When the Yale football team convened for its first preseason practice four weeks ago, all but two of its players were on the field.
One freshman had not yet been cleared to play by the NCAA. The other, Austin Pulsipher ’12, was on his honeymoon in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico.
Pulsipher, 23, is the only member of the team who wears a wedding band. He is also the oldest member of the squad, a function of the two years he spent in Taiwan on a Mormon mission between his freshman and sophomore years. And, as a senior who earned his first varsity letter last season, he will add veteran leadership at defensive end this year to a defense stacked with veterans.
“When he got married, we were a little concerned about what he would be like when he came back with a ring on his finger,” head coach Tom Williams said. “It took a couple days to work off the rust and the honeymoon, but he didn’t miss a beat and he’s been exactly the solid football player we expected.”
Pulsipher’s path from freshman year on the junior varsity squad to a regular as a senior was anything but the expected one.
He assisted Latter-Day Saint missionaries working in New Haven during his freshman season. On Sundays, he and teammate Sebastian Swett ’09, who is also Mormon, went directly from church to film sessions with the team.
“Everyone on the team noticed our shirts and ties,” Swett wrote in an email. “In fact, one of our coaches, a man with some colorful phrases, once looked at us during a tirade and said, ‘Gee, I’d better tone it down on Sunday for you two.’”
Aside from good-natured comments like that one, Pulsipher said that his religion has never been an issue. He is an exception among college football players, who are often known for drinking and partying,because, according to his Mormon beliefs, he avoids alcohol, caffeine and tobacco. But he said he has never felt limited by those religious restrictions.
“It just means I have to be more creative with my weekend nights,” he said.
Pulsipher’s freshman season ended in Cambridge with a victory over Harvard and an Ivy League championship. A few months later, he decided to act on an idea he had dwelled on since he was a child and apply to go on a two-year mission.
The Church of the Latter-Day Saints assigned the California native to its mission in Taiwan, so in July 2007 he traveled to a campus of Brigham Young University in Utah to begin an intensive 12-week Chinese language course.
“I barely knew how to say ‘Ni Hao’ going in,” Pulsipher said.
After 12 weeks, Pulsipher said he thought he was conversational. Then he stepped onto the plane to Taipei. Suddenly, he said, he realized he knew nothing.
After three months in Taiwan, however, Pulsipher said he felt comfortable with the language. He also grew used to a regimented schedule in which he worked six and a half days each week. Pulsipher and a fellow missionary — he always lived with at least one companion — would wake up at 6:30 a.m. daily, exercise, study scripture for two hours, then spend the day proselytizing and doing community service.
For two years, he knocked on doors, taught families about the Church, organized and taught a drug rehabilitation program, taught English classes and managed the finances of more than 150 missionaries with him in Taiwan. He was allowed to call home only twice a year — on Christmas and on Mother’s Day.
“It was the best thing I’ve ever done besides getting married,” Pulsipher said. “My focus for two years wasn’t football or school. As a missionary, I was devoted to other people 24/7. That gives you a joy that’s very hard to come by, a fulfilling kind of joy that’s very different than what you get going out on the weekend.
Pulsipher returned from his mission 30 pounds lighter and to a football team on which the staff had turned over entirely since his departure. Though he said that the new coaches initially seemed at a loss as to what to do with him, he quickly gained his weight back and impressed in practice.
“[Pulsipher] is a beast,” Swett said. “He’s got great size, an incredible motor and enough athleticism to wreak havoc in the Ivy League.”
Among church, football and his work as an economics major, Pulsipher also found the time to begin dating Laura Clayton, a student at Brigham Young University who he had met during his freshman year when her brother, a recent graduate of the Law School, introduced them.
The two stayed in contact throughout his mission, but it wasn’t until the beginning of his junior year that Pulsipher asked Clayton on a date. She was visiting her brother one weekend when Pulsipher took her into New York to see “The Lion King” on Broadway.
Clayton said she was blown away by the first date, even though Pulsipher was not at his smoothest. Rhett Anderson ’12, who was rooming with Pulsipher, drove the pair into Manhattan, but his car got stuck in gridlock blocks from the theater. So Pulsipher and Clayton decided to walk the rest of the way. Pulsipher continued to talk to Anderson from the sidewalk as he walked down the street — until he walked directly into a signpost.
“That was the moment when I thought, ‘He goes to Yale, he’s super smart, he plays football, but at least he can still walk straight into a pole,” said Clayton, who has since taken her husband’s name.
The rest of the date was injury-free and, six months later, Pulsipher proposed to Clayton on the beach in San Diego six months later. The pair were married in Newport Beach, California four weeks ago. He had just finished a summer internship at Deutsche Bank in New York, and Clayton had graduated from Brigham Young in the spring. Swett and Anderson were among the groomsmen.
“The wedding was great,” Swett said. “We got to see Austin’s jerky dance moves — think ‘Tin Man’ trying to do disco.”
The couple plans to move to New York City after Pulsipher’s graduation, and he will work in banking while she pursues a master’s degree in art history.
For now, the couple has settled into a home in New Haven — and has bought just about everything Ikea sells, Pulsipher joked. Laura is working at J. Crew, and recently got a job in the conservation department of the Yale University Art Gallery. She said he also plans to make it to every one of his football games.
Though he is now getting used to married life, Pulsipher has also settled back into the routine of class and football. But being the only married man on the team has brought its fair share of ribbing, he said. During a recent team meeting, his phone rang.
“That must be the wife,” a coach said.