Every football player in today’s annual Shrine Bowl all-star game in Spartanburg is among the best anywhere.
Most of the 88 top players from South Carolina and North Carolina will get scholarship offers for college and sign letters of intent to play on the famed grassy quadrangles of football factories where the game is not just a game but a culture.
South Pointe offensive lineman Alex Simms and his family opened up a letter of a different sort last Friday – an old-fashioned, snail-mail envelope that held his immediate future.
The letter contained a location for where Simms would go, but not to play football. The letter is a rite of passage in Mormon households. Opening the letter is a thrill and thought about for years.
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The letter said Simms’ destination is Edmonton, Canada. He will put on the signature white shirt, plain dark tie and nametag, and willingly spend time among strangers in a foreign country, doing the one thing he’s wanted to do since he was a little kid.
Simms, 18, will spend the next two years on a Mormon church mission.
This Eagle Scout said, “No, thanks,” to the offer of a full-ride scholarship to college to instead serve his church and the world he lives in.
“Church is the biggest part of my life,” Simms said. “I wanted to do this mission all my life, since I was a little kid. So I am.”
For members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, known as Mormons, a mission trip at age 19 is optional but done by most. Simms’ parents went on missions.
Alex Simms is likely bigger than most missionaries – 6 foot 3 inches tall and 325 pounds before breakfast – and as an offensive lineman, he can mash opposing defenders into the dirt. But he is no different from any other teen in the Mormon faith.
The church for decades has sent teens on missions after age 19. So many teens, including athletes, start college, then leave for missions to return later.
This year, the church lowered to 18 the age to start missions. Simms never wavered in the decision to start the mission and leave a potential football scholarship behind for two years.
Few people in the world of big-time athletics that is all about money understand how Simms can choose church over football.
“It has been difficult to let people know,” Simms said. “It is almost like I disappointed them.”
Noreen McCollum, Simms’ mother, said the choice was up to her son – and he was adamant.
“He made up his mind, and we are very proud of him,” McCollum said. “He will still be able to go to college. He can still play football at college. But he wants to serve first.”
Missions typically push young Mormons to prepare for life while spreading the word of the church. Young people have to be self-sufficient and can only contact family periodically. Missions are meant to build maturity, self-reliance and other attributes that adults need.
Simms will graduate early from high school. He leaves in February for mission training in Utah.
“He will be able to call me on Christmas and Mother’s Day, and that’s it,” McCollum said. “He can send me one email a week.”
The young people who go on the missions have to pay to do it – $400 a month.
An hour before the first bell of school day classes began at South Pointe the past four years, Simms attended scripture study classes at the Mormon church led by seminary teacher Debbie Caraway.
“The class is voluntary, but Alex never missed,” Caraway said. “He’s a great kid. So many people are proud of his achievements and his choice to serve the mission.”
Missionaries learn rejection, too, said Caraway. Many people do not want to hear the word of the Mormon church from those serving on a mission. The sight of a young man wearing the name tag of the Mormon missionary riding a bicycle has sent many people scurrying for cover.
But the idea is to do it anyway, to keep trying.
Kind of like life.
The decision to not accept an immediate scholarship offer – many schools wanted Simms, including at least one ACC school – was not taken lightly. College athletics is a business of finding terrific players to build great teams and fill stadiums. College would be paid for.
So Simms talked to church members, family, friends, high school teachers and coaches and more before deciding whether he should go on the mission or directly to college.
Ultimately, he followed his heart.
Simms, his mother and those who admire his decision to put church and service first know that in two years, after the mission, Simms will still be 6 feet 3 inches tall and 325 pounds.
Alex Simms will still be big and tough, a bruiser of a lineman.
Big guys do not shrink. Simms will still have four years of college eligibility after the mission.
Many schools – especially those in Utah, where the Mormon church is based – regularly have players who return from mission trips. Colleges that offer big-time football affiliated with the Mormon church – Brigham Young University is the biggest and most well known, but not the only one – might be in Simms’ future.
Or maybe those same coaches that he said “No, thanks” to this year will call again.
Simms will study engineering in college, and then, he hopes to head to law school – regardless of whether today’s Shrine Bowl game is the last time he ever plays football.
But first there is the Mormon mission.
First, Alex Simms wants to complete part of the dream of a little kid to do his best for somebody else that did not involve blocking for a player carrying a football.