"The first few days were rough," he said, "but I think back to the early days of my mission, when I missed the game so much, and I love being back."
Asked if he ever considered returning to his native Hawaii at the end of the mission, rather than finishing his UT career, Mapu shook his head.
"Never," he said. "I knew I was coming back from the day I left. I've said it before: This is a great program and I really respect the coaches in the program for allowing me to do this. This is something I've really wanted to do ever since I was a kid."
Jonathan Mapu was allowed just two phone calls per year during his mission – one on Mother's Day and one on Christmas Day. Otherwise, his only contact with home was weekly emails and letters. He never got to watch TV or read newspapers, so his mom's letters were the only reports he got on Tennessee's 5-6 finish last fall. He's determined to help the program rebound in 2006.
"I want to help our team get back on track, back where we want to be," he said. "I know there's a lot of work for me to do."
Mapu spent much of his mission helping clean up the damage done by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in Texas and Louisiana. It was a sobering but rewarding experience.
"We'd just show up – big groups of us – in someone's yard with tractors and chain saws and start going at it," he recalled. "People would come out crying tears and ask, ‘Where did you come from?' We'd get things cleaned up, then move on. It was a really touching experience to see what a difference you can make in people's lives."
When asked what he missed most about football, Mapu replied without hesitation.
"The atmosphere," he said. "There's nothing like running through that T, hearing the crowd go nuts. That's something I really missed."
Mapu also missed two years of rigorous conditioning work. He'll need several months to get his strength and stamina back where they were in the fall of 2003.
"We've just got to get him in football shape," said Steve Caldwell, the Vol aide who recruited Mapu five years ago. "We'll bring him along a little bit at a time. Hopefully, by the first ball game we can get a few snaps out of him and get a few more each game after that."
Phillip Fulmer has never had a player return to football after a two-year absence, so he plans to be extra cautious. He says the Vols will not rush Mapu as he works his way back into shape.
"We will get a process going and see where he is," the head man said. "We'll push as hard as we can push but we obviously don't want to get him injured. If he can help us at all it will be a big plus for us."