The recent commitment of big man Payton Dastrup has exposed Buckeye fans to an unfamiliar scenario. Dastrup, a Latter-Day Saint (or Mormon), is planning on going on a 2-year church mission trip, instead of immediately enrolling in school. Instead of joining what looks like a promising 2014 Buckeye class, he'll join the team in 2016.
There has been some confusion among fans, and even some members of the press, as to what exactly these missions are, and how they might impact an athlete. As Urban Meyer and Thad Matta continue to comb the country for elite talent, this is probably not the last time Buckeye fans may hear about a prospect considering serving a mission, especially if the Buckeyes continue to look for players in traditionally LDS rich areas, like Arizona, Southern California, Nevada and Utah.
I served one of these missions myself, to the Sacramento area in 2009. Perhaps I can help give a little context for other fans out there, so folks can understand the risks associated with recruiting these athletes, the benefits, and just what exactly they're doing for the next two years.
Q: What do people do on these mission trips?
A: It would be fair to say that missionaries focus on three tasks: providing religious instruction (and subsequently, finding people to teach), providing service and support to local LDS congregations, and providing general services to the community. The popular image of two suited guys on bikes, knocking on doors is reasonably accurate for much of the world, but different regions have different needs. Missionaries serving outside of North America may give free English lessons, or may work in soup kitchens, helping people move, etc. I spent very little of my time knocking on the doors of strangers, and a fair amount doing things like visiting people in hospitals.
Q: Can people pick where they go?
A: They can't. There are 405 regions around the world where missionaries operate, from the US, to Europe, to many African countries, to Polynesian islands. There are at least two missionaries who are currently responsible for just working the area around the Ohio State University, and there are some who are in the Amazon. There are certain attributes that might make a person more or less likely to be sent to a certain area, so a person who grew up in Ohio will probably not go to Ohio, and a person who already has a Chilean passport might be more likely to go to Chile, but that's not a given. The selection process has far more to do with local needs than personal profiles. I have a Brazilian passport. I went to suburban California. You never know.
Q: Are missions always two years?
A: Missions are typically two years, but can be cut short for a variety of reasons. Medical reasons are probably the most common, so if somebody gets hurt or sick, they can often go home early. My mission was only a few months instead of the two years, due to an ACL tear. The other is a failure to follow mission rules or worthiness standards. If somebody grabs a beer, or habitually breaks rules, they're going home early.
Q: How many people do this?
A: Per the LDS Newsroom, there are more than 80,000 missionaries serving around the world.
Q: So if the recruit is teaching, preaching and doing church stuff all day, how will he stay in shape for sports?
A: So that's really the key question.
Missionaries follow a very strict schedule, and are given 30 minutes each morning to exercise. The equipment available for said exercise will vary. A lot. It often dependsg on where you are living. In my fairly nice, suburban Sacramento apartment, I not only had access to a gym in my building, but could go to a YMCA if I wanted. Somebody living in say, rural Russia, might not be able to easily get to a squat rack. Some missionaries purchase their own personal weight sets, although again, depending on where you are, this could be impractical.
Missionaries are also given most of 1 "day" (it's not actually a full day) off a week, called a "P Day", to take care of personal errands, do laundry, etc. If circumstances allow, missionaries could use this day for additional working out or gym time. Pickup sporting events are not uncommon on P Days.
Most American LDS churches actually have basketball courts built in, so getting some shooting time wouldn't be too hard. Others may try to find pickup games with locals (leading to this famous internet video), although some specific missions have banned these, due to injury risk. A D1 caliber guy constantly hooping up with people who have no idea what they're doing? Could be a great way to rip up a knee.
The good news is, most missionaries are using bikes quite a bit, which is a great way to at least maintain strong cardiovascular fitness. The worst case scenario for an athlete would be working in a more rural area that required a car, but also had little access to fitness equipment. If you're sitting in a car for two years, it's not uncommon to pack on a few pounds.
Q: So what are the risks and potential benefits of recruiting a missionary?
A: Injury and atrophy will have to be concerns. Many LDS athletes complete missions and have successful athletic careers, but given how different a lot of missions are, it's really impossible to predict how people will end up afterwards. Two years is a long time, and a lot can happen in that time span. Rosters can change. Athleticism can change. Interests can change. It's a fair bet that Thad Matta and company will still be around in 2016, but there are still lots of unknowns that far ahead.
I can't support this with anything more than just anecdotes (I'm unaware of this being formally tracked anywhere), but for missionaries who were previously students outside of the proverbial Book of Mormon belt, there may be a transfer risk. I've known many missionaries that after spending two years essentially surrounded by other Mormons in a highly structured environment, decide "hey, I kind of like this lifestyle", and decide to head to one of the BYUs.
It isn't all risk, though. The increased maturity and leadership is a non-trivial advantage. Missionaries have to grow up in a hurry, and may find themselves leading people through legitimately challenging life situations, from helping people kick addictions, to providing leadership in church congregations, to learning how to deal with another missionary (called a companion) essentially 24/7. You are not going to have to worry about a returned missionary getting in trouble over a bye week. You're not going to have to worry about that guy cracking under pressure, given that they have almost assuredly seen more difficult "real life" situations than a basketball game. That kind of maturity and leadership can be a real asset to a team.
For what it's worth, you're also getting an older athlete. That might not be ideal from an NBA scouting perspective, but a player who could be a little more physically developed than some of his peers may have some advantages as well.
TL;DR: There are some legitimate risks, especially with a basketball player, in recruiting somebody who may take two years off to teach people in Bulgaria about Jesus. That doesn't mean you shouldn't do it. John Beck, a highly successful BYU QB who saw time in the NFL, took time off to work in Portugal. Austin Collie, a wideout now with the New England Patriots, went to Argentina. Power programs like Stanford and Oregon have picked up missionary athletes.
At the very least though, you probably won't have to worry about that guy causing trouble at a gentlemen's club at 3 AM.
For those who are curious about additional details, see the LDS Newsroom