Mission accomplished for 2 Steelers

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette/June 3, 2006
By Ed Bouchette

Marvin Philip had everything going for him at an early age in football. At 18, he became the starting center at the University of California. Then, at 19, he gave up the game for two years to wear a white shirt and tie and knock on doors in the Dakotas, recruiting for another calling.

"You know what, I was the first one, I think, to ever go to Cal to play football and then leave on a mission," said Philip, a rookie center for the Steelers.

He left on his mission weighing 305; he returned a scant 255 pounds after working from 6:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. virtually every day for two years spreading the word of the Mormon Church in North and South Dakota.

Among the rules when on such a mission: No visits home; only two phone calls permitted home each year, one on Mother's Day, one on Christmas, and no dating. Each missionary gets half a day off on Mondays to attend to personal matters, such as laundry.

"It requires a lot of faith and a lot of discipline," said Philip, who will need to call on that as well this summer as he tries to make the Steelers as a sixth-round draft choice. "It's not like anybody's there holding your hand, it's you and yourself. You're there for one reason, to serve others.

"It was fun, I enjoyed it."

Philip, who now weighs 315, won back his starting job at Cal midway through his first year after returning and remained there for three years. He became the third member of the Mormon Church on the Steelers' roster this spring, joining veteran defensive linemen Chris Hoke and Brett Keisel, each having played at Brigham Young University.

Hoke, too, knows what it's like to go on a mission. He skipped football for two years in college to go door-to-door in Belgium and France to win converts.

It's the right of every male member of the Church of Latter Day Saints to pursue a mission after he turns 19, and more college football players are doing so -- and making it into the NFL despite sacrificing two important years of playing the game.

"The religion is growing pretty fast," Hoke said. "Also, I think a lot of it is you're getting a lot of good Mormon players coming out."

Among current pro players who went on missions at BYU are Buffalo defensive end Ryan Denny, Eagles tight end Chad Lewis, Tampa Bay center Scott Jackson, Packers linebacker Brady Poppinga and Bears tackle John Tait.

"We're neutral; we don't interfere in their decisions to go," BYU football recruiting coordinator Paul Tidwell said.

Tidwell's job may be the most complicated of its kind. Many of the recruits at BYU are Mormon and leave on missions all over the world after their freshman season. NCAA eligibility rules allow for a two-year religious mission or for other service such as the Peace Corps or armed services. Thus, it can take an athlete up to seven years from the time he enrolls in college to complete his eligibility -- his first as a freshman, two years on a mission, one as a redshirt and three after that.

It's Tidwell's job to keep track of who's coming and going and at what positions. Last year, the Cougars recruited five defensive linemen to fill holes at that position. After their freshman season, four of the linemen left to go on missions.

"It's quite a juggling act. It really is," Tidwell said. "You have to plan three, sometimes four years in advance. Sometimes players will come in with a plan of going on a mission and then decide not to, or vice versa."

It's not surprising that the Steelers' Philip was the first football player at Cal to go on a mission for LDS. Most schools don't want to bother with it. UCLA, for example, recruited Hoke, a California native, until he told a Bruins coach he planned to go on a mission. The coach told him the program was not set up for that.

"That's a reason a lot of schools backed off," Hoke said. "They knew I was going on a mission when I was 19."

Despite the long hours involved in missionary work, Hoke was able to keep in touch with football and also found a way to try to stay in shape even as many doors were closed to him in Europe.

"A lot of people over there, it's hard to get close to them to talk to because they're close-minded," Hoke said. "What we did, we did a lot of special-interest things. I went into the weight room and worked out a little bit, once a week, not very much. I talked to people, got to know them. I coached a football team over there a little bit, a French team. Just to stay around it."

Player-missionaries can find themselves working for their church anywhere from stateside to the poorest of Third World countries.

"I knew one guy who went to Argentina and dropped 100 pounds," Tait said. "Guys get stomach viruses or the food's not great."

Tait actually gained 15 pounds during his mission. He was a first-round draft choice and became one of the better tackles in the league. But while he was recruiting for LDS in Tennessee, he found himself being recruited at the same time -- by fans of the University of Tennessee. The NCAA permits a player on a mission to switch schools without repercussion when his mission ends.

"Everyone in the South loves football," Tait said. "When you're trying to talk to people, sometimes their first reaction is, 'No thanks, go away.' Then they look at you and say, 'Boy, you're big. Ever play football?' Sometimes it got you in the door."

And sometimes they would try to convince the volunteer to play for the Volunteers.

Even not going on a mission can have an effect on a football player at BYU. Keisel, who will become the Steelers' starting right defensive end this season, is a Mormon who decided not to take a mission.

"I've seen a lot of guys at BYU who were great players when they left and when they came back they were garbage," Keisel said. "And I've seen guys like Hokie who went, came back, performed well and made it to this level. There's both sides of the perspective there."

Some players return from a mission and find football is no longer for them. Keisel stayed and questioned his future.

"After my freshman year all of my buddies were gone on missions," Keisel said. "I didn't know who to hang out with or anything like that because all of my buddies left. That was a struggle for me. I struggled that year and that was the reason I had to go to a junior college, because I stopped going to school and stopped doing the things I was supposed to be doing."

Philip, at 24 the Steelers' oldest rookie, is among the latest who will try to land an NFL job after giving up the sport for two years on a Mormon mission.

"I felt it was something I needed to do," he said. "I never looked back and I'm happy that I did it."

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