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Why top recruit Walker Lyons is stepping away from USC to serve a Latter-day Saint mission

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One of the nation’s most prized college football recruits was delivered by his family to the missionary training center Wednesday afternoon in Provo, Utah.

The Lyonses made the nearly 700-mile drive from Folsom, California, before exiting their vehicle to share one last emotional farewell with their son, Walker Lyons.

“He’s an All-American, famous where we are locally. In Norway, he won’t be,” the new missionary’s father, Tim Lyons, said outside the Provo Missionary Training Center. “It will be the most humbling thing, and he will have to rely on the Holy Spirit and Heavenly Father to get through, and he needs that. Because he’ll have that, the best part of Walker will come out.”

Elder Walker Lyons hugs his mother, Kamee Lyons, prior to entering the MTC in Provo on Wednesday, Feb. 8, 2023. Lyons is a top college football recruit who is committed to play for USC after his mission to Norway. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Walker Lyons, who fielded scholarship offers from 35 major programs across the country and was named Man of the Year at the high school All-American Bowl, is putting his college football career on hold and sacrificing millions in potential profit from “name, image and likeness” opportunities to preach the gospel in Norway for the next two years. He recently signed to play for the USC Trojans when he returns.

His motivation for missionary service can be summarized in the words of a favorite hymn: “Because I have been given much, I too must give.”

“The reality is I’ve been given so much,” he told the Church News. “To just be able to give back a little bit would be something I’ve always wanted to do. … This is a different way of giving, and to show gratitude and thanks to my Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ is really the main reason why.”

Lyons is one example of many young Latter-day Saint men and women who willingly step away from athletic, educational and other promising opportunities to serve full-time missions for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Elder Walker Lyons waits in line to check in at the MTC in Provo.
Elder Walker Lyons waits in line to check in at the MTC in Provo on Wednesday, Feb. 8, 2023. Lyons is a top college football recruit who is committed to play for USC after his mission to Norway. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Legacy of missionary service

Kieth Merrill, Lyons’ grandfather, remembers playing football for Davis (Utah) High School in 1958 and lining up across from Logan High’s Merlin Olsen, who would go on to become one of the most famous linemen in NFL history.

“Our quarterback got sacked 17 times in that game,” he said with a laugh.

The filmmaker and author from Farmington, Utah, is proud of all 40 of his grandchildren, but seeing his grandson Walker excel in football, scoring touchdowns and receiving all kinds of notoriety, has been especially gratifying.

What Merrill says is the most pleasing of all is Lyons’ decision to carry on the family’s legacy of faith and missionary service.

“What makes us most proud is that with the NIL in college now, which represents millions of dollars to him in his first year, full-ride scholarships to 35 universities that he can choose from, he chooses to go on a mission. That is the biggest thrill,” said Merrill, who served his own mission in Denmark. “I know he will go on to have a fantastic career in football, but I’m absolutely positive that what he’s going to experience the next two years will set the tone of his life. That’s why we are proud of Walker.”

Walker’s father, Tim Lyons, was the first missionary in his family. Both of Walker’s grandparents on his father’s side are converts to the Church. As a young man, Tim Lyons had an experience with the Book of Mormon that he said changed the trajectory of his life and led him to serve a mission, also in Denmark. Others in the extended family have served missions.

“I tell everybody this, whoever I meet, that I wouldn’t trade anything for my mission experience,” said Tim Lyons, who played defensive back at BYU from 1996 to 1997. “It was challenging, and it was difficult. But it blessed me beyond anything I could ever give back. And so I raised my kids that way.”

MTC President Kevin Calderwood talks with Elder Walker Lyons.
Provo MTC President Kevin Calderwood talks with Elder Walker Lyons at the MTC in Provo, Utah, on Wednesday, Feb. 8, 2023. Lyons is a top college football recruit who is committed to play for USC after his mission to Norway. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Prepared through adversity

Walker Lyon’s senior season came to a premature end last fall when he suffered a broken leg in the first quarter of the first game of the season.

Initially there was heartache and devastation, especially as he was helped from the field in front of a stunned and silent stadium crowd. But then he felt strengthened by the prayers of many friends and supporters. He felt blessed to make a quicker-than-expected recovery.

“He stayed strong for his friends and said, ‘God has a purpose and a plan here,’” said Kamee Lyons, Walker’s mother. “‘I’m going to get through this.’”

Lyons couldn’t play but continued to support his teammates. He was invited to lead the team in prayer before games throughout the rest of the season.

Walker Lyons (85) leads his team in prayer before a game.
Walker Lyons (85) leads his team in prayer before a game. | Courtesy of Jr VSN

As a 6-foot-4, 230-pound tight end who is strong enough to block massive linemen in the trenches and still athletic and versatile enough to sprint downfield and catch a pass, Walker Lyons is described as a “unique and universal talent,” by Folsom (California) High School head football coach Paul Doherty.

It was difficult to see his star player go down and lose out on a potentially incredible year, the coach said, but Lyons still managed to show leadership and character and was the “ultimate teammate.”

“The most impressive thing about him has nothing to do with his football ability,” said Doherty, who praised Walker Lyons for his “genuine humility” and being a calming presence for the team.

The injury provided Lyons with a new perspective that helped him see others dealing with pain, as well as greater appreciation for his athletic gifts.

Elder Walker Lyons hauls his luggage up the stairs at the MTC in Provo.
Elder Walker Lyons hauls his luggage up the stairs at the MTC in Provo on Wednesday, Feb. 8, 2023. Lyons is a top college football recruit who is committed to play for USC after his mission to Norway. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

“He has a tenderness about him about injuries and people who go through that,” Tim Lyons said. “He’s already reached out to lots of people who are struggling.”

His parents have received text messages from people expressing appreciation for how Walker reached out to a son or daughter with kind words of encouragement.

“‘Your son’s text to my son or daughter was a game-changer,’” Kamee Lyons repeated a messages they received. She said, “It’s only because he has gone through this experience.”

Walker Lyons’ decision

Serving a mission is something Walker Lyons has always wanted to do, but it wasn’t until his junior and senior years of high school that he solidified his commitment.

“I had so many opportunities to do other things. Being on that stage, you can still spread the gospel without going on a mission,” he said. “But it came down to a decision I made when I was a kid, and I wanted to stick with that. My dad has talked about his mission as one of the most important, if not the most important, catalyst in his life. That’s ultimately why I decided to serve.”

When Lyons and his parents started the recruiting process, they didn’t know if programs would be willing to hold a spot for a Latter-day Saint missionary. He was quick to inform them all of his mission plans.

Most coaches and recruiters knew about the Church but some were not familiar with the concept of mission, which allowed Lyons and his parents to explain. Most were supportive when they understood why he wanted to serve.

“You can’t believe how many conversations we’ve had with major coaches who didn’t know anything about missions,” Tim Lyons said. “‘They’re like, ‘So wait a minute, what is this thing you are doing?’ Then you explain it and they go, ‘OK, that’s amazing.’”

Elder Walker Lyons chats with other missionaries upon entering the MTC in Provo.
Elder Walker Lyons chats with other missionaries upon entering the MTC in Provo on Wednesday, Feb. 8, 2023. Lyons is a top college football recruit who is committed to play for USC after his mission to Norway. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Through the many scholarship offers and NIL discussions, Lyons never wavered in his desire to serve a mission.

“I have full faith in God that everything will work out the way it’s supposed to if you put Him and His Son first,” he said. “That is exactly what I am going to do.”

“It’s money, right?” his father said. “We’re talking about the big picture, we’re talking about anchoring your soul to Christ. We’re talking about what’s the most important thing that we’re here for.”

Many young men and women in the Church open their mission calls surrounded by family and friends with multiple electronic devices recording the moment.

Walker Lyons opened his mission call privately.

After learning he was bound for the Norway Oslo Mission, his mother asked how he felt. Lyons described the spiritual experience as “10 out of 10,” and he knew he had made the right choice. He didn’t even seem intimidated by the need to learn the Norwegian language.

“The Spirit I felt was undeniable,” Lyons said. “It was one of the coolest moments of my life. As soon as I opened it, I knew it was the right decision, like that’s what I was supposed to be doing right now.”

Elder Walker Lyons poses for a photo at the MTC in Provo.
Elder Walker Lyons poses for a photo at the MTC in Provo on Wednesday, Feb. 8, 2023. Lyons is a top college football recruit who is committed to play for USC after his mission to Norway. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Walker’s mission decision has not been lost on his young brother Ryder, who is also an up-and-coming college football recruit.

“For him as a big recruit to go on a mission, it’s just such an example in my life,” said Ryder, who is already preparing for a mission after high school. “He could go play (college) football right now straight out of high school, but he’s choosing the gospel over that and making sacrifices, which is really cool.”

Elder Walker Lyons chats with other missionaries upon entering the MTC in Provo.
Elder Walker Lyons chats with other missionaries upon entering the MTC in Provo on Wednesday, Feb. 8, 2023. Lyons is a top college football recruit who is committed to play for USC after his mission to Norway. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

‘Grow and learn’

Walker Lyons graduated from high school early so he could start his mission and return in time to train for the next football season. His first day was Jan. 23, and he spent the first few weeks doing online training in his California home.

So far he feels hopeful about picking up the Scandinavian language thanks to conversations involving his father’s Danish, which he says is similar to Norwegian.

He has an exercise plan and will do his best to stay healthy.

Elder Walker Lyons hugs his family prior to entering the MTC in Provo.
Elder Walker Lyons hugs his family prior to entering the MTC in Provo on Wednesday, Feb. 8, 2023. Lyons is a top college football recruit who is committed to play for USC after his mission to Norway. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Saying goodbye to his family at the Provo MTC was more emotional for them than it was for him, he said with a smile. It always happens with the oldest child and first missionary. He is ready for the adventure to begin.

“Sports are important to me, obviously, but it’s honestly just one small aspect of my life,” he said. “There are so many pieces of life that I want to experience, and a mission is one of them. … It’s going to be a good way for me to grow and learn.”

Elder Walker Lyons puts hi things away at the MTC in Provo.
Elder Walker Lyons puts his things away at the MTC in Provo on Wednesday, Feb. 8, 2023. Lyons is a top college football recruit and who is committed to play for USC after his mission to Norway. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
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