A bond and brotherhood: How 7 returned missionaries are thriving with Stanford football
Two years ago, Tanner McKee handed off Books of Mormon, extended invitations to attend church and celebrated when those he taught chose to be baptized members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Today, McKee hands off the football, extends drives with his 65% completion rate and celebrates wins on the football field with his teammates.
McKee is Stanford’s sophomore starting quarterback.
While college football fans most commonly associate Latter-day Saints and returned missionaries with BYU or Utah, there’s a team in the Pac-12 North where returned missionaries are not only playing, but contributing and thriving.
Stanford’s 2021 football team features seven returned missionaries — McKee, linebackers Levani Damuni, Gabe Reid, Spencer Jorgensen and Tangaloa Kaufusi, fullback Houston Heimuli and defensive coordinator Lance Anderson.
While each of these leaders in the Cardinal football program were recruited by or have ties to BYU and the state of Utah, Stanford presented them with a unique opportunity on the football field, in the classroom and as continued representatives of Jesus Christ.
‘A decision for the rest of my life’
Lance Anderson entered the college football coaching ranks following a mission to Phoenix, Arizona and playing career at Idaho State. Since becoming an assistant coach at Stanford in 2007, Anderson has led the program’s recruiting efforts throughout the Intermountain West. He is now associate head coach.
Beyond those currently on the roster, Anderson and the Cardinal have successfully recruited several Latter-day Saint athletes to Stanford over the years. These include Utahns Sean Barton, Dallas Lloyd, Brandon Fanaika and Simi Fehoko.
Anderson recognizes the ties and traditions that would otherwise sway these players to BYU or Utah. After 15 years at Stanford, the defensive coordinator has learned to present each recruit with a big picture that extends beyond the playing field.
“We’d love them to go and play in the NFL and have success there,” Anderson said. “But all those kids who come here realize that Stanford is a place where they can do it all.”
A renowned, rigorous academic environment, a competitive national-brand football team, accommodations for missionary service and the strong Latter-day Saint Institute of Religion are just a few of the unique facets Anderson offers his Latter-day Saint recruits.
Despite 34 offers from the likes of Alabama, Notre Dame, BYU and Utah, McKee couldn’t pass up the opportunity at Stanford.
“I thought Stanford was unmatched academically,” McKee said. “In football they’re very competitive, they play in the Pac-12 and they run a pro-style offense that will prepare me for the NFL if I’m fortunate enough to go.”
It wasn’t that other schools failed to impress McKee, Stanford was just the best fit for him.
Junior inside linebacker Levani Damuni ultimately seized the opportunity to play at Stanford, but it wasn’t an easy decision.
“It was a tough decision because it would have been much easier for my family to see me play every weekend in Utah,” Damuni said.
Damuni, Stanford’s leading tackler this season, hails from Ridgeline High School in Millville near Logan. Damuni’s father, Waqa, is the assistant athletics director of student-athlete development at Utah State and played for the Aggies from 1996 to 1998. His brother, Jovesa, will play for BYU following a mission to Santiago, Chile.
“I remember that during my senior year (of high school), I had to do a lot of praying and ultimately Stanford just felt right,” Damuni said.
Fifth-year senior outside linebacker Gabe Reid has a father and two uncles that starred at BYU in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Reid’s brother, Karene, currently plays linebacker for Utah. Like McKee and Damuni, Reid saw an opportunity for a lifetime in attending Stanford.
“I really wanted to make a decision for the rest of my life, not just for football,” Reid said. “I’m really grateful that I’ve been able to come here and get a degree that I will use when football is done.”
A natural bond
Despite playing at a variety of high schools and serving in vastly different mission fields, Stanford’s returned missionaries have found a natural bond and brotherhood as teammates.
“We’re definitely more close-knit than we are with other teammates, and we didn’t have to go out of our way to make that happen,” Damuni said. “It was just natural. I have a good relationship with all of them.”
This brotherhood provided an extra support to the Cardinal players while their Latter-day Saint churches were forced to close at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.
When large groups couldn’t gather to worship, the teammates held a small sacrament meeting together each Sunday. As churches reopened, the group began driving to church together. Sunday afternoon gatherings and picnics are a weekly fixture for the players as well.
“That brotherhood and bond has really enriched my experience here,” Reid said. “It’s a support system I can fall back on.”
Anderson recognizes that the Cardinal’s returned missionaries provide a valuable presence not only for each other, but for the entire team.
“All of those kids who have been returned missionaries for us have come into the program and found a role and been really solid football players,” Anderson said. “This year is no exception.”
Through seven games in 2021, McKee has thrown 14 touchdowns to just three interceptions and led Stanford to critical wins over USC and No. 3 Oregon. Damuni currently leads the team in tackles with 50 to go along with two sacks.
Reid posted a critical interception of Oregon quarterback Anthony Brown in the Cardinal’s upset of the Ducks on Oct. 2. Fullback Houston Heimuli, a fifth-year senior out of Woods Cross, is finishing his Stanford career as a team captain.
A Latter-day Saint student-athlete at Stanford
McKee, Damuni and company have looked beyond any challenges that may arise from differing religious views and embraced the opportunities presented to them as Latter-day Saints at Stanford.
“There’s missionary opportunities everywhere you go at Stanford,” Damuni said. “That’s something I never get tired of.”
The junior linebacker seizes the chance to express his faith whenever someone asks about his mission or why he took a “two-year gap” during his time at Stanford. During the first day of class introductions, Damuni always shares that he lived in New Zealand for two years. The normal, natural gospel conversations flow from there.
With a wide range of backgrounds and beliefs among Stanford’s student-body and faculty, Reid has always felt respect and belonging as a member of the Church in Palo Alto.
“It’s been a cool opportunity for me and these guys to show people that we are just normal,” Reid said. “We’ve been able to explain how we live our lives and why we do it.”
McKee often receives questions about why he went on a mission to Brazil and what he did while he was there.
“It opens up so many great conversations to people that have never really talked to a member of the Church,” McKee said.
Anderson has also observed Stanford as an environment inclusive to Latter-day Saints and has seen current and former players return from missionary service and excel there.
“All of those kids who have been here have been able to thrive not only academically and athletically but spiritually as well,” Anderson said.
Stanford and its returned missionaries next take the field in a matchup at home versus divisional foe Washington on Saturday, Oct. 30. They don’t fit the norm in BYU blue or Utah red. They’re unique in belief and background in the classroom and on the gridiron. Yet, these returned missionaries are leading, learning and thriving at Stanford.