Mapu returns to Tennessee after 2-year church mission
But after two years on a Mormon mission, sometimes going door-to-door to speak about his faith, the once-shy Hawaii native says he is a changed man and shows he is comfortable talking about it.
During a press conference on Monday to mark his return to the Volunteers, the 6-3, 275-pound tackle said his priority now is getting back into football shape.
"I'm really grateful for the opportunity to come back," Mapu said. "I'm grateful for the support of my family — everything they've done for me."
Mapu was joined by his parents and siblings, including 24-year-old brother Daniel, who remains in a wheelchair after being hit by two vehicles during an anti-methamphetamine rally in Hawaii in August 2003.
The family welcomed back Mapu to their home on the North Shore of Oahu earlier this month after he spent two years doing mission work in Houston. They traveled with him to Knoxville this week before practice begins Friday.
Mapu played at Tennessee in 2002 and 2003, starting all but one game as a sophomore. He is entering his junior season.
He returns to a team that will need his experience after losing three of last year's defensive line starters and finishing a disappointing 5-6.
"I'm willing to do whatever it takes to help our team get back on track," he said. "I know we'll do better."
Mapu was relatively shy — at least when speaking to reporters — during his first two years at Tennessee, but he had to shed that tendency quick because his mission work included going door-to-door to talk about his Mormon beliefs.
"I got to grow up, grow out of shell," he said.
He also helped in the cleanup after hurricanes Katrina and Rita in Louisiana.
"I've seen things I really didn't know about before," he said. "Sometimes as an athlete you get so caught up in succeeding as an athlete."
The missionaries had only half an hour to themselves every morning, and they were not allowed to lift weights. Mapu mostly exercised by running.
"We didn't get to do much," he said. "I know I have a lot of work to do to get back into playing shape."
He has already worked out some in the weight room with his teammates.
"It was rough — I won't lie," Mapu said.
Despite needing to work on weights and conditioning, Mapu returns healthy.
"Missionary work — we didn't get banged up," he said, smiling.
Coach Phillip Fulmer stood by Mapu during the press conference and said he was glad the player was back and had seen a difference in him.
"He's had experiences many of us haven't had. Seen things and done things. That takes an incredible amount of commitment," Fulmer said.
The coaches are hoping Mapu will emerge as a leader on the team even though he's been away for two years and doesn't know the younger players well.
"He has his priorities in place. There was never one minute anybody questioned his toughness or anything like that. I'm sure that's still in there," Fulmer said. "He'll be a good guiding light for the younger guys on and off the field."
Mapu did not watch any football games while he was on the mission and only heard about Tennessee football through monthly letters from his parents.
"It was rough, but I knew the guys would work hard and bounce back," he said.