For Mormon Big Green football players, faith comes first
For most standout high school athletes, the next step after graduation is obvious: college sports. But some students of the Mormon faith, like Big Green football players Tanner Aiono ’20 , Justin Call ’16 and Anders Peterson ’20 choose to put off college for two years to serve a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Call left on his mission after his freshman year at Dartmouth in 2012, back when the mission age for men was still 19, while Peterson and Aiono left on their missions straight out of high school before entering Dartmouth this past fall.
“I’d say [my faith has] been pretty central,” Aiono said. “I’ve always been the only Mormon kid in elementary, middle and high school, and so I was always different and unique — I always viewed it in a good way. It has been something that’s guided me and helped me know who I am and who I want to be.”
Balancing faith, school and football can be difficult, but all three players found a way to prioritize their faith despite being actively recruited for football by a number of schools.
“Growing up in Provo, Utah, [Brigham Young University] was always the plan, and then I started getting recruited for various schools to play football,” Peterson said. “I remember coming on my official visit here, and I didn’t enjoy it at all. I didn’t think I was going to go here but basically committed because the coaches were cool with me going on a mission.”
His mind changed on his mission when he realized Dartmouth provided such a great academic opportunity that he couldn’t pass up. Peterson also noted that football head coach Buddy Teevens ’79 played a huge part in his decision.
“Male leaders in my life have always been huge, like my high school football coach and mission president,” Peterson said. “They’ve had huge influences on me, and I saw that in Teevens.”
Teevens also played a big part in Call’s decision to attend and play for the Big Green.
“When I came here, it just felt like a good fit with the small school and being out in the woods, and meeting [Teevens], I felt that he really cared about me as a person, not just as a football player,” Call said. “With the whole mission thing, he was extremely supportive, and even encouraged it — he really supported putting faith before football.”
Teevens noted that he was struck when he first met Aiono, Call and Peterson.
“They were bright-eyed and intellectually capable students, but they just struck me as very good people,” he said. “I’ve had Mormon kids before. [I’ve found] that these students are very disciplined guys; they know right from wrong, make good decisions and are generally good leaders. With the [mission] experience itself, to go out in an unfamiliar area, the regimentation and the discipline in getting up and being where you need to be, being away from your family without communication, I think that breeds an emotional durability which I think is helpful in athletics. You couple that with the qualities that they brought with them before: enthusiasm, energy, athleticism and intellectual capability — it made it an easy call for me.”
Teevens downplayed many of the worries some coaches might have about recruited players taking a few years off. Despite not knowing what a player’s physical condition will be like after two years, Teevens didn’t bat an eye.
“My sense was if football was important to them they were going to work hard at it and do everything they could to maintain their conditioning,” Teevens said. “They all came back in good shape, and it’s a little bit of an adjustment, but football is like riding a bike — if you’ve done it once, you can probably do it again.”
While faith has always been at the forefront of their lives, Aiono, Call and Peterson chose to go on their missions for different reasons. Peterson said that he’s pretty open with the fact that he served a mission because of social pressure from his family and friends.
“Having friends preparing for missions helped me get to that point, but I like to say that there’s a reason people choose to serve a mission and a reason why people stay on their mission,” he said. “Once I got out there I learned to love the people and love what I was doing. I wanted to do it for the Lord so that’s what made me stay on my mission and work hard.”
Conversely, Aiono said he never felt pressured to go.
“A big part of it was that my older brother was always a role model for me, and he’s 11 years older,” Aiono said. “He was a punk — he still is a little bit — but once he left and came back I could see the change in him and the person he had become. I knew instantly that I wanted that for me, to become that [changed] person.”
Call shared that most of his family members served missions.
“Everyone comes home and just talks about the incredible experience that is,” Call said. “I never met anyone that said, ‘Oh, I wish I didn’t serve a mission.’ That all the more made me want to have that same experience as these people.”
The LDS Church currently has 421 missions that are located domestically and internationally. After signing up, candidates do not get to choose where they serve their two years, Call said. Peterson was called to the Texas Fort Worth Mission and had to learn to speak Marshallese.
“I thought my dad had given me a fake mission call because I thought Marshallese, like fake aliens or something like that — but it was to serve the Marshallese people,” Peterson said.
In Texas, Peterson served a small community of a little over 1,000 people south of Fort Worth.
“Normally, depending on where you serve, you move around a lot in your district in your mission,” Peterson said. “But I spent 18 months of my mission in that same area with the Marshallese people.”
Before going out to Texas, he spent six weeks in the Missionary Training Center in Utah where he learned Marshallese — kind of.
“I pretty much just got my feet wet,” Peterson said, “Once I got out to Texas, my first companion, the guy I was serving with, was from the Marshall Islands so he helped me pick [the language] up.”
Call was sent to the Orlando, Florida mission.
“I didn’t have to learn a language [before actually going out into my mission], but I ended up picking up Spanish and Asian Creole just because I spent most of my time in the poorer parts of the city,” Call said. “There’s a big population of people that didn’t speak English so I picked up those languages to learn how to talk to them.”
Despite their many great experiences and interactions with people, Aiono, Call and Peterson all agreed that missions come with great difficulties. Facing repeated rejection could be frustrating, for one.
“When you’re going out there, you’re going out there to share your faith with people — it’s a huge part of my own identity,” Call said. “You go out there, and you’re basically saying to people, ‘Can I share this thing that means so much to me?’ and on your mission, you meet a lot of people that either don’t want it or are antagonistic and try to tear you down, it kind of hurts on a personal level.”
Peterson also noted that with a mission’s strict routine, there are few things that are necessarily, personally fun.
“I think generally, before my mission, I always had things to look forward to,” Peterson said. “On a mission, that kind of gets taken away. You have to learn to completely forget about yourself. That took a lot of time, but was definitely the hardest thing for me — to wake up every morning at 6:30 a.m. and know that I’m going to be out working all day long without any personal reward. That has also become my biggest takeaway from my mission; I’ve learned that there’s more to life than just me, and that’s where true happiness comes from — looking outward and serving others.”
Aiono was moved by the difficult situations faced by the people he served.
“Everyone has their problems, but the people I came across, the things that they endured, were incredible,” Aiono said. “To see people who were going through these kinds of things, and to look back and to be grateful for things that I’ve called problems in my life in comparison is amazing to me.”
Aiono, Call and Peterson agree that their missions helped prepare them for their college experiences.
“It sounds pretty strange because you’re not focusing on things of the world [on your mission],” Aiono said. “Everything we did helped me be better here. I know how to better manage my time, budget [my finances], take care of myself, use good study habits and set goals and make plans. Coming here and being independent has been fairly easy.”
Peterson found the transition more difficult.
“I was only home for a little over a month before [going into summer football training], and just being thrown back into football culture, especially being surrounded by [crude] language [was a bit shocking],” Peterson said. “At first, it was a bit difficult to adjust, but I’ve made some really strong friendships with some guys on the team and they know that I’m that ‘Mormon guy.’ They’re all super supportive and all look up to me for the way I act, and I think that’s helped me in my faith. I also think because a lot of them live differently than I do, it’s allowed me to question my faith and live what I’m living because I believe in it.”
In Call’s freshman year, he said, the LDS group was small and disjointed. There were times he felt alone in his faith. But this past fall, the LDS community on campus increased to around 15 to 20 members, which has served as an alternative social group for the guys. While their missions are over, Aiono, Call and Peterson continue the mission experience by practicing their faith and upholding their values in their day-to-day lives.
“It’s not something they proselytize or wear on their sleeve, but [their faith] is found in the way that they carry themselves,” Teevens said. “I think people have great respect for them knowing that they are strong in their faith. We talk about faith openly, and I tell guys, ‘If you’re strong in your faith, don’t leave it at home when you come to school.’ The character that they demonstrate is certainly faith-based, and that’s respected by our coaching staff and the members of the team as well.”