Gospel anchors athletes at Arizona

Four men who are securely anchored in the gospel have been anchoring the offensive line for the University of Arizona football team this season.

Ryan Turley, Rusty James, Edwin Mulitalo and Jose Portilla are certainly the largest group of returned missionaries protecting NCAA Division I quarterbacks and opening holes for running backs outside of BYU.The four, referred to as the "Mormon Battalion" in local media and on T-shirts they had made, all arrived at Arizona via junior colleges. Mulitalo, a junior, is the only non-senior among them.

Turley was the first recruited to Arizona, making his way onto the Wildcats squad after serving in the Spain Bilbao Mission.

He went to Mesa Community College out of high school and then during his time in the mission field gained the size needed to play at the highest level of college football.

"I needed the time to fill out and let nature take its course," he said, noting that he gained 60 pounds over the two years. He said it is a family trait to grow later in life.

He was followed to Arizona by James who had just returned from the Oregon Eugene Mission. James and Turley had been best friends in high school, but went their separate ways after graduation. James redshirted at the University of Hawaii then played a year at Mesa.

Turley and James met Portilla when he made a recruiting visit to Arizona. Portilla was won over, then the three of them ganged up on Mulitalo on his visit and brought him into the fold as well, according to Turley.

The four are not the first LDS players at Arizona and are not the only members of the Church on this season's team. However, they have formed a tight nucleus on the offensive line as well as off the field, and have earned the respect of their teammates who are not members of the Church.

"When I first came down here, I was the only active member on the team," Turley said. "I was here about six months alone and it was hard before Rusty came."

There is a strong LDS community in the Tucson area, but few of Turley's teammates knew anything about the Church and gave him a hard time, he said.

"But the more I stood my ground, the more they respected me," he said.

James said that with the four returned missionaries looming large in stature and standards, it has made it more fun to play football and easier on them in the locker room-type setting. "They respect us; they know where we're coming from," he said, noting the four still get teased sometimes about their religion, but handle it because it is good-natured.

All four are married and they make it a habit to get together on a regular basis at one of their homes. Often, a barbecue highlights the evening, James said.

Turley said he has had some great talks with some of his teammates about the Church and has offered invitations to them to attend Church with him. So far, none of the other players have gone through with it. But he feels like he has done some groundwork that may bear fruit later on.

The season hasn't gone quite as well as the LDS linemen had hoped, especially for Turley who has missed several games due to injury, but they remain optimistic. Going into their season finale against rival Arizona State on Nov. 28, the Wildcats are 5-5 and still have sights set on a possible bowl bid.

"I think it's a great thing that we're strong enough to make it in an environment that's not so Mormon-oriented," Turley said. He has talked to the others about the future, and said all want to try to make it in the NFL. But he added, "I don't know if it's the maturity of being a little older and having been on missions, but we all know how hard it is to make it in the NFL and have made alternate plans."

In the meantime, they have strengthened the presence and reputation of Latter-day Saints on the Arizona team. That, James noted, will help with future recruiting of LDS players by Arizona. Because of the type of young men they are, one assistant coach said, according to James, "I'm going to have to recruit more Mormon missionaries."

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