For two University of Michigan soccer players, Mormon mission's a time of challenge and growth
When Tennant had enrolled at Michigan in 2005, he had done so with the thought of going on a two-year Mormon mission. But now his soccer life was successful and it might make him rethink his plan, the one that had scared other colleges away.
At the end of his freshman year, he faced a choice - stay and try to play pro or go and serve, knowing it could mean the end of any shot at reaching the highest level of American soccer.
“I had talked to a couple people before I left, but nothing that was set in stone,” said Tennant, a defender from Rochester. “So, at the start of my sophomore season I knew I wanted to go leave and go on my mission.”
“We tried to figure out when the best time for him to take his mission was,” Michigan coach Steve Burns said of Tennant. “Would it be after his first season with us and his second season be his fourth season with his class or would it be two years and then gone for two and back for the final two.”
Tennant left in January 2007. A week later, Cameron, who redshirted the 2004 season before being a missionary in 2005 and 2006, returned.
Both are back and will play together for the first time, Cameron as a redshirt junior forward and Tennant, who started almost every game his first two years before the mission, as a junior defender.
Deciding to go is easy, especially compared to what happens when you arrive.
Going on a mission means giving up the comforts of secular, everyday living for two years. It means wearing shirts and ties everyday with name tags, trying to spread the faith they believe in despite ridicule and having doors slammed in their faces. It means no television, no Internet except for e-mail and little contact with much of the outside world.
A DIFFERENT LIFE
Tennant wanted to work in a Spanish-speaking country so he could use the minimal free time to stay in soccer shape. His father had gone to Japan. His oldest brother, the Philippines.
Tennant drew the Spanish-speaking section of Portland.
“When I got up there, I was surprised by how many Hispanic people do really live up there,” Tennant said. “I guess like I had always wanted to go somewhere cool, somewhere out of the country, but when it came down to it, I was just happy to be able to do it.”
Depending on the place missionaries are sent, they are allowed to call their parents a maximum of twice a year - on Mother’s Day and Christmas. Times of phone calls vary from place to place. Missionaries are allowed to write e-mails or handwritten letters once a week, on “preparation days.”
Pop culture and being attached to what was going on in the world is forbidden. When Cameron left, Justin Timberlake was still a member of *NSync. He returned as Timberlake was sexybacking his way to being one of the country’s most noticeable celebrities.
“I was like, ‘Justin Timberlake’s actually legit?” Cameron said. “He was still in the boy band and had talks about coming out and right at the beginning of my mission released his first thing.”
When Cameron started, iPods were something celebrities had. By the time he returned, everyone had one. Tennant, being in the United States, kept a small notebook of things he heard about out in the field that he wanted to learn more about when he got home - from new music to the last “Pirates of the Caribbean” movie.
Competitive sports are out, meaning for college athletes that go on missions - especially cardio-dependent sports like soccer - struggle to stay in shape. Each missionary is assigned a “companion,” partners who rotate throughout the two years, and if one of the pair doesn’t want to go run on non-preparation day mornings, neither can run.
“I only went running once a week, and I got fat,” Tennant said. “When I was gone, it fluctuated but the most I had gained was 15 pounds. When I came home, I was 12 pounds over when I had left. It was tough, because every morning you got a half-hour to exercise.
“But it depends on the guy you’re with, whether he really wants to go do something, whether you can get out of your apartment.”
Cameron was luckier. His mission president happened to be an old family friend. And most of his companions were nearing the end of their missions, so hearing he was a Division I soccer player, they asked him to help get them get back in shape. So he had consistent running partners.
And the mission president even allowed him to play in an occasional pickup game of soccer.
“I was only allowed to play for a half because we’re supposed to be in our apartments by about 9 p.m.,” Cameron said. “And games would start at 8. So I’d play the first half and get back.”
Much of this may seem harsh for a college kid. Tennant said the first few months were brutal as he dealt with homesickness. Both had a hard time adjusting to going from talking with family and friends frequently to being cut off from almost all outside contact.
There were other adjustments, too.
In proselytizing others to their religion, both Tennant and Cameron had days where they set up full Baptismal programs, only to have potential converts pull out at the last minute.
Both Tennant and Cameron dreaded that possibility. For Cameron, a particular pull-out 14 months in was part of his worst day of the two-year mission.
The same day, his brother, Austin, fractured his skull playing flag football at Brigham Young University. Because missionaries aren’t able to make or receive calls, Cameron discovered the news about his best friend through an e-mail.
“I went in the bathroom that day and was looking in the mirror and was like, ‘This is a lot to handle,’” Cameron said. “I was doing everything I could at the time. I was working hard, trying to do my best.
“ I sat in there and it was probably a little bit of a harsh prayer because I was upset at everything that had happened.”
Yet struggles aside, both absolutely said they would do it again.
RETURN REQUIRES AN ADJUSTMENT, TOO
If anything, returning from the two-year mission was a more difficult transition when Cameron returned in January 2007.
He had been so used to waking up early, he found himself up at the crack of dawn the first day he was back in Saline with no schedule, no plans and actually missing the missionary lifestyle.
“I just kind of felt unproductive,” Cameron said. “Need to do something and talking to people. Whenever I got in conversation, every friend or teammate when I got back was like ‘Well, what do you talk about?
“For two years you’ve been talking about one thing. Those first few months back, that’s all I talked about, my mission.”
Yes, there were things he wanted to do - visit the amusement park Cedar Point being at the top of the list - but Cameron said it took him a year to acclimate to civilian living.
He’d spent two years preaching, teaching and changing his life. He returned to Michigan wiser and more experienced about the world and about how to live his life. His public speaking improved. So did his decision-making.
Now in his final year of soccer at Michigan, he’s been interviewing with investment banking firms. They asked about leadership and adversity.
“Ever single question was answered on my mission,” Cameron said. “I had a hundred examples on my mission that was exactly what [they were] looking for.
“ There’s a phrase among missionaries, the best two years. It really seems like that when you think back. There are good memories.”
Tennant returned a year later and still is catching up, joking that he feels like he’s still in 2008. The first thing he did was turn on ESPN. He missed college basketball and his daily viewing of “SportsCenter.”
He started leafing through his notebook, picking off movies and songs he wanted to hear, despite looks from friends saying, ‘that song is so old’ when he played it in his car.
It was new to him. So was returning to everyday life - and to soccer.
“I would never take that back. It’s such a learning experience,” Tennant said. “You really learn how to cope with other people, start to understand yourself as a person and your desires and wants and rely on others.
“Like I said, I would never take that learning experience back for anything and I’m very satisfied in being able to, not only to say, but to know I helped other people in the process.”
Michael Rothstein covers University of Michigan sports for AnnArbor.com. He can be reached at email@example.com or 734-623-2558.