For Mormon Times
Published: 2009-12-22 00:18:48
LAS VEGAS -- By now, Kevin and Devin Unga are used to all of the questions.
As twins, as members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and as returned Mormon missionaries, they prompt plenty of curiosity from teammates.
"It happens all the time," Kevin said. "They ask what year we are. We say, 'true freshmen.' They say, 'Man, you look 21.' We say, 'That's because we are 21.' They ask why we're so old and we tell them we went on missions and they ask what we did on our missions. They ask about the gospel. For us, it's a good opportunity to share the gospel."
The freshman linebackers are two of four returned missionaries on the Oregon State squad that faces BYU on Tuesday in the Las Vegas Bowl. By contrast, the Cougars have 61 players on the roster who have served missions.
"BYU has a lot of their players who are returned missionaries and we let our teammates know we're not the only ones doing it," Kevin said. "We've told our teammates, 'There's nothing wrong with being 30 and playing college football,' and they just laugh."
"We stand out because we came back from a mission," Devin said. "We're part of the group of older athletes, even though we're freshmen. We're older than some of the seniors on the team."
The Unga brothers are second cousins to Cougar running back Harvey Unga. Oregon State defensive lineman Sioeli Nau and linebacker Walker Vave have also served missions. All four served in Latin American countries and speak Spanish.
In-state and conference rival Oregon, which will play in the Rose Bowl on New Year's Day, also has four returned missionaries on its roster. Will Tukuafu (Salt Lake City) and Brandon Bair (St. Anthony, Idaho) are starting defensive linemen, while Mark Asper (Idaho Falls, Idaho) starts on the offensive line. Sam Doman (Canby, Ore.) is a reserve tight end.
Outside of Utah, only New Mexico State (B.J. Adolpho, Ka'ua Adolpho, David Niumatalolo and Michael Zant) has as many returned missionaries on its roster as Oregon and Oregon State do.
Like the Ungas, Nau gets a lot of questions from teammates.
"They always ask what it was like, if it was worth it going on a mission, leaving two years and having to start over," said Nau, who served in the Panama Panama City mission and hails from Spanish Fork, Utah. "I always tell them that I don't regret going on a mission and that it was one of the best things I've ever done. They're curious about my beliefs. There's about eight of us on the team who are LDS. My teammates wonder about being LDS and being old. I'm about the oldest guy on the team."
Meanwhile, Nau said, there is a strong friendship that's formed between the returned missionaries, as well as the other players who are Mormon. They also reach out to players who are not LDS.
"When we have road games, those of us who are LDS have our own little chapel in one of the hotel rooms," Nau said. "One of us will share a scripture and share that bond between us. Even non-member guys come and we read out of the Bible."
"The Polynesian returned missionaries, we all speak Tongan and Spanish," said Vave, who served in the Ecuador Guayaquil mission. "It's fun to get together and read scriptures before the game. It helps us to have the Lord on our mind while we play football."
Teammates respect the group of Mormon players, said Devin, who served in Guatemala. "They understand us. A lot of the guys go out and party and drink. But they understand we're not into those things. We keep our standards and they understand us. They don't force us to do anything. They don't try to get us to go out with them. After the first time they asked, they haven't since. They basically do understand we don't do many things the other guys would do."
Kevin, who served in the Chile Concepcion Mission, said his missionary service has blessed him immensely.
"It really helped a lot. Me and my brother's lives were completely different. In California, the Tongan kids get involved in gangs and things like that. We tried to focus in on sports. But my parents taught us all the time that sports is what you're going to do on Earth, and we have to put the Lord first. Going on a mission was a big thing to my parents. They wanted us to serve missions and so we did. It helped us to the point that it helped my life and organized my life -- not the way I wanted it, but the way the Lord wanted it. I knew if I trusted him, things would work out. So far, it's been going good. We came here thinking we were going to redshirt this year, but we're playing. We're not the best on the field, but it doesn't seem like we're players who have taken a couple of years off. By serving the Lord, he's given us extra strength."
Vave also recognizes the blessings of leaving football and family behind for two years.
"My mission opened my eyes and helped me see all the blessings the Lord has given me," he said. "It also helped me to stay focused on the things I need to accomplish."
Returning home from a mission was a big adjustment, Vave said, but Mormons in Oregon have made that adjustment easier.
"The college ward I attend is great," said Vave, who's from Laie, Hawaii. "There are great members in Corvallis who have helped me feel welcomed."