Football Will Have To Wait

Sports star joins team with a mission


Hunter Walden has the world at his feet.

Since being written up last year in "Sports Illustrated's" College Football Preview as the state's all-time high school home-run king, the 19-year-old Payson athlete has been offered a full ride to most junior colleges in Arizona to play baseball or football.

He's received a scholarship offer from Adams State University in Greeley, Colo. He has engaged in "serious discussions" with Arizona State University, San Diego State and others he can't even remember.

And now, Walden has made the choice that will cement his fate for the next two years -- he's going on a Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints mission.

To St. Louis, Mo., to be precise. On Wednesday.

The only downward turn in Walden's athletic pursuits happened last year during a basketball game when he tore cartilage and a ligament in his knee.

"It felt like a little M-80 exploded inside," he said.

The pain continues today -- but to a far lesser degree, thanks to surgery and a leg brace he must wear during play for another month or so.

Even better, Walden's doctor said any recurrence of the injury is unlikely.

Like all good athletes, though, Walden views his injury in a positive light. In fact, he regards it as a direct message from above.

"The Lord gave me all these talents," he said. He's the one who blessed me to play this well and for colleges to want me. When I hurt my knee, God was saying, 'Hey, I can take it away, too.'

"That's what helped me decide what I was going to do. I figured I'd go on my mission for him, and he would continue to bless me when I get back."

Here's how the missionary selection process works:

"This guy on a computer scrolls through the list of 300 or so places they can send you, looking for openings, and decides where to send you. All I asked for was to be sent somewhere cold. I don't know why I did that. I hate the cold!"

Too bad, because Walden got his wish. Last Wednesday, the highest recorded temperature in St. Louis was 24 degrees, with a low of 13.

Still, Walden is as excited about embarking on his mission as he would be playing first base in the World Series. So are his parents, Pam, 37, of Payson and Donnie, 44, who lives in Phoenix. Ditto for brothers Taylor, 14, and Chase, 5, as well as sisters Sage, 17, and Jadyn, 10.

"To be honest, though, I'm not sure my brothers and sisters are excited for the right reasons," Walden said. "They're kinda like, 'Hunter's gonna be gone for two years! Who gets his room? Who gets all his stuff?'

During his two years away from home, Walden can return only in the event of a dire family emergency, and telephone contact will be limited to birthdays, Christmas, Father's Day and Mother's Day.

"But you can mail as many letters as your hand can write," he said.

Sports, too, will be put on the back burner, as short periods of recreational play are about all he'll get to indulge in. But Walden is not worried in the least that his time off might dull the edge to his athletic talent.

"But baseball will be there when I come back, and football isn't going anywhere, either" he said.

"Also, I'll be more mature by two years when my mission is completed, and therefore more prepared to make the right decisions regarding my career and education.

"And," he said, "I'll be blessed."

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