Why Gatlin Bair, the biggest football recruit in Idaho history, is serving a Latter-day Saint mission

Gatlin Bair doesn’t consider it a sacrifice to step away from his college football dream — ‘I really don’t,’ he says

BURLEY, Idaho — Gatlin Bair was pulled up to play varsity high school football after his first freshman game in fall 2020, but achieving his dream of playing major college football felt more realistic a year later as he stood on the sidelines at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City and watched the University of Oregon play the University of Utah.

As Bair sized up the players and observed the game up close, he had a surge of confidence.

“I can be as good as these guys. I can see myself in that situation,” he said in a recent interview with the Church News. “Seeing those guys in person is the point where I thought I could physically play the sport at the next level.”

More than two years later, not only has Bair shown he can play with the best, but the 6-foot-2 wide receiver could almost have his pick of any program in the country. They have all expressed interest in having him.

Gatlin Bair leaps to catch a pass against Twin Falls High School.
Gatlin Bair leaps to catch a pass against Twin Falls High School in Twin Falls, Idaho, on Oct. 6, 2023. Bair is the biggest football recruit in Idaho history but will step away to serve as a Latter-day Saint missionary in Texas in February. | Randy Jones

After demonstrating his skills and speed at the All-American Bowl against the country’s top high school players, Bair is listed as the nation’s No. 27 overall prospect and is the highest-rated football recruit in Idaho history.

The 18-year-old is expected to choose between Oregon and the University of Michigan on Feb. 7, the national signing day for college football prospects, although multiple media outlets reported on Feb. 3 that Bair has committed to Oregon.

But then Bair is stepping away from the game he loves to do something he feels is more important — serve a full-time mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Bair doesn’t view two years away from football as a sacrifice.

“I’ve always wanted to go on a mission. It’s never been a question in my mind,” he said. “I think the biggest sacrifice — like any other missionary — is being away from your family. Not seeing my older brother [who is currently serving] for almost four years will be tough. ... I don’t think [leaving football] is a sacrifice, I really don’t. If anything, I’ll be more blessed for it. Football will always be here when I get back. Football is not going anywhere.”

Family, running and faith

Understanding Bair’s decision to serve a mission begins at home with his family and upbringing.

His parents, Brad and Shae Bair, met in high school and were star track athletes at Utah State University. She was an All-American pole vaulter, and he was a conference decathlon champion.

“Obviously she was a very competitive and elite track athlete,” Brad Bair said. “The joke at our wedding was I was the only one who could catch her. That’s why we ended up together.”

Following college, the couple settled in Kimberly, Idaho, where they coached the high school track team and oversaw a youth track club. Gatlin, the third of five children, began training when he was 5 years old.

Gatlin Bair poses for a portrait with his parents, Brad and Shae Bair, at Burley High School in Burley, Idaho, on Thursday, Jan. 25, 2024.
Gatlin Bair poses for a portrait with his parents, Brad and Shae Bair, at Burley High School in Burley, Idaho, on Thursday, Jan. 25, 2024. | Megan Nielsen, Deseret News

“The kids grew up going to the track,” Brad Bair said. “It’s something we did as a family, and it’s kind of our identity. It’s just how we spent time together.”

Beyond running and friendly competition at the track, the parents wanted to be relevant in their kids’ lives and help them “grow into good human beings,” he said.

The family strived to make the Church and their Latter-day Saint faith their highest priority. There were no competitions on Sundays.

“We always went to Church and were probably like everybody else — hit or miss with family home evening and scripture study — but we did our best,” the father said. “We wanted to help them understand that faith was the most important thing in life and the real reason why we’re on the earth. It’s not to run track and play football, it’s to prepare ourselves to meet God. That has always been our No. 1 priority.”

His wife agreed.

“Example is the biggest thing,” Shae Bair said. “If we show that it’s important to us, then you hope your example will set that precedence for them.”

Gatlin Bair poses for a portrait at Burley High School in Burley, Idaho, on Thursday, Jan. 25, 2024.
Gatlin Bair poses for a portrait at Burley High School in Burley, Idaho, on Thursday, Jan. 25, 2024. | Megan Nielsen, Deseret News

Family of missionaries

An example of missionary service in the Bair family started with Brad Bair. Prior to marriage, he served a mission as a young man in Paraguay.

In the Church of Jesus Christ, a mission is a period of volunteer service — typically 18 months for young women and 24 months for young men — where missionaries devote themselves to teaching the gospel, humanitarian assistance or other service opportunities.

Those who don’t understand what a mission entails are understandably skeptical of why a young athlete would leave his sport in the peak of his development, Brad Bair said.

“What they don’t understand is that the mental, emotional and spiritual growth is going to help him be a phenomenal football player,” he said. “The physical part is easy. The hard part is the mental, spiritual and emotional part. What prepares you better for anything than a mission? How much better of a football player is he going to be because he has that piece that most kids don’t have?”

Gatlin’s oldest brother, Peyton Bair, served in the Arizona Mesa and Mexico Cancún missions before returning to compete in multiple events for the Mississippi State University track and field team. Peyton Bair also serves as second counselor in the presidency of the Starkville Mississippi Branch.

The Bairs’ second child, Jaxon, is currently serving in the Bolivia Santa Cruz North Mission. When he returns, Jaxon will compete for the University of Arkansas track and field team.

Along with his parents’ support and encouragement, witnessing his older brothers’ missionary service has greatly influenced Gatlin.

“One of the biggest things people tear me down for is my decision to serve a mission. Some people say I’m pretty dumb for doing it, that it will ruin my career and I will come back slower. They don’t understand why I’m doing it or the reasoning behind it, not being [Church] members or experiencing the blessings,” Gatlin said, mindful of seeing the effects of missionary service for his parents and brothers. “I think I am going to come back and be very blessed for serving. Even if I did come back and wasn’t quite where I was, I think it would all be worth it.”

He continued: “My brother Peyton has been back for a year and a half now. The blessings he has had, the growth and things he has been able to achieve, are remarkable. I’m not worried about it at all. I think I am going to be just fine.”

Gatlin has been assigned to serve in the Texas Dallas West Mission. He begins his mission service Feb. 19. Peyton Bair is grateful that his little brother has decided to “put the Lord first.”

“It’s really been a blessing in my life,” Peyton Bair said of his mission. “I learned a lot in those two years, and it has helped me a lot personally and in my athletic career. ... I think it’s a blessing in disguise. He will be more mature and developed when he gets back, which is advantageous for sports. On top of that, he’ll have a stronger testimony and be able to make better decisions.”

Gatlin Bair works out at Burley High School in the weight room.
Gatlin Bair works out at Burley High School in Burley, Idaho, on Thursday, Jan. 25, 2024. Bair is the highest-rated football recruit in Idaho history and is planning to serve a Latter-day Saint mission starting on Feb. 19. | Megan Nielsen, Deseret News

Hard work, perseverance, discipline

Because his parents were track athletes, many incorrectly assume Gatlin Bair is just a “genetic freak” who was born with sprinter speed. It’s true, to a certain degree, his father said, but speed can also be developed.

“You don’t come out of the womb running 10.15 [seconds in 100 meters]. It’s been a long process, and he’s worked hard at it,” Brad Bair said. “He’s been training pretty much his whole life.”

Years of consistent training paid off in a big way last year when Gatlin clocked a time of 10.18 seconds in the 100-meter dash at the Texas Relays. He went on to win the finals with a time of 10.25.

More than a month later, Gatlin clocked a record-breaking time of 10.15 in the 100-meter dash in the prelims of the Idaho High School State Championships in Meridian, Idaho. The next day he tied his own state record with another 10.15 in the finals. He was named the Gatorade Boys Track and Field Player of the Year in Idaho.

Gatlin Bair sprints during a track event.
Burley High sprinter and football star Gatlin Bair sets a new state record with a time of 10.15 seconds in the 100-meter dash at the Idaho High School State Championships in Meridian, Idaho, in May 2023. | Randy Jones

Even with 73 catches for 1,113 yards and 20 total touchdowns in football as a junior, it was Gatlin’s performance on the track that turned the heads of football recruiters. Bair began fielding calls and receiving visits from the likes of University of Oregon head football coach Dan Lanning, former Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh, former Alabama head coach Nick Saban, Georgia head coach Kirby Smart and many others, said Cameron Andersen, Gatlin’s football coach at Burley High.

“Every single team in America would take him right now,” Andersen said. “To see him experience those cool moments, because of his hard work, is absolutely awesome.”

Gatlin said the recruiting process at times was almost overwhelming. Andersen was able to shepherd him through the recruiting process because he had previously helped another player, former Gooding High star Colston Loveland, land at Michigan.

The majority of coaches were somewhat familiar with what a mission is, and Gatlin said all were willing to hold a roster spot and scholarship for him. One program even offered to finance his mission, although the family declined. This is to say nothing of other “name, image and likeness,” known as NIL, opportunities, which he says won’t mean anything until he starts playing football anyway.

“At the end of the day, the money that you can make off NIL deals comes from your production on the football field,” Gatlin said. “If you base your decision off the number they are throwing at you [during recruiting], then you’re probably not picking the school for the right reason.”

Gatlin Bair runs down a hallway at Burley High School.
Gatlin Bair works out at Burley High School in Burley, Idaho, on Thursday, Jan. 25, 2024. | Megan Nielsen, Deseret News

Gatlin was already a high-profile prospect in Idaho when his family moved from Kimberly to Burley before his junior year. Because of his talent and success, there has been pressure to perform at a high level while being the main focus of every defense; he’s faced heckling and taunting by opponents and fans, and he’s been a favorite target on social media.

Yet Andersen says his star player has remained humble, persevered and continued to work. He also found solitude and spiritual strength by attending seminary, where he studied the scriptures.

Looking back, learning to deal with adversity and a big spotlight fostered maturity and growth for Gatlin, all of which helped prepare him for a mission.

“It’s been really cool to watch him, through thought and prayer, handle those situations, listen to the advice of others, and take a mindset well beyond his years about understanding others, and how that doesn’t impact him,” the coach said. “He’s going to be a fabulous missionary.”

Andersen also says Gatlin is so disciplined in health and nutrition that his friends and teammates can’t even get him to eat a candy bar.

“If you eat something bad, you are going to get a short lecture about what’s in it and how it is going to negatively impact your body,” Andersen said. “He is so focused on achieving his goals, it is almost impossible to get him to eat things that aren’t beneficial to achieving those goals.”

Serving in the ‘football capital of the world’

Andersen says Gatlin Bair further proved himself as a top college prospect with his performance against other elite players during practices and workouts leading up to the All-American Bowl in San Antonio, Texas, on Jan. 6.

Gatlin appreciated the opportunity to connect with several players, many of whom asked about his mission plans.

“A lot of them asked questions about training, how that would look and what I thought about it,” said Gatlin, who hopes to exercise as much as his mission rules allow. “I explained how that looked and that I thought it would be a good thing for me.”

Gatlin will soon return to Texas in a different uniform. Instead of a jersey, helmet and shoulder pads, he will be sporting a white shirt, a tie, dress pants and a black name tag. He knows he will fit right in.

“I think I was called to Dallas for a reason. It’s probably the football capital of the world. I feel like I’m really going to connect with people down there,” he said with a smile.

Gatlin hopes other Latter-day Saint youth who read his story will consider missionary service as well.

“If you dedicate that time to the Lord, you’ll be blessed for it,” he said. “And when you do get back, you’ll find that you’ll probably be more successful than if you decided not to go.”

Gatlin Bair, wearing a football jersey, poses for a portrait at Burley High School in Burley, Idaho, on Thursday, Jan. 25, 2024.
Gatlin Bair poses for a portrait at Burley High School in Burley, Idaho, on Thursday, Jan. 25, 2024. | Megan Nielsen, Deseret News
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