The spiritual road less travelled

Sea Eagles prodigy William Hopoate will take up missionary work in the United States next year.
Sea Eagles prodigy William Hopoate will take up missionary work in the United States next year.
Ben Hannant understands William Hopoate's desire to walk away from the game.

Ben Hannant understands William Hopoate's desire to walk away from the game.

Ben Hannant isn't the kind of man to regret the choices he has made in his life. The truth is, there isn't a great deal he's got horribly wrong. As humble off the field as he is rugged on it, Hannant knows he's ticked more boxes than most aspiring sportsmen could ever wish for.

He's a highly paid rugby league star who plays for a blue-chip NRL side in Brisbane, his country and in the best kind of winter, his state. At this time of year, a Queensland jersey feels like a home away from home.

Off the field, he's happily married with three children, who share his shock of bright blond hair. As one of 11 children himself, Hannant's still a few under par. He's hardly scrapping to pay the bills either after returning home from the Bulldogs on a decent contract at the Brisbane Broncos.

Yet there is one decision in his life he would like to have again. It's one Will Hopoate, the 19-year-old Manly wunderkind seemingly set for a glittering league career, has just agonised over. And finally made.

Hopoate, like Hannant a Mormon, has decided to leave the NRL and serve his two-year mission with the church. He's not the first rugby league player to make such a call and he won't be the last. But arguably, he's the one with the most to lose, in a football sense at least.

Hopoate was already being talked about as a New South Wales prospect despite just seven appearances for the Sea Eagles. And it wasn't just Manly interested in bidding for his services, with a number of clubs keen to open the coffers to land a future big fish.

There's no doubt it would have been tempting but Hopoate has left it all behind for the stark life of a Mormon missionary, a duty that takes two years for men and 18 months for women.

"I've told the boys that this is not something that I'm forced to do or that I have to do, this is something that I want to do," Hopoate said.

"I've been brought up in the Mormon faith and this is who I am and this is what I want to do."

Hannant understands better than most, not because he followed the same path but because he didn't. While all of his brothers served time as a missionary, as well as one of his sisters, Hannant married Emma, began to raise a family and follow a career in league.

Regret is the wrong word to apply to Hannant's feelings on the matter. Plus, his high-profile status in rugby league is viewed by those within the church as a great way to promote their particular message, much as it is with another Mormon footballer, Israel Folau, who also opted out of missionary work.

But it doesn't mean Hannant doesn't wish he had undergone what is a right of passage for many in the Mormon faith, so much so that he said if he had the chance to do it all again, he'd have made the same decision as Hopoate.

"I think it's fantastic. It's something I wish I did. I decided to get married and have kids. That's one part of my life I wish I did go," Hannant said.

"I commend him. It's a big step to knock back those dollars and the career. But he knows that if he does the right thing and serves as he will do, if he approaches his mission like he approaches his footy, he's going to be a very successful missionary. He'll do a great job, come back and he'll be well blessed for doing it.

"All my brothers went and one of my sisters went too. The change in them was dramatic and the stuff they learned was invaluable. If I could have had my time over again, I would have definitely done it."

The image of a Mormon missionary is familiar to most Australians, who are used to young men in white shirts and black ties trudging up the driveway in the summer heat to try and spread the word.

Hannant said that's not always the case and there was a fundamental misunderstanding about the kind of life Hopoate is about to embrace.

Mission work can mean intense hours, possibly physical labour, and no breaks. Worldly possessions are forfeited and television, dating and courtship of any kind are forbidden.

"You put your life outside, the worldly things, you put that aside for two years. It's not just going out and sharing the gospel. It's not, I'll work one day and have a day off and a sleep in. People don't understand what missionaries do," Hannant said.

"They get up at 5.30am every morning, they go to bed at 10 o'clock every night. In between, they're doing nothing but working hard and helping people.

"They aren't in it to be rewarded or paid or anything like that. They save up and pay out of their own money to go. They do it just to give service."

While some have expressed concern that Hopoate may never be able to pick up where he left off in the NRL, Hannant thinks he will return an even better prospect.

"When he comes back he'll be more mentally tough and even better than he is now. I'm excited for him and I'm proud of him for doing it," Hannant said.

"I think he'll mature as a young man. When he comes back, he'll be an even better footy player for doing it."