LDS missions provide unique challenges for college football teams


James Cowser came to Southern Utah as a highly touted recruit, a 230-pound defensive end with a relentless motor.

The Utah Region One 5A Player of the Year spent 2009 redshirting and packing on 15 more pounds of muscle to his 6-foot-4 frame. Then Cowser went on a mission on behalf of the Church of Latter Day Saints. When he returned from Hong Kong, he was hardly recognizable to his Southern Utah coaches and teammates.

Cowser had lost nearly 40 pounds. LDS missions prevent missionaries from training with nearly the frequency and intensity a collegiate athlete does.

“That’s one of the big challenges, especially with the guys who serve internationally,” Southern Utah head coach Ed Lamb said. “They can end up in places where food just doesn’t have the same meaning or abundance it has in the states. Some of our stateside guys tend to gain weight and not necessarily good weight. They don’t have opportunities to lift weights and stay in condition. It can be shocking sometimes to see a 300-pound lineman come back at 215 pounds after he served a two-year mission in some third-world country.

“James in Hong Kong, I think quiet often, he didn’t enjoy the food very much.”

The challenges of having players go on missions is one Lamb is familiar with. Southern Utah’s six-year head coach has 31 players on his current roster that have served LDS missions as SUU heads north to play Montana State on Saturday afternoon in Bozeman.

“It was an amazing experience, but learning a new language is ridiculously hard,” said Cowser, who is back up to 245 pounds and leads the Thunderbirds with 17.5 tackles for loss and nine sacks. “I loved it. It was so much fun. The people over there are so kind. They are so much more mellow than I am. Being so far away from home, it helped me mature too.”

Cowser returned from Asia in December of 2010. He had nine months to get back into playing shape. He made it seem easy. Last season, Cowser was a Freshman All-America and an honorable mention All-Big Sky selection after notching 7.5 sacks.

“I feel like I have a little more perspective on things,” Cowser said. “I take care of my school work, I take care of the film study instead of just going and partying. It helps me on the field because I can focus in every aspect of my life.”

Getting back into the kind of shape it takes to compete in Division I football isn’t as easy for everyone.

“There’s definitely a concern with the condition they will come back in,” said Montana State head coach Rob Ash, whose team welcomed linebacker Monte Folsom back to the Bobcats after two years on a mission. “You almost have to plan on a year of getting back in shape for those guys. That’s what we are doing with Monte.”

Folsom and his younger brother Ben started school a year late in order to graduate from Beaverhead County High School at 19, the required age to embark on a mission. Monte signed in 2011, then joined the team in August. Ben signed in February and will join the team in 2015.

While the initial transition is challenging, many players who served missions end up being more mature, physically and mentally by the time they are upper classmen. Cowser couldn’t help but laugh at the notion of playing as a 24-year-old senior.

“It’s a maturing process and they do come back older and wiser,” Ash said. “They are older when they play. Some guys end up being 23, 24 years old when they are finishing their career. A lot of them end up getting married and having families during that time so they are in a different place than a lot of young guys playing for other teams.”

“I think in this business as a coach, we see guys as they progress through the program from 17 or 18 years old to 21 or 22, we see maturity and progression by all of them and certainly the missionaries have an advantage in that,” Lamb said. “But what it comes down to is guy by guy. We have 31 guys who served LDS missions. Every guy is a little different. Guys mature at their own pace.”

The gregarious, energetic Cowser laughed at the notion that Southern Utah might be more grown up than most teams in the Big Sky Conference.

“We are still kids and we make stupid mistakes, but overall, we know how to take care of business,” Cowser said. “We are a pretty disciplined group.”

Since Brigham Young first helped settle Utah in 1844, the Mormon influence in the Beehive State has been steady. The 2010 census counted 62.2 percent of Utah’s population as members of the LDS church. Lamb doesn’t have much of a choice but to recruit players who might go on missions.

While the LDS influence isn’t nearly as profound in Montana, Ash said he welcomes any players to his program regardless of the paths they choose to take.

“The hard part is just getting it started,” Ash said. “Once you’ve had a program for awhile you are sending guys out, losing guys on missions, but you are getting guys back too. You have a good rotation of talent coming through your program.”

About Colter Nuanez

Colter Nuanez is the co-founder and senior writer for Skyline Sports. After spending six years in the newspaper industry with stops at the Missoulian, the Ellensburg Daily Record and the Bozeman Daily Chronicle, the former Washington Newspaper Association Sportswriter of the Year and University of Montana Journalism School graduate ('09) has cultivated a deep passion for sports journalism during his 13-year career covering the Big Sky Conference. In August of 2014, Colter and brother Brooks merged their passions of writing and art to found Skyline Sports.

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