He’s 16 and lives in Tahiti. He lives and breathes soccer, often playing four times a day. He plays for the top-ranked team in Tahiti.
And one of the most famous soccer players in Tahiti lives right in his house. He calls him Dad.
For Naea Bennett, that is both a great blessing and a big problem. Everyone in Tahiti knows the story of his father, Erroll Bennett. As a young man, Erroll was the best soccer player in Tahiti, maybe the best player in the South Pacific. He was taught about the Church and wanted to be baptized. The missionaries taught Erroll about keeping the Sabbath day holy, but all of Erroll’s soccer games were on Sunday. He felt that if he and his wife were to be baptized then he would have to five up playing soccer. He felt that if he committed his life to the Lord, then he would have to follow the Lord’s instructions to keep the Sabbath day reserved for spiritual matters.
Erroll Bennett’s decision did not go unnoticed. After all, soccer was by far the most popular sport in Tahiti, and he was the star of the top team. He had pressure from his extended family, from his teammates, and from those who ran organized sports. But once Erroll was baptized and told his team that he wouldn’t be playing on Sunday anymore, sports officials began to make changes to make it possible for Erroll to continue playing. They rearranged sports schedules, moving the Sunday games to nights during the week. It turned out that his teammates appreciated having Sundays off to spend with their families too, and the team performed even better with their star player able to play. Erroll became the most prolific scorer on the team. Because the best team in Tahiti would not play on Sunday, the finals for the Tahiti Cup were changed to Saturday. Even the finals of the Pacific games were changed. One man who made a stand changed the sports habits of a nation.
That man, Erroll Bennett, now the stake president of the Pirae Tahiti Stake, is Naea’s father. And because of his father, Naea does not have to play on Sunday. He has not had to make the hard choice his father made. Neither do the other 11 Mormons on Naea’s team. Nor do Naea’s sisters have any Sunday basketball games. Everyone in Tahiti knows not to even bother asking if a Mormon will play on Sunday.
How does Naea feel about the decision his father made? “I’m very proud of him,” Naea says. “It was a good decision. It is known in all of Polynesia.”
That’s the great part of having a well-known father. The hard part is having everyone expect you to be as good as he was. President Bennett is very aware of the expectations being placed on his son. “They look to him to be a second me,” says President Bennett. “But I tell him that he shouldn’t worry about that. He should play for himself and not try to be someone else. Through his own training, he will become the kind of player he ought to be.”
President Bennett still plays with the club his son plays for, the top team in the honor division. At 42, Erroll is at the end of his career. He says he’s starting to feel his age. He takes pride in helping the younger players reach their potential. But on the playing field, he is not quite ready to relinquish everything to his son. With a teasing tone that doesn’t quite cover up the pride in his voice, he analyzes his son’s playing ability. “He’ll do. I’m not saying that he is better than his father, but he’ll do.”
Naea is following in his dad’s footsteps as far as soccer is concerned. But Naea is planning something a little different with his life. “I’d like to go on a mission,” says Naea. Erroll joined the Church after he was married and did not have the chance to serve a mission in his youth. Nothing would delight him more than to support his son as he serves a mission.
In a quiet moment, father and son sit together on the patio of their home as President Bennett points out his favorite scripture to his son. It’s Alma 17:2–3 when the sons of Mosiah, after years of separation, meet their friend Alma again. They have all been serving missions, and when they meet they are delighted to find they are all still strong in the faith and are still men of God.
It isn’t hard to imagine what President Bennett wishes for his son. Whether soccer is in Naea’s future, or something completely different, the thing that would delight his father is to see him continue faithfully serving God.