CORONA, Calif. — Tanner McKee didn’t see it happen. Didn’t watch the true freshman quarterback create magic and become a national champion. Didn’t know a star was born that night in January.
Instead, McKee—a 6’6″, 220-pound senior quarterback from Centennial High who has driven Nick Saban’s boat and exchanged pleasantries with Condoleezza Rice during his recruitment—was sitting 37,000 feet in the air, his long legs stuffed under the commercial airline seat in front of him.
The nation’s top uncommitted high school quarterback was returning to his home in Corona after spending a week at the U.S. Army All-American Bowl in San Antonio while Tua Tagovailoa showed the nation just how quickly superstardom can come, carrying Alabama to the national championship a year to the night after he had arrived in Tuscaloosa.
Less than 24 hours after the game, McKee is resting on a leather couch in his family room, wearing a black Nike sweatshirt and red gym shorts. His legs stretch out on a beanbag chair in the center of the room.
In a few days, he will visit Stanford. A day after that, Washington head coach Chris Petersen will stop by his family’s home. Texas, Texas A&M, Alabama and many others have delivered their pitches.
On national signing day, one of these schools will secure the commitment of 247 Sports‘ No. 3 pro-style quarterback in the country. But no matter what program McKee signs with, it won’t have his services for more than two years.
McKee is a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He and his family are practicing Mormons. He doesn’t drink coffee. He doesn’t drink alcohol. He doesn’t smoke.
Four days a week, he attends seminary (Bible study) early in the morning before school. And as part of his commitment to his faith, he will go on a mission—a two-year trip to a destination still unknown—as soon as his senior year ends.
Communication with his family and friends will be limited. His body, tuned to take on the rigors of football, will fall out of game shape. All that he has worked toward these past few years will be put on hold.
“To me, it’s about being dedicated to what you believe in,” McKee says. “Other people are going to think I’m nuts for going out for two years, but I feel like this will help me in the long run. You don’t have to just pick football or your faith. You can balance them and have both.”
A simple thought lingers in the air with Alabama’s freshman-led triumph still fresh. McKee could be the next Tagovailoa one year from now in the right situation.
He laughs at the notion of it. Not because the thought hasn’t crossed his mind, but because he’s already moved past this. His mind was made up long ago.
On national signing day, McKee will end his recruitment, choosing between a list he has narrowed to Alabama, Texas, Texas A&M, Washington and Stanford and signing a national letter of intent. It will look and feel and sound like any other college football announcement—like the ones that will take place in thousands of high schools on Wednesday, February 7.
While this part of the arrangement will feel familiar, though, the recruitment of McKee has been anything but.
It began by trying to get noticed. With recruiting camps seemingly taking over the high school football landscape, McKee had to be selective in which he attended.
The Sabbath, a holy day for LDS members and a day McKee honors, prevents him from competing on Sundays. Even at The Opening, Elite 11’s biggest recruiting event of the year, featuring the nation’s best players, McKee made the difficult decision not to throw on Sunday.
“We would have totally supported his choice and the decision he made,” Jeremie McKee, Tanner’s father, says. “These are choices he’s making, and it makes me feel proud of who he is. We live by a simple principle: Teach your kids the right way, and let them govern themselves.
“He didn’t blink an eye about not playing. I probably would have caved.”
Pitches from college programs started arriving during McKee’s junior season. In every conversation, the family made it a point to discuss the mission with the coach and school, getting it out in the open early on.
Both McKee and interested schools are projecting what their situations will look like two years from now. At a time when the sport has never felt more volatile and job security has never felt more unstable, this can be a lot to ask.
“Coaches are huge, but they bounce around,” McKee says. “Even college programs in general are up and down. You have to judge it all together—the program, coaches and players—to make a decision, and you have to envision being there for four years.”