CHARLOTTESVILLE -- Sean Johnson was at a Virginia football team meeting 2 1/2 years ago when he decided to embark on what he now calls the greatest experience of his life.
The coaches at the front of the room should have had his full attention, but Johnson, then a redshirt freshman punter, was distracted by the conflict that had occupied his thoughts for the better part of a year. At that moment, he knew the choice he had to make. He would leave school, football and family behind and serve his faith for two years as a Mormon missionary.
"As soon as I made the decision," Johnson said, "I knew it was right."
In June 2002, he left McLean for an exceedingly simple life in Las Vegas, a city not often associated with humility and religious devotion. Avoiding the bright lights of the Strip, he toured city streets and suburban neighborhoods six days a week, knocking on doors and stopping passersby to share with them his belief in God and the teachings of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.
Yet now Johnson is back in more familiar surroundings, punting for the 12th-ranked Cavaliers as a 22-year-old sophomore.
"It's a dream come true for him," his mother, Cyndi Johnson, said.
For Sean Johnson, the dream was succeeding in football while also serving his church. Voluntary missionary work -- open to anyone but most often performed by men in their early twenties -- has been at the core of the Mormon faith since its founding in 1830. About 60,000 of the church's 11 million-plus members worldwide serve as missionaries.
Johnson essentially "stepped out of life," as his mother put it, for two years. Missionaries don't watch television or movies or go on dates. They stay in touch with family and friends through letters and e-mails, talking to them on the phone only on Christmas and Mother's Day. Most days have a similar structure: early to bed, early to rise, with most of the day spent out in the community with a partner.
Especially difficult for many missionaries is the idea of discussing a sensitive subject such as religion with total strangers.
"You're forced into a situation where you have to go out and you have to tell someone about the thing that's most important to you," Johnson said. "You have to go up and talk to just anybody, just random people. And that was really hard for me, just because my personality isn't that way. . . .
"Every once in a while, you'd catch someone that really didn't want to talk to you, that uses a few choice words and sends you on your way. But for the most part, people are pretty nice, because they know that we're not there to make any trouble or cause any problems."
Johnson took to missionary work as well as anyone, said Lorey Draper, the president of the mission where Johnson served.
"Sean was great," Draper said. "One of our best missionaries. . . . He cares for people. I mean, that's why he made that commitment to leave so much behind. He loves football."
Johnson stayed somewhat connected with his favorite sport by spending an hour most weeks at a local field, booming punts. His leg and his work ethic had always been his best athletic tools, both at Langley High and in two seasons as a walk-on behind Mike Abrams, Virginia's all-ACC punter.