Stanford Mormon players share life experiences with the team

STANFORD, Calif .– Homesickness and depression began to overwhelm Houston Heimuli about four months after he began his Mormon mission. Far from his family for the first time, the gesture of a stranger in his aggregation made all the difference in keeping him alive.

An Indianapolis man presented 18-year-old Heimuli with a glove that had belonged to his father – autographed, no less – from Lakei Heimuli’s time as the star full-back of the 1984 BYU National Championship team.

“He said to me: ‘I had this when I was a child, I heard you were here and I wanted to give it to you, I hope it helps you no matter what you need, I’m here, ”Heimuli remembers. “It actually made me cry a bit. It was a great time and I still have it, my father’s glove with his name on it from 1984. “

That moment became a turning point, and Heimuli learned a key lesson from the two years he now shares with his Stanford football teammates: “Don’t be afraid to lean on people.”

It’s a theme for the tight-knit Cardinal – who plays his last home game of the season on Saturday night against Notre Dame – and exactly the kind of story and example that coach David Shaw is cheering on Heimuli and five other players. of Latter-day Saints to chat to help teammates through a difficult time, or even a triumph.

Like BYU and Utah traditions of embracing young men who join a sports program after their two-year missions with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Shaw is committed to the operate at Stanford. Defensive coordinator Lance Anderson is a Mormon, and one of the main reasons these players come to the Bay Area – the assistant coach is leading recruiting efforts in Utah, where many of these players live.

“I’ve had this conversation with all the guys who come back from these missions. I say, ‘You’ve stepped out into the world, you’ve been through things, you’ve grown up, different from these kids that just got out of high school and came here, ”Shaw said. “Don’t keep this a secret. Whatever you’ve gleaned, whatever you’ve learned, however you grew up, express it, so these guys can benefit from your experience.

Because Mormon players are two years older than their freshman football counterparts, Shaw lets them have their say when the time is right.

Second-year quarterback Tanner McKee enjoys the platform to make a difference by sharing his stories and lessons, but doesn’t push too hard. Teammates regularly ask Mormon players about their respective mission trips.

Players who have taken on missions say there is a special sincerity involved that earns them respect – others listen and respond even if they don’t share the same beliefs.

As a young boy, McKee imagined one day a missionary trip taking him to Brazil. It was there that he landed, spending 21 months in the Curitiba region, in southern Brazil.

“Obviously we’ve seen a lot of different issues in the world, and coming back I feel like it can help the team deal with adversity,” McKee said. “There are a lot of people in the football team who come from different cultures or backgrounds, and living in Brazil I had to learn a whole new culture and people from completely different backgrounds. So I think that the level of maturity has helped me a lot to be a better leader, to be a better quarterback, to be a better person for this team. ”

Heimuli has been there for his teammates through life-changing times such as the death of a loved one.

“I wouldn’t say I was like an anchor, but I will say that for some guys on the team, I try to give my voice and I try to give them a little bit, not a pep talk, but kind of witty conversation, like, “Hey, man, I know it’s hard, here’s my experience with that. I know it’s not the same as yours, but just know that someone is there for you, “the fifth-year senior said.” There have been times when the shoulder you can lend goes a long way. “

Fifth-year outside linebacker Gabe Reid completed his assignment in his father’s homeland of American Samoa and Western Samoa. Junior inside linebacker Leavani Damuni has lived in Auckland, New Zealand and the Cook Islands.

Tangaloa Kaufusi, a senior outside linebacker from Salt Lake City, spent his assignment in Taiwan, and fellow linebacker Spencer Jorgensen traveled to Thailand.

“In terms of what I took away from my assignment and what I brought back with me to football and Stanford, the most important thing was to enjoy the little things and the simple things,” said Reid, who saw many families with next to nothing. .

McKee lost about 25 pounds during his absence, and Damuni had to regain his physical shape after gaining 45 pounds with regular starchy meals of fish and chips.

“I’m a much better version of myself than I would have been straight out of high school,” Damuni said.

Latter-day Saints players meet regularly for spiritual support and guidance. In the locker room, they are not seen as strangers, but rather as teammates who have already learned invaluable life skills such as self-reliance in the real world.

“Everyone is very tolerant and loving,” said Reid, “and if anything, I think the fact that we’re different makes us stronger.”

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