ON A MISSION
Slowed by injuries, position changes and lingering self-doubt, Banks senior Brad Markham looked within and leaned on his Mormon faith to turn his dream of playing Division I college football into a reality
Like a lot of high school seniors, Brad Markham has spent the past few months making plans for next year. And, for the 18-year-old from Banks, things have come together nicely.
A 6-foot-3, 200-pound running back who bullied his way to a team-high 780 yards in just seven games at Banks High School last season, Markham learned in January that he will be able to pursue his dream of playing Division I college football after being offered a role at Brigham Young University.
Markham will graduate from Banks in June, but unlike most college-bound high school athletes, he won't suit up and start practicing with his team this fall. Instead, two-a-days and football drills will take a backseat while Markham prepares for a very different kind of training camp.
Markham - a devout Mormon - will ditch football and instead spend his fall at the Missionary Training Center in Provo, Utah, before embarking on a two-year mission trip that could send him anywhere in the world.
Markham won't enroll at BYU until January of 2011 and he won't hit the gridiron until later that year. Even then, at 21 years old, he'll still be a freshman in the eyes of BYU coaches, battling for playing time against more seasoned players, so it could conceivably be five, six, even seven years from now before Markham ever takes a snap as a Division I football player.
It's an unusual way to cap a successful high school sports career, but for Markham and other members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the two-year mission trip is a rite of passage. All able-bodied, 19-year-old young men are expected to serve a mission, even if it means delaying school or football.
BYU, which was founded by the LDS Church in 1875, is happy to accommodate its student athletes. Most incoming BYU players who are Mormon elect to do their mission first - if they would turn 19 before or during their freshman year - then return to the football program later.
'It's not for everyone,' Markham said. 'Some guys have a difficult time coming back from their mission trip. They call it 'Missionary Legs.' You're out of shape, out of practice, out of focus. Two years is a long time to spend away from the game.'
BYU assistant football coach Barry Lamb, who recruited Markham, said 67 players on the team's current roster have served missions already. That makes Lamb's job - and the job of BYU's other coaches -exponentially harder because they must constantly monitor the status of not only the players already in the program, but also incoming freshmen and players returning from one- or two-year mission trips.
'It's quite a juggling act,' Lamb said. 'We have a board in the head coach's office that shows where every single player in the program is at all times. You don't have those kind of issues at other schools.'
BYU has long been a haven for Mormon players looking to extend their football careers - Lamb estimates that 75 percent of the team belongs to the LDS Church - but that doesn't mean the coaching staff is willing to relax its standards just because of a player's religious beliefs.
If anything, players at BYU are held to a higher standard because of the school's affiliation with the LDS Church. Bound to a strict Honor Code that forbids - among other things - alcohol, tobacco, cursing and premarital sex, BYU is not for every aspiring athlete.
'It's not necessarily a religion thing, it's a lifestyle choice,' Lamb said. 'For kids who've grown up in the church, it's no big deal to them. For kids who haven't lived that lifestyle, you could almost say it's like a culture shock.'
That cultural divide hasn't stopped an increasing number of non-LDS colleges, especially on the west coast, from targeting Mormon players. But, Lamb pointed out, recruiting a Mormon player is often a bigger time commitment than coaches are willing to make.
'When you talk about [recruiting] an LDS young man, you're talking about a six- to seven-year commitment instead of four to five years,' Lamb said. 'A lot of coaches are scared off by that. You just don't know what you're going to get when a young man comes back from a two-year mission.'
Players have very little time to even think about football during their mission trips, let alone get in any practice. Missionaries spend as much as 14 hours a day on church-related activities, including proselytizing, studying scripture, teaching interested people about the church and various community service activities (see box, above). Missionaries get one day a week to tend to personal business and can only call home twice a year - on Mother's Day and Christmas.
Even the most dedicated players have trouble carving out more than an hour a day to exercise.
'Virtually none of them are ready to play Division I football when they get back. And if they do their mission right, they shouldn't be ready,' Lamb said. 'They have a lot of other responsibilities that come before football. Then they come back [two years later] and they are physically behind the guys who've been in the program.'
Despite the obstacles he'll face during his mission and after his return, Markham said he is ready to fulfill his obligation to the church.
'Basically you're out there teaching people what our belief system is. There are a lot of rules, but it's definitely going to be worth it,' he said. 'I'm excited to get out there.'
The Markham family can trace its Mormon roots all the way back to the 1840s, when thousands of settlers - including their ancestors - crossed the plains from Nauvoo, Ill., to the Great Salt Lake Valley.
Both of Markham's parents grew up in the LDS Church - his father, Mike, in La Grande and his mother, Linda, in Meridian, Idaho. The two met while students at BYU and eventually moved to Banks in 2000, where they settled in with their growing family. Today the Markhams have eight children of their own and two foster children - Brad is the second oldest; his sister Sara, 19, is a sophomore at BYU.
'Our involvement in the church has been passed down from generation to generation,' Mike Markham said. 'We've been involved in the church since our youth.'
The Markhams fostered that same mentality in their children, which is what led Brad to take on a number of church leadership roles as a youngster. Those responsibilities have helped prepare Markham for his upcoming mission - it is no small feat to juggle church life, school, athletics, work, Boy Scouts and other activities. Those organizational skills will be crucial when Markham leaves for his mission trip in late December.
Markham won't find out until this fall where his mission will take him, but the possibilities are limitless - his father served a two-year mission in Pittsburgh, while other family members have served in Argentina, Brazil and South Africa, as well as less glamorous locations in the U.S. Prior to leaving, Markham will prepare at the Missionary Training Center - three weeks for an English-speaking mission and eight weeks for a foreign mission.
'I can't wait,' he said. 'No matter where I go it's going to be a little different, but I'm ready to start.'
Waiting his turn
Markham's path to Division I football has been unusual, to say the least. Unlike most players who vault onto coaches' radars as sophomores or juniors, Markham didn't get a chance to shine until the tail end of his senior year. That meant he was still sending out film when other players were signing their letters of intent.
Markham played sparingly at the varsity level as a sophomore, then came into summer drills the following season in a three-way battle for the starting quarterback position with then-senior Jacob Tijerina and sophomore Gabe Linehan.
Linehan eventually won the job and Markham found himself on the bench without a role. As the losses mounted on the way to an 0-10 season in Banks, Markham couldn't help but wonder if he should be on the field contributing.
'I felt bad for Brad,' said Banks football coach Ben Buchanan. 'He's such a great kid and such a hard worker. I hated to say to the kid, 'You're not our starting quarterback.''
It wasn't until the second-to-last game of the year that Markham finally got his chance, and he made the most of it.
Inserted into the lineup as a running back, Markham buoyed an anemic Banks ground game and rushed for over 100 yards against Scappoose, one of the top defensive teams in the Cowapa League. It was the first time all season a Banks player had cracked the century mark.
A week later against Seaside, Markham again led the team in rushing, giving him the inside track for the starting tailback spot in 2007.
'We needed someone to run the ball with some conviction, so we gave Brad a chance and he really made the most of it,' Buchanan said. 'It was like a breath of fresh air.'
In the offseason, Markham and his father put together recruiting videos and mailed them out to a handful of college programs. BYU was at the top of the list. In addition to being a lifelong fan, Markham had attended football camp there after his sophomore year but came away frustrated with the lack of one-on-one time he got with the coaches.
'I was a little bummed about that, but I sent the paperwork in after my junior year and I worked with my dad putting some film together. Then I heard back from the coaches and they said they liked it,' Markham said. 'I was getting nervous because I was afraid it was too late in the [recruiting] process.'
BYU was interested and Markham's spirits rose. He just might get a chance to continue his football career at the college level.
Then came a setback that would leave his football future up in the air.
Editor's Note - This is the first part of a two-part series. Click here to read Part 2 or pick up a copy of the March 19 edition of the News-Times.