Left, former BYU kicker Andrew Mikkelsen boots a kickoff for the Cougars. Right, Mikkelsen (right) throws a cross during one of his amateur Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) bouts. (Photos courtesy of Andrew Mikkelsen)
Meet Andrew Mikkelsen — a mission prep instructor & former BYU kicker now battling in the MMA cage
A life-changing accident fortified the Latter-day Saint’s resolve to compete
By Jason Swensen
23 Feb 2023
Most reading this article will never play a down of D1 college football. Even fewer will step inside the “cage” for a sanctioned MMA fight.
But anyone who has ever had to overcome a life-altering obstacle can relate to Andrew Mikkelsen — a returned-missionary/BYU football player-turned-mixed martial artist.
Mikkelsen’s story is about unimagined setbacks, patience, resilience and, aptly, “rising from the canvas” and continuing the fight.
Growing up on a farm in Northern Oregon, Mikkelsen learned early how to work. From his older brothers, he learned how to scrap. “I credit that upbringing for some of my toughness in the cage,” he told Church Ball Magazine, laughing. “I’ve been taking shots since I was a little kid.”
An “obsessed” Cougar football fan
Mikkelsen began playing football in the sixth grade. “And I became obsessed with BYU football.”
By the time he was a freshman at Oregon’s Canby High School, the athletic Mikkelsen was playing several skill positions. His future high school career was bright. His gridiron path to BYU seemed straight and clear.
That changed in a split-second. While on an evening training run on a rural road, Mikkelsen was hit by a truck and severely injured. He suffered a fractured femur and a cerebral hemorrhage in his brain.
Andrew Mikkelsen’s promising high school football career was placed on hold when he was struck by a truck, fracturing his femur and causing a cerebral hemorrhage. He would later find unexpected football success as a kicker. (Photo courtesy of Andrew Mikkelsen)
Neuro specialists told Mikkelsen that it was too dangerous to play contact sports, at least for a couple of years. For a high-energy sports-loving teenager such as Mikkelsen, two years seemed an eternity. “It felt like a death sentence for me and my football dreams.”
Alexander Graham Bell is credited with the phrase, “When one door closes, another opens.” The famed inventor was likely not a football fan — but Bell’s optimistic words define Mikkelsen’s unusual football journey.
Mikkelsen discovered his open “door” by learning the highly specialized position of kicker after sitting out of football during his sophomore year of high school.
“Just watching the games that year as a fan was torture,” he remembered. “I knew there had to be some way to get out on the field in a way that would be acceptable to my parents and doctors. That’s when kicking became my path.”
Mikkelsen laced up his football cleats (he didn’t own the soccer cleats typically worn by kickers) and began booting the pigskin. No one spying his early field goal attempts would have ever imagined that college football was in his future.
“It was brutal,” he said. “I was not good. I watched a YouTube video or two on basic kicking techniques, then went out and started hacking at the football. I could barely get it 10 feet off the ground. It was bad.”
Mikkelsen remembers kicking the ball hundreds of times before making a proper field goal. There were moments when he never wanted to kick another ball. Then he remembered he had no other football options. No plan B.
“So I was forced to grit my teeth and endure the teasing from the varsity team that was practicing on the other field,” he said.
Recognizing his determination, Canby High’s veteran kicker stepped in to help Mikkelsen with the basics. Mikkelsen kept practicing and attended a few kicking camps. He practiced and practiced some more.
“And then things started to come together, slowly but surely.”
By the time his junior year began, he had become a legitimate high school kicker.
“I had never really considered kicking at the college level to be an option,” he said. “But by the end of my junior year, I was putting up good numbers, started kicking touchbacks and started making field goals.”
Soon Mikkelsen was on the radar of college recruiters taking notice of his sharp learning curve. BYU had already signed a kicker from Mikkelsen’s graduating class, so he selected Oregon State, where he redshirted his first year.
BYU dreams fulfilled – off to Samoa
Then in 2014, an opportunity opened at BYU. Mikkelsen jumped at the chance to realize his dream of competing on Saturdays at LaVell Edwards Stadium. He played the 2014 season for BYU, enjoyed success and playing time, and then opted to step away from football to answer a mission call to Samoa.
Missionary work in the Pacific Islands was difficult for an Oregon kid. He had to learn a new language and adjust to a new culture. Once again, he drew upon his mental resilience.
“Even when it seems like all of the elements are working against you, you just have to put your head down, go to work the next day and do your best,” said Mikkelsen, who now teaches the missionary preparation class in his Orem, Utah, ward.
Andrew Mikkelsen interrupted his football career at BYU to serve a mission to Samoa. The work was challenging, but Mikkelsen returned home with a deep love for Samoa and its people. (Photo courtesy of Andrew Mikkelsen)
Mikkelsen will forever carry a love for Samoa and its friendly people.
“There were so many families in Samoa that I grew close to — they thought of me as their own kid,” he said. “The Samoans are just such warm and inviting people.”
Several of his fellow missionaries later became teammates at BYU. “Guys that I had served with ended up having lockers just three lockers away from my own,” he said, laughing.
Few things match the camaraderie of competing alongside a group of guys and, together, experiencing the ups-and-downs of a college football season. “I’m still in very close contact with several BYU teammates. I think it’s because we experienced so many unique things together.”
From the gridiron to the Octagon
For many graduating college athletes, leaving the thrill of high-level competition is difficult. There is little in the “civilian” world that can match clashing with an athletic rival. The thrill of victory. The agony of defeat.
Today, Mikkelsen feeds his appetite for competition through Mixed Martial Arts — or MMA.
While he never wrestled in high school, he learned the basics of grappling as a youngster in a hometown junior wrestling program run by Chael Sonnen, an All-American wrestler who would go on to be a successful UFC fighter and analyst.
“So at an early age, I started watching the UFC fights — and my interest just continued to grow,” said Mikkelsen.
Andrew Mikkelsen and his wife, Ashleah Mikkelson, and their toddler daughter, Annie.. The Mikkelsens are expecting their second child in July.
His older brother, Pietr Mikkelsen, took up the sport, only adding to Andrew’s interest.
“MMA was always something that I knew I wanted to try,” he said. “I grew up fighting my brothers — including one who competed in MMA — and I held my own. So I knew I had to give it a try.”
Pietr invited his younger brother — now retired from BYU football — to train with him at a Utah gym where active UFC fighter Court McGee coaches and trains. Andrew jumped at the chance, even though he was an MMA novice.
Soon Mikkelsen was training with high-level fighters. He was hooked.
Rising MMA fighters typically train for at least a year before taking on a sanctioned amateur contest. But Mikkelsen was a quick study. Just five months after he began training seriously, he signed on for his debut fight.
As a former college kicker, Mikkelsen knew all about performing under pressure. “That being said, I have never experienced any situation that was as freaky as going into a fight,” he said.
Now six bouts into his amateur career, Mikkelsen has a record of five wins against a single loss by decision.
In a team sport, you can find support from a teammate lined-up at your side. In an MMA bout, a fighter battles alone. “It’s an honest sport,” he said. “If you go out there and get out-classed by some other guy, it’s going to be a rough night for you.”
Now in his late 20s, Mikkelsen is realistic about the possibilities of ever competing at the highest professional level of the sport — the UFC. Still, he’s willing to follow whatever future opportunities the sport offers.
“For now, I want to pursue winning an amateur title fight,” he said.
An amateur championship fight is tentatively scheduled in April at the Maverik Center in West Valley City, Utah. If that goes well, he hopes to eventually snag a few professional bouts.
“I really want to see to what level I can take my skills.”
A family man, Mikkelsen and his wife/fellow returned missionary, Ashleah, are the parents of a 1-year-old daughter named Annie. Their second child is expected to arrive in July.