Manti Te'o refrained from mincing words each time he met a college coach. Te'o, one of the nation's highest ranked linebacker prospects, told every coach who recruited him that, after his freshman season, he might leave the country for two years.
"I basically told them, 'This is me,'" said Te'o, from Laie, Hawaii. "I'm LDS. I'm thinking of serving a mission, and I want that to be available to me. If that's not in the cards for your university, I have to respect that, but I have to consider others."
Te'o is a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints -- more commonly referred to as the Mormon church. When male members of the church turn 19, they are encouraged to embark on a two-year mission to proselytize in parts of the world that may not have been exposed to the 189-year-old faith. Te'o would like to serve that mission, even if it means leaving college for two years. A pronouncement like Te'o's might end most players' recruitments, but Rivals.com ranks Te'o as the nation's No. 12 overall prospect. Because Te'o has so much potential, almost every coach who recruited him consented to the mission.
The mission question is just one of a set of issues LDS players face when they look outside the small group of schools that are accustomed to signing Mormons. LDS players also must consider how their faith will mesh with the campus environment at either a secular school or one run by a different faith, and they must prepare for a backlash from some in the LDS community should they choose a school other than Brigham Young, the Provo, Utah, university run by the Mormon church. Te'o and Provo offensive lineman Xavier Su'a Filo (No. 63 by Rivals) each have faced these issues during the past few months, and each will weigh them carefully in the next few days as they decide which school they'll sign with on Wednesday.
Te'o will sign either with a state university (UCLA), a secular private university (USC) or the nation's most prominent Catholic university (Notre Dame). While starring at Punahou -- President Barack Obama's alma mater and SI's No. 1 high school athletic program in 2008 -- Te'o piqued dozens of schools' interests. He had 29 scholarship offers before he stopped counting them. His sideline-to-sideline speed and penchant for gut-rattling hits brought recruiters in droves, and, somewhat to Te'o's surprise, his request that he be allowed to go on a mission didn't drive them all away.
Te'o worried especially about USC, which had a reputation for discouraging players from going on missions. He had good reason. DeAnn Longshore, whose son, Nate, just finished his career as a quarterback at Cal, said that when her son was being recruited for the class of 2004, USC coaches told Nate, an LDS member, that they would offer a scholarship only if he promised he wouldn't leave for a mission. So, in a phone conversation about a year ago, Te'o asked Trojans coach Pete Carroll pointblank if his scholarship would be waiting for him when he returned from his mission. Te'o's father, Brian, said Carroll explained how his opinion of mission trips has changed in recent years. Brian Te'o said Carroll answered all questions when he said, "Once a Trojan, always a Trojan."
Su'a Filo, who narrowed his finalists last week to BYU, LSU, UCLA, USC and Utah, also met with less resistance than he anticipated when he brought up the mission. "The coaches have been really good at understanding," he said. Two of Su'a Filo's finalists, BYU and Utah, are accustomed to signing future missionaries. BYU encourages the mission trip for all its students, so the coaching staff is adept at juggling scholarships and the depth chart as players depart and return. Ditto for Utah, a state school only a few miles from LDS headquarters in Salt Lake City. Utes coach Kyle Whittingham is an LDS member and BYU alumnus so familiar with the Book of Mormon that he has a standby passage to fire up Utes fans ("And the Lord shall be red in his apparel"). "See," Whittingham told Yahoo! Sports last month. "It was right there in the Doctrine and Covenants the whole time."
LSU, on the other hand, is the flagship university in a state that allows gas stations to sell hard liquor. (The LDS church forbids members from drinking.) On Su'a Filo's official visit to LSU in November, Tigers coaches and players worked hard to make their guest comfortable. It didn't hurt that Su'a Filo's main recruiter was offensive coordinator Gary Crowton, a former BYU head coach who served his own mission in South Korea from 1979-81 while playing football for the Cougars. Su'a Filo said having LDS members as recruiters at some schools made discussions easier. "They understand everything about my values and my standards," he said.
That isn't entirely necessary, though. Te'o bonded with Notre Dame coach Charlie Weis, who is Catholic. "Charlie Weis is a great man," Te'o said. "On my official visit, he took me to the LDS church over there. They're very welcoming of athletes from different faiths." It may seem odd that the most highly sought-after Mormon recruit in the nation is considering a Catholic school, but Brian Te'o said he isn't surprised. Manti's mother's family is Catholic, and Manti enjoyed the small-town feel of South Bend. "I've noticed with Manti that those environments that are faith-based are the ones he feels more comfortable in," Brian Te'o said.
What Te'o won't know until later this year is how he, his teammates and the coaching staff at his chosen school will react when it comes time to decide whether to go on a mission. DeAnn Longshore explained that pressure will come from unexpected sources. Her son, Nate, signed with Cal out of Canyon (Calif.), fully expecting to serve a mission after his freshman year. Longshore redshirted as a freshman, and after the 2004 season, he moved to the front of the line to win the starting job in 2005. Even though Cal coaches had said nothing to discourage him from serving the mission, Longshore found himself torn.
"I don't know that the pressure came from the school," DeAnn Longshore said. "The pressure came more from just knowing that your team is counting on you. You are in the mix of things. You have been practicing with them every day. They know you. You know them. So to all of sudden say, 'I've got to leave you for a couple of years' gets really hard for the young man to do. ... The pressure to stay once you've gone there is tremendous. BYU expects their boys to go, so they've worked it into their program. Most of the other schools don't work that into their program quite as much."
DeAnn understands better than most mothers. Nate wound up staying in Berkeley and winning the starting job. Unfortunately, he broke his leg in the Bears' 2005 season opener and missed the remainder of the season. DeAnn's oldest son, Nick, signed to play at Cal State Northridge. When he returned from a mission to the Phillipines, Northridge had disbanded its football program. Nick finished his career at BYU. DeAnn's youngest son, Ben, took the same tack as Te'o during his recruitment, eliminating any school that wouldn't allow him to serve a mission. Ben, a quarterback who led Canyon to a state title in 2006, had interest from several BCS-conference schools, but wound up signing with Utah State. Ben recently began serving a two-year mission in Argentina.
Te'o and Su'a Filo drew interest from schools in every part of the country, but some in the LDS community would prefer to see them go to BYU. Te'o learned how passionate this portion of the community is last week when he eliminated BYU amid a minor scandal. According to Brian Te'o, Manti was in tears last Saturday morning when he called Cougars coach Bronco Mendenhall to inform Mendenhall that he wouldn't sign with BYU. On Monday, former BYU player Hans Olsen reported on his Salt Lake City radio show that BYU had rescinded Te'o's scholarship offer weeks earlier for an alleged violation of the school's honor code that took place during Te'o's official visit from Jan. 9-11. The alleged incident involved alcohol. BYU's honor code bans students not only from consuming alcohol but also from being present when others are consuming alcohol. Brian Te'o refuted that report. He acknowledged that Mendenhall questioned Manti about the incident, but Brian said his son was not involved and that the scholarship offer remained on the table. On Thursday, The Salt Lake Tribune reported that two BYU freshmen, Shiloah Te'o (Manti's cousin) and O'Neill Chambers, were under investigation for an alleged honor code violation.
Brian Te'o, who holds a degree from BYU's Hawaii campus, said Tuesday he was disappointed BYU hadn't publicly cleared his son's name. BYU coaches are forbidden by the NCAA from publicly discussing prospects. Even before the honor-code story broke, Manti Te'o faced criticism for dropping BYU. In Sunday's edition of the Provo-based Daily Herald, columnist Darnell Dickson wrote, "It really is a slap in the face that BYU wasn't even in Te'o's top three" and suggested that Te'o gave up a chance to become a BYU legend by choosing schools where he might get lost in the shuffle. Brian Te'o looks at it differently. "For BYU to be on the short list, that shows the kind of impression the school made on Manti," he said.
BYU remains on the list for Su'a Filo, but so does rival Utah, an SEC power and two Pac-10 schools. Su'a Filo said religion will play a role in his choice, but, like Te'o, he believes his faith will remain unchanged no matter the environment around him. "It definitely plays a factor because I am LDS," Su'a Filo said. "But I think I can live righteously anywhere I go. I think you can have spiritual experiences anywhere."