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Fiesta Bowl flavored with LDS gridders

Returned missionaries, members play prominent roles in unbeaten season

The holiday season is something of a blur for 19-year-old David Carroll.

Kicker David Carroll as the University of Utah beat UNLV 52-21 in  football, Utah Oct. 23, 2004 at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City, Utah. Photo by Tom Smart (Submission date: 12/07/2004)
Kicker David Carroll as the University of Utah beat UNLV 52-21 in football, Utah Oct. 23, 2004 at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City, Utah. Photo by Tom Smart (Submission date: 12/07/2004) Photo: DESERET MORNING NEWS

He's a college student cramming for finals. Plus, he's just weeks away from full-time missionary work and scrambling to get ready for service in the Philippines.

Thousands of recently called elders and sister missionaries throughout the Church can likely relate.

The rest of David's December is a bit unique. When not studying or buying that final white dress shirt, David boots football after football through goalposts at the University of Utah. The starting kicker on the school's top-10 team, David will spend New Year's Day in front of tens of thousands of fans and millions of viewers at the Fiesta Bowl in Tempe, Ariz.

About a third of the Utah Utes — who have enjoyed a historic, undefeated season — are reportedly Church members. They will represent the largest contingent of LDS athletes ever to compete in a game affiliated with the Bowl Championship Series, college football's marquee event.

Utah defensive back Eric Weddle (32) intercepts the pass intended for BYU wide receiver Chris Hale (29) during the third quarter Saturday, Nov. 20, 2004, in Salt Lake City. Utah defensive back Morgan Scalley (25) also defends. Utah beat BYU, 52-21. (AP Photo/Douglas C. Pizac)
Utah defensive back Eric Weddle (32) intercepts the pass intended for BYU wide receiver Chris Hale (29) during the third quarter Saturday, Nov. 20, 2004, in Salt Lake City. Utah defensive back Morgan Scalley (25) also defends. Utah beat BYU, 52-21. (AP Photo/Douglas C. Pizac) Photo: AP

"I really could not imagine this; it's a dream come true," said David.

His marveling moves beyond the school's unprecedented invitation to the Fiesta Bowl. A walk-on freshman, David started the season as his team's third-string kicker. He planned to sit out the season. He had no plans to serve a mission.

By October, almost everything had changed. When the Utes' starting kicker was injured Oct. 16 during a nationally televised game against North Carolina, David's number #59 (an odd but perhaps expected digit for a back-up kicker) was called.

"I was definitely nervous," he said. "It was an ESPN game, millions were watching. But I went out and did it."

David kicked two extra points against the Tar Heels and became the Utes' starting kicker for the remainder of his team's remarkable season. His attitude about serving a mission also took a curve.

"I had a change of heart; I can't explain what happened. I wasn't as happy as I thought I should have been," said David.

After much scripture study and prayer, he decided to follow the example of his four brothers and a sister and submit his mission papers. He will report to the Missionary Training Center in Provo, Utah, four days after the Fiesta Bowl and begin learning Cebuano, an indigenous Filipino tongue.

David credits many of his teammates for helping him decide to serve. A large chunk of the team's members are returned missionaries who encouraged him to set aside his helmet for a couple of years.

Several returned missionaries play prominent roles for the Utes. Safety Morgan Scalley and defensive lineman Sione Pouha — both returned missionaries — are Utah team captains and all-conference players. Other returned missionary starters include offensive linemen Makai Aalona and Tavo Tupola, along with linebacker Spencer Toone.

Sione Pouha (left) and Spencer Toone tackle Curtis Brown as University of Utah plays Brigham Young University at Rice Eccles Stadium Saturday night, November 20. Photo by Mitch Dumke (Submission date: 11/20/2004)
Sione Pouha (left) and Spencer Toone tackle Curtis Brown as University of Utah plays Brigham Young University at Rice Eccles Stadium Saturday night, November 20. Photo by Mitch Dumke (Submission date: 11/20/2004) Photo: Deseret Morning News

Eric Weddle, a starting safety, was baptized last year after befriending several LDS teammates and listening to the missionary discussions, Scalley said. Meanwhile, Church member and long-time Utah defensive coordinator Kyle Whittingham was hired as the Utes' head coach Dec. 8, replacing Florida-bound Urban Meyer.

Scalley, the Mountain West Conference's co-defensive player of the year, said Utah's ability to unite despite his team's varied background helped ensure success. "Part of the reason why this team is so special is the diversity," he said.

A priests quorum adviser, Scalley has been asked to speak to a number of youth groups.

"The most important thing in my life is my faith," he said.

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