees with aplomb and tosses fruit to him and his companion.
On this morning, there’s a general uneasiness pervading the area. The roads are mostly bereft of activity, except for the mongrel dogs that roam freely, scavenging for food. Empty wine bottles are lined up on street corners, evidence of a Saturday night’s indulgence. The relentless rain drenches the earth beneath the missionaries’ feet. Not ideal conditions for a Sunday stroll.
As he leads this pilgrimage to the church, he looks like a quarterback standing tall in the pocket, aware of his surroundings, feeling a different kind of adrenaline rush.
“My head’s always on a swivel,” he says.
McKee, his companion and the family continue on when they pass a middle-aged man pushing a metal cart full of various wares. He glares at the missionaries, who are wearing suits and ties and backpacks.
“O diabo gosta de atenção,” the man snarls.
Asked to interpret, Elder McKee replies, “He says, ‘The devil likes attention.’”
What did he mean?
“We see a lot of interesting people here,” McKee says, shrugging. “He probably lives in a hut and he sees us with suits and ties and thinks that we’re showing off. A lot of people don’t understand what missionaries do.”
Here’s what Tanner says missionaries do:
They teach people that improving their relationship with God can improve the quality of their lives. He likes to share a Book of Mormon scripture with those investigating the church about how keeping God’s commandments brings happiness.
“Our purpose as a missionary is to help people come unto Christ,” he explains. “We do anything we can to help them understand that Jesus Christ is their Savior and that there’s so much peace and joy they can feel in knowing that. He can help us in any aspect of life.”
There is more that goes into a missionary’s life. They work six days a week, follow a strict routine, they study scripture, they teach, they provide service where needed. But the purpose is to extend an invitation to all: Come unto Christ.
Back on the road, the three-mile journey from the missionaries’ apartment to Labra and then to church is complete. Covered in a mixture of rain and sweat, their pants mud-spattered, the missionaries find refuge inside a clean and dry church that is distinctive from the many other houses of worship in the area.
Before the start of sacrament meeting, kids and adults gravitate toward Elder McKee and greet him like a favorite cousin.
Toward the end of the worship service, he stands at the pulpit and shares some words about faith and the love he feels for the people in Paranaguá in fluent Portuguese. Knowing about his impending transfer, he knows he may never see some of these people again.
One year earlier, on Father’s Day, McKee spoke at his missionary farewell in his home ward in Corona. According to his dad, Jeremie, the bishop of the congregation, attendance at the service that day had doubled because of all of the non-Latter-day-Saints that wanted to listen to Tanner and wish him well on his mission. His message centered on why he had decided to serve.
At that time, McKee didn’t know any Portuguese words or phrases. He learned some basics of the language during his six-week stint at the Missionary Training Center in São Paulo. But once he arrived in Curitiba, he could barely understand anything. He walked around with a dictionary just to help him communicate with his Brazilian companion, who didn’t speak English.
“My companion would ask me how I was and I’d say, ‘I’m totally good.’ But inside I was freaking out,” he recalls. “Everyone was speaking a language that I have no idea what they’re saying. My companion is talking and I’m just nodding my head and saying I know what he’s saying and I have no idea. I’m thinking, ‘Where am I?’”
But 10 months later, McKee has transformed — he considers himself a Brazilian. His command of Portuguese belies the relatively short time he’s lived in this country. He confidently carries on conversations with anyone and everyone. When he does speak English, mostly to fellow American missionaries, he does so with a slight Portuguese accent and unconsciously tosses in Portuguese words.
After the meeting, members of the congregation surround the big gringo. They know they’ll miss him when he leaves Paranaguá. They don’t know much, if anything, about Tanner McKee, the football player. But it’s clear that they love Elder McKee, the missionary.
The missionary and the athlete
Few returned-missionary quarterbacks have gone on to big-time football success.
Steve Young, the great-great-great grandson of Brigham Young himself, didn’t serve a mission. Though he starred at BYU, led the San Francisco 49ers to a Super Bowl championship and has been inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, Young has said he wishes he had served a mission.
Ben Olson did serve and he doesn’t regret it.
“You always think about what-ifs and what could have been,” he says. “But I’m grateful for the decision to serve a mission. I gained a perspective and I was able to come home and put football in its proper place and be able to handle the struggles and trials I went through at UCLA.”
For Taysom Hill, he says being a missionary helped him deal with adversity on the football field, which included four season-ending injuries as a Cougar.
“I still feel the influence of my mission every day,” once Hill told the Deseret News. “Missionaries learn to manage situations and to rely on the Lord … If I could do it in the mission field. I can do it at home, on and off the football field.”
One of those returned missionary quarterbacks that McKee looks to for inspiration and advice is John Beck, who played quarterback at BYU from 2003-2006. Beck, who served a mission to Portugal, became the second returned missionary to lead the Cougars to a conference championship, after Brandon Doman first accomplished the feat in 2001. Then Beck became the first returned missionary to start a regular-season NFL game when he played as a rookie with the Miami Dolphins in 2007.
“There are a lot of firsts for the guys in that returned missionary pool. I never won a game in the NFL. Guess what? There’s still something for a returned missionary to shoot for, to start and win a game in the NFL. Maybe Tanner will be that guy,” says Beck, who played five seasons in the NFL. “When you take that big of a break from football, and you come back and try to play at a high level, there aren’t many people that have done it. Everything you are trying to do, you are trying to be somewhat of a pioneer.”
Today, Beck is a coach for a 3DQB, a quarterback training company, and he works with quarterbacks at all levels of competition, including the NFL.
Through Jeremie McKee and Corey Cuvelier, who finished his three-year calling as president of the Brazil Curitiba South Mission at the end of June, Beck became aware of a team that plays American football, the Curitiba Crocodiles, who compete in a Brazilian league.
When McKee arrived in the mission, Cuvelier encouraged him to use football as a way to engage others and introduce them to their message.
“Some are great musicians. Some are great football players like Tanner. I want them to be able to apply their different backgrounds, cultures and interests to share the gospel with others,” Cuvelier says. “It makes sharing the gospel more natural. That’s why missionaries like Tanner and other missionaries have been so successful. They can speak from their heart.”
In early May, Beck traveled to Brazil and he and McKee met with the Crocodiles during a practice. Beck shared his knowledge and did some coaching.
Of course, McKee has also played plenty of futebol with fellow missionaries and others in Brazil. McKee’s missionary farewell took place the same time soccer-crazed Brazil played in a World Cup game last summer. Everyone figured the only sport McKee would be seeing for two years was soccer. A year later, McKee was taking snaps in a practice setting with the Brazilians.
During the practice, Beck was texting Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott, one of the QBs he works with, and asked Prescott if he would be willing to address the team via Facetime. Prescott, who was enjoying a vacation in the Caribbean, obliged.
“The team called a timeout during practice and they all came running over,” Beck says. “Dak said, ‘What’s up?’ to them and we translated what he was saying to the guys. These guys watch the NFL and they know all about Dak.”
After the practice, McKee, wearing his missionary name tag, addressed the 50-60 football players about the importance of putting God in their lives and focusing on things of eternal importance.
For Beck, this was a serendipitous confluence of people and events.
“On my mission in Portugal, all I ever saw on TV was soccer, soccer, soccer. I told Tanner that it’s unbelievable that he has the opportunity to go to a football practice,” Beck says. “I would say 99.9 percent of quarterbacks serving missions will never get that experience. I also think that’s why the Lord calls us to certain areas for certain reasons. Even if none of those people get baptized, it’s influential.”
While Beck was in Brazil, he had an opportunity to spend a couple of hours with McKee on a preparation day. McKee took copious notes intended to help him design a program to optimize his limited physical training in the time he has left on his mission.
“We threw the ball around a little bit,” Beck says. “We couldn’t do too much because he’s not throwing the ball every day.”
No doubt, quarterbacks face huge obstacles when they return home from missions.
“When you remove yourself from that (football) environment for two years, those skills don’t stay sharp,” Beck says. “Tanner will come back and will be able to throw the ball. But he won’t be used to throwing to guys running routes. On your mission when you throw, there’s no coverage and you’re not moving at game-day speed. There’s nobody attacking you. You start playing at a different speed. It takes time to get that back.”
When he returns to the United States next year, McKee will return more mentally mature the next time he suits up. He’ll be a 20-year-old freshman when he enrolls at Stanford in 2020. His life experiences from his mission, including working with other people, leading others and dealing with adversity could help compensate for the time away from the sport.
“Serving a mission will help me improve my game at a higher level for sure. I’ll come back more of a man,” McKee says. “I’ll have passed through more experiences in life so I can get to know my teammates better and how to work with people. One of the most important roles as a quarterback is to help everyone reach their full potential. As a missionary, I’m trying to help the people that we’re teaching to reach their full potential.”
And if he doesn’t reach his full potential as a football player?
“I’m definitely always going to be grateful that I served a mission. There’s a level of importance of things we put in our lives. There’s our faith, God, our families and football,” he says. “Serving a mission and serving God and learning all of the things I’m learning right now is putting the most important things first. That will definitely help me in life. That’s more important than being a good athlete in the long run, for sure.”
On a Saturday evening at the church in Paranaguá, McKee and Cabral, dressed in all white, perform the baptisms of three people — a gratifying result to their teaching and invitation for baptism.
“It’s kind of like when you throw a touchdown pass,” McKee says, “but you know this is going to last a lot longer than a touchdown pass. It’s so much more rewarding than that or winning a game. These people have fought so hard to change their lives. It’s really cool to see.”
After making the long walk back from the church, McKee enters his apartment in Paranaguá. He passes the makeshift barbell and several footballs — reminders of what await him when he returns home from his mission. For now, it is time to pray, for those who were baptized tonight, and the others he’s yet to meet on this path.