Vongni Yang, The Union Democrat

It's not everyday that a person can put their life on hold. But that's exactly what Matthew Relei did.

The 2009 Sonora High graduate hit the pause button on his college education and football career at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah.

Relei was honoring the code set forth and encouraged by BYU head coach Bronco Mendenhall who says a player should structure his life with importance and focus in five areas: Faith, Family, Knowledge, Friends and Football.

With faith as first priority and football last, Relei decided to commit his own time to serving a two-year mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in South America.

However, leaving for a mission at the start of the 2010 season meant that Relei's spot on the Cougars football team would be up in the air if he ever decided to return. He wasn't a scholarship player, so nothing was guaranteed.

In 2009, Relei earned a position on the football team after impressing coaches at open tryouts on campus. With more than the 100 players present, Relei was one of a dozen or so invited to be an official member of the team for fall camp.

"Matt was a great leader, probably one of the best leaders that we've had," said Sonora football head coach and Relei's former defensive coordinator, Bryan Craig. "An outstanding player. He was an impressive young man."

As a Wildcat, Relei was a two-way starter, at quarterback and linebacker. He also handled the punting duties. In his senior year in 2008, the team captain received the Valley Oak League Utility Player of the Year award and was also named Defensive MVP.

Relei redshirted as a walk-on in 2009 at inside linebacker, using the time to bulk up and learn the defensive system. He became a valuable member of the defensive scout team. He even dressed for a game against TCU, but never played.

After his redshirt freshman season, Relei made the decision to walk away from everything, to serve those in need in a developing country.

"I approached my coaches and the university," Relei said. "BYU is a church-run school. They definitely are supportive of those that are willing to give up two years of their life and serve a mission."

So Relei packed his bags and headed for the Atacama Desert in northern Chile on Sept. 8, 2010. The Atacama Desert is known by National Geographic and climatologists as "the driest place on Earth."

"The conditions are pretty rough," Relei said, who traveled by foot in the heat everyday on his mission wearing a dress shirt, tie and pants.

During his two years, Relei was able to support locals needing help - mentally and physically.

"I met a lot of people that were really kind of down and out," Relei said. "It was just awesome to see the message that we carry to them - a message of hope, a message of love. It teaches them that they really are valued. That message alone helped a lot of people change their life, and really have hope for their future. You can see a 180-degree turn."

Relei helped with community service projects and constructing houses.

But it was hard for Relei to keep his listed 6-foot-1-inch, 227-pound frame in tip-top football shape. In his set schedule, he was only allowed 30 minutes each morning to exercise.

"It was extremely difficult to maintain good condition," Relei said.

But walking door to door also aided Relei to stay somewhat in form. He walked several miles daily and his meals usually consisted of beans, chicken and rice.

"I got used to the food," Relei said. "The food was good."

For Relei, the two years he spent in Chile was a life-changing experience. He now has a new perspective on life.

"It's just a great opportunity where I was able to step back to forget who Matt Relei was, and focus on others," Relei said. "To help them feel more love and help them be better people."

"I loved the Chilean people," he added. "The Latin culture is just awesome because they are people of love."

When Relei returned from his two-year mission in the middle of September last year, he wanted to continue his football career. So he re-enrolled at BYU and constantly worked out in the gym. He just had to get back into football shape.

"Physically, sometimes when they come back, it can be challenging to get back in shape," BYU Associate Director of Athletic Communications Brett Pyne said. "It takes a little while to get back to that level of a Division I caliber athlete."

Because Relei was a walk-on to begin with, he had to earn his way back onto the Cougars football team. That meant facing open tryouts with more than 100 players for a second time in January.

And he didn't let down.

"To be able to come in and make a difference in a tryout and show people what you're willing to do and can do, and get an opportunity through that route is an impressive thing," Pyne said.

The Cougars coaching staff extended an invitation to Relei to be a team member for spring ball. And he finally felt at home after nearly three years off the field.

"It was awesome to be able to strap on the pads," Relei said. "To run around and try to smack things. It was a good feeling to be back on the gridiron."

This spring was beneficial to Relei. He was able to relearn all of the Cougar's defensive packages and schemes.

Relei's path to playing on Saturdays this fall is still a stretch, considering he's a walk-on. But he understands what it takes after returning from his mission.

"I believe that it is difficult - you have to definitely make a name for yourself," Relei said. "It just boils down if you're willing to put in the work and will to give it your all and make the sacrifices to contribute to your team. Then it can be done. It's a tough road. It's not easy."

What is going to assist the 23-year-old Relei, as he challenges for time on the field, is that he's not that young 19-year-old freshman anymore.

"I think I'm more matured," Relei said. "Most definitely my body's more matured as well. I think I'm more mentally tough and have more personal confidence."

Relei reported to fall camp last Thursday, Aug. 1 and the BYU football team held their first practice Aug. 3. Relei's not listed on the preseason two-deep depth chart, but he knows this month will determine where his football career is headed.

"This fall camp will be a great indicator of how I can better help the team," Relei said. "I would love to get in special teams action; love to get some playing time at inside linebacker."

Relei's also practicing how to long snap, since it's a team need and an area of concern.

"He'll do anything for you," Craig said. "He'll do it just to be a part of that team."

But football isn't everything in Relei's life. He appreciates that now after taking his trip to South America. He still structures his life around Mendenhall's five values and credits his success to his family.

"They definitely been my No. 1 fan - my supporting cast," Relei said. "Without them I wouldn't be the person that I am today; wouldn't be where I am today."

And Relei is still reaching out to others.

"For all the kids out there that have dreams, don't let anybody tell you that you can't do it, or that it can't be done" Relei said. "I'm a firm believer that we personally are our own worst enemies, but if we believe in ourselves and are willing to put in the work then we can achieve it. Hard work is the main ingredient to the recipe."