Called to serve in a pandemic: More to life than football
Editor’s note: Thousands of missionaries across the world are facing upended plans during the pandemic. Some are returning home before completing their missions, others are serving in quarantine and many are receiving new calls. The Daily Universe is looking at how these missionaries are grappling with challenges in a series of stories.
A lot of the changes in Jaylon Vickers’ life have come suddenly, including his recruitment to BYU Football, his decision to serve a mission and his unexpected return due to the COVID-19 outbreak. With each one, however, he gained a new perspective and received unexpected blessings.
Unlike most athletes who go on to play Division I football, Vickers was not contacted by his future school, in his case BYU, until the second semester of his senior year of high school in 2018.
“I went through all my senior year not knowing where I was going to go to school,” Vickers said. “Then they finally reached out to me and told me they wanted me to come play for them, so I ended up going (to Provo) that summer.”
Vickers played defensive back for the Cougars for one season in 2018, picking up a pair of tackles and a pass break-up in four appearances.
“It was the best. It was fun,” Vickers said of his freshman season. “It was honestly everything that I could have imagined playing D1 football. I played the NCAA video games when I was younger, and then finally being able to actually put on the uniform and play was for sure a blessing.”
He planned on following up his first year as a Cougar with an offseason full of preparation and workouts for his sophomore season, but life took him in a different direction.
“Out of nowhere I got an answer to go on a mission,” Vickers said. “Right when I got the answer I stopped playing football, put in my mission papers a week later and then I was literally out in the mission field a month and a half later.”
Mission in New York
Vickers was called to the New York City Mission where he had the chance to serve in areas like Long Island, Brooklyn and New Rochelle. Then, less than a year into his mission, COVID-19 hit.
“I heard about it the day the virus hit New York City,” Vickers said. “It was really crazy. People were freaking out, places were closing, people were scared to eat at places and scared to go out.”
The first reported case of COVID-19 in New York was on March 1, and Vickers was home by the end of that month as The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints made adjustments around the world in an effort to keep its members and missionaries safe from the pandemic.
“When I first got the call saying that I had to go home, it was for sure very heartbreaking. It was something I cried about for a long, long time,” Vickers said. “It was hard because I loved my mission, I just loved what I was doing. I love the people there in New York City.”
Even as Vickers’ surroundings and trajectory changed once again, he didn’t have to look hard for the blessings and lessons that were appearing in his life. While he was on his mission, Vickers’ mother got divorced from his stepdad, and it was difficult for him to watch from afar as his family went through a hard time. His mother met someone else soon after, however, and they got married on May 11. He would not have been able to attend the wedding without the unexpected interruption of COVID-19.
“I wouldn’t have been able to see how happy my mom is and how much she is enjoying life,” Vickers said.
More to life
When he shared the story of his mother’s wedding on social media, Vickers added the phrase, “more life,” at the end. For him, this phrase helps keep things in perspective. Before his mission, most of his life revolved around football. He sometimes put church and school on hold because his main focus was just “football, football, football.”
That changed on his mission when he realized that there was more to life than football. He began to realize the importance of having a relationship with God and others and reading the scriptures and praying every day.
“When I say, ‘more life,’ I just feel like my perspective has changed, and it has grown into this perspective that God needs me to have, to hopefully return back to him someday,” Vickers said. “(Coming home early) showed me that God has a plan, and sometimes you don’t see that plan at the time, but in just the three months that I’ve been home I’ve for sure seen that plan.”
In addition to the blessing of being able to attend his mother’s wedding, Vickers says he is in the best shape of his life and he found a special someone that he is engaged to and plans to marry in October. He sees these as blessings for the sacrifice he made to serve God and the people of New York on his mission.
As far as football goes, Vickers plans to rejoin the team in January 2021. This falls in line with his original timetable if he had stayed in New York for the full two years. This is the case for many athletes who returned early from missions, with scholarship numbers and roster plans complicating the unexpected arrivals.
In talking about life beyond football, Vickers also touched on the current social and political unrest following the tragic death of George Floyd in Minneapolis. While he said he feels sorry for what happened to Floyd, Vickers said he was not surprised by the event because police brutality has been happening in the black community for many years.
“It’s been like that forever,” Vickers said. “It’s something that’s been going on for such a long time, ever since my grandpa was born and his parents were born. It’s hard to comprehend why things are the way that they are. It’s been cool to see people from all over realizing the problem we have, supporting what’s going on and trying to make a change.”
Following his eye-opening experience away from football, Vickers offered some final words of advice to anyone contemplating serving a mission, especially athletes.
“Just go on a mission,” Vickers said. “I know at the time it may seem hard and it may seem like a long shot, but the mission can truly change your life and it can truly bless your life forever. The small little things that we’re worried about day to day don’t mean anything in the long run. The most important thing that we should focus on here on this Earth is to grow close to our Heavenly Father. That’s the biggest relationship that we have. There’s more to life than worldly things.”
For the full interview with Vickers, see the video below, or listen to the podcast here.