Many pundits, college coaches, and even sports fans often pock fun at the age of BYU’s football players stating in the same breath that serving a two-year mission provides an on-field advantage. What these detractor show, especially to those who’ve actually replaced their helmets for a white shirt and tie, is their understanding is very sciolistic: an opinion on a subject in which a person only has superficial knowledge of.
Serving a two-year LDS mission is a sacrifice filled with hardships, as recently returned missionary and BYU linebacker Jeremiah Ieremia explains.
“The mission was quite the experience and there were things I wish I didn’t go through, but those are hardships you willingly go through to serve others in different parts of the world,” said Ieremia. “Overall it was worth it.”
Initially called to serve in the Botswana/Namibia Mission, Elder Ieremia was reassigned to South Africa due to a visa issue. While in South Africa, the hard-hitting middle linebacker was caught in the middle of a robbery and shootout in only his second week of serving a strange foreign land.
“During my second week serving in my mission I was held up at gunpoint in a robbery,” Ieremia said. “My companion Elder Antonia and I where shopping and we were at the register checking out. We were walking out the door, and these four guys with guns walked into the store and pulled their guns on us.”
With loaded guns pointing at their heads, Elder Ieremia and his companion, Elder Antonia, where told to get on the ground, which they did. An ordinary day of shopping for food unexpectedly turned into a life threatening situation.
“They were robbing the story for a couple of minutes while we were forced to lay on the floor at gunpoint,” recalled Ieremia. “Then all of a sudden the police showed up. That’s when things really got crazy.”
Quickly the situation escalated as the robbers knew they had to fight their way out if they were going to escape. Like a scene straight out of a cops and robbers movie, bullets began to fly.
“It was one of those situations where you just comply and stay on the ground and hope for the best,” Ieremia recalled. “As they were trying to get away there was a gunfight. Bullets where flying all around in the air, and me and my companion were ducking trying not to get hit. Everything got crazy and really scary when the bullets began to fly.”
The incident occurred in the South African township of Soshanguve located just north of South Africa’s legislative capital of Pretoria and 47 miles north of Johannesburg. Ieremia was a long ways away from the quiet streets of small town of Hurricane, Utah, and he still had one year, 11 months, and two weeks to go.
Before this future BYU linebacker would board that plane bound for home back to Utah, he would get caught up in another incident, again, straight out of another movie.
“Well, the great car chase… Okay, so, I was still with Elder Antonio and we were driving,” recalled Ieremia. “As we were driving down this road there were these big rocks in the middle of the street. What gangs will do is put these big rocks in the middle of the road, so when a car stops they’ll come out and steal your car.”
Fortunately for Elder Ieremia, his companion Elder Antonio was from South African. He had seen this before and instantly knew this was a trap. Being the driver, Elder Ieremia’s quick thinking companion reacted quickly to the situation with no time to think.
“Luckily my companion was from South Africa, so he knew what was going on and didn’t stop,” said Ieremia. “When we were approaching the rocks he started to panic because he knew what was going on. He then started to maneuver around the rocks.”
With no time to explain the situation to Elder Ieremia, Elder Antonio quickly took action leaving Elder Ieremia startled and confused from the sudden erratic driving.
“I was just like, ‘Okay, what’s happening! What’s happening!” said Ieremia. “As we were going over the rocks there were two cars on the side coming towards us, peeling out on the road. As we got pass the rocks that’s when they started chasing us.”
The two missionaries sped past the oncoming cars filled with nefarious passengers. These were the culprits of the trap and Elder Antonio knew it. Pressing the gas pedal to the floor, the high-speed chase began with heart-pounding adrenaline.
“They were chasing us down the road and we were trying to get away as fast as we could,” Ieremia said. “It felt like a movie. We got away when my companion turned off an off-ramp and they passed us, so we were able to barely get away. It was crazy! Those were just two of the situations that I went through while on my mission.”
Another situation occurred just a week before Christmas. Elder Ieremia and his companion Elder Sudbury where on the streets going door-to-door looking those who might be interested in hearing their message. While looking to share a message about Christ, the two Elders were approached by a group of men.
“I was about a year into my mission, and me and my companion were tracting and a group of guys came up to us,” Ieremia said. “They started a problem with us and then started fighting and punching my companion.”
Elder Ieremia’s companion, Elder Sudbury from Utah, quickly turned from passive gospel teacher to Elder Laying on of Hands.
“My companion started fighting this guy and was going at it beating this guy,” recalled Ieremia. “I was trying to break up the fight.”
Elder Ieremia was able to separate Elder Sudbury from their attackers. The two decided to quickly remove themselves from the situation.
“We decided to leave and get out of there, so we decided to run and get away from them as fast as we could,” said Ieremia.
However, one of the gang members had different plans.
“We were now away but one of the guys decided to follow us and caught up with us,” recalled Ieremia. “He pulled a knife on my companion. When he pulled the knife I saw it.”
Football, otherwise known as soccer, is the most popular sport in the country of South Africa. What this knife-wielding thug didn’t know was Elder Ieremia played a different kind of football. He played American football which implies using size, speed, strength, and technique to hit others really hard.
“When I saw the knife I hit the guy so hard and tackled him,” said Ieremia with a chuckle in his voice. “I mean, I hit him hard! I ran and tackled him and right then he knew I was a BYU linebacker.”
Recalling his division one tackle, Ieremia begins to laugh.
“I mean, I hit him so hard and dropped him to the ground,” he said.
Dazed from the vicious blow, the knife-wielding thug laid flattened on the ground. However, Elder Ieremia didn’t stop there and applied his own lesson of laying on of hands.
“Yeah, I hit him pretty hard and when he was on the ground I just started punching him,” Ieremia said. “I was so mad and right then he knew it.”
In between punches, Elder Ieremia caught a glimpse of Elder Sudbury. There was something wrong.
“I saw my companion got stabbed so I stopped hitting the guy,” recalled Ieremia. “I got up and ran over to my companion, and after I ran over to help my companion the guy that I tackled eventually got up and ran away.”
Rushing over to the side of his companion, Elder Ieremia saw he was cut.
“He got cut but he was okay,” Ieremia said. “He didn’t get stabbed inside the gut, but he did get cut on his arm. I was happy about that and at first was really scared.”
Like many others young men and women of the LDS faith, Ieremia continued to press on teaching those in whom he was called to serve.
“You hear a lot of rumors about how the church is growing in South Africa, or just Africa along, and it’s really true,” said Ieremia. “The church is growing a lot and it is growing fast. We were pretty busy with investigators and less active, so we had a lot of work to do and were able to stay busy most of the time. You’ll have these rural areas were you’ll have around five members in an area. They have a lot of branches over there with a couple Stakes. I was able to baptize over 20 people while I was there.”
In South Africa, Afrikaans, or descendants of Dutch settlers, make up almost three million of South Africa’s population. Ieremia saw that most of the missionary success was found among those of native African heritage.
“I would say the church is growing the fastest mostly among the native Africans over there,” said Ieremia. “They’re more open to the gospel and want to hear about Jesus Christ. The Afrikaners or the Dutch people and the English kind of had the mindset that they have the money and everything they need, so they don’t need God in their lives. We found more success more among the native African people such as the Zulu’s and Tswana’s, and Swazi’s. I served among them a lot, and it’s among those groups of people that the church is growing a lot.”
Now safely home in Hurricane, Utah, Ieremia now must suffer alone what many enduring after sacrificing two years of their life for a people they grow to love. It’s a silent sacrifice in which one emotionally bears internally, as one transitions from Elder to normal civilian.
“I’ve been home almost a month now and it was hard,” Ieremia said. “The first two weeks it was really hard because I missed my mission, my companions, and the people still other there. I miss wearing that name tag and representing Jesus Christ. It’s hard for me knowing that I can’t be that person again.”
For these return missionary football players, the suffering won’t end at the emotional level. To all those college coaches and fans who think BYU football players are sent away for two years to join a gym, you better think twice.
“Yeah, I got quite big on my mission,” said Ieremia. “I’m around 6-2 and I came home weighing around 270, so I gained a lot of weight on my mission.”
When Ieremia left out of high school he was a solid 225-pounds. BYU’s weight lifting program would have turned this one time Washington, Oregon State, Utah State, and Hawaii scholarship offeree into a solid 245 pound tackling machine well versed within BYU’s current defensive system. That is, if he only hadn’t served a two-year LDS mission.
“Believe it or not I actually got up to 300 pounds on my mission, so I’ve got some pretty gnarly pictures of me being that size,” Ieremia said. “I realized that it wasn’t good and that I was getting too big.”
At a current weight of 260 pounds, Ieremia has a lot of physical sacrifice and hardships to endure if he still plans on playing middle linebacker.
“Yeah, I’m still keen on playing middle linebacker,” Ieremia said. “The coaches agree that I’m too big right now, but I told them that I’m going to work out and drop down to 245 and that’s my goal.”
Ieremia was able to attend BYU’ spring camp where he was able to get acquainted with the new staff and see the competition currently established within the program’s linebacker group.
“I was able to catchup with a couple of the teammates and they let me know what’s going on,” Ieremia said about the current state of BYU’s football program. “I was also able to talk to the coaches while I was up there for a couple of the practices. I heard there’s a lot of talk about Butch Pau’u, Frances Bernard, and Fred Warner, so it sounds like they’re solid at the linebacker position right now.”
About a month into his mission, Ieremia recalls hearing how BYU’s coaching staff, led by head coach Bronco Mendenhall, had been replaced. The news caused him to worry. Replacing coaches is common place among college football, which times leaves recruits of the former staff hanging.
“I was kind of nervous to be honest with you,” Ieremia said. “I was like, ‘Oh no! What’s the plan now and what’s going to happen?’ I knew Coach Tuiaki when he was at Utah, so we touched bases and they remembered me and I was happy they held my scholarship for me.
However, this is BYU where serving missions is part of the continued fabric of BYU’s football program, which might not be the case elsewhere.
“I was projected to come home last November, so BYU was holding my scholarship till January for the winter semester,” Ieremia said. “I came home at around [the beginning of March] and they gave me the option of coming up and be with the team and just work and pay for my summer semester. The option of playing this season, well, I don’t know yet. I’ll probably just redshirt this year and get in shape and get ready for next season.
“Being able to come home from my mission and play at BYU is what makes BYU different than any other college. It’s really a blessing and my decision to go to BYU was my greatest decision I’ve ever made, other than going on my mission.”