Peterson became one of 27,000 Mormons proselytizing around the world, teaching their doctrine that God still talks to humanity through prophets, and trying to increase the church's membership of six million. He was stuffed with two months of Spanish at the mission training center in Provo and then put on a plane to one of the most remote countries in the world—just in time to miss the most glorious football season in the history of his school. He swore he would be an even better player when he returned...but who knew?
Twenty-nine years ago, a fullback named LeGrande Young, father of future Brigham Young quarterback star Steve Young, went on a mission with 19 other BYU players. Three returned to football. Mission life could do that. Scatbacks ballooned. He-men shriveled. Madmen mellowed. "A football player steels his mind to hitting or being hit," says LeGrande. "Then you go off and practice brotherly love for two years. You come back to football and knock someone down, and you want to pick him up and apologize."
The risks of a missionary sabbatical are obvious. A player doesn't lose any eligibility during the time he is gone, but with a redshirt year of reconditioning usually necessary when he comes back, he might need seven years to complete four seasons of football. Some return more ravenous for the sport than ever. Some return with a bellyful of parasites, or to a rosterful of new recruits at their positions. Some return with a disease called perspective.
"While they're away they come to realize there are more important things than football," says BYU coach LaVell Edwards. "At some point it happens to all of us in football, but this makes it happen to some guys earlier. My philosophy is that the mission per se isn't what makes or breaks you, but that it exaggerates traits that are already there. The determined ones get more determined. The others fade away. For a coach, it makes it tough to recruit. You're always having to project which players will be available when. I try to stay out of their decisions, but let them know we support them all the way if they go."
The BYU coaching staff changed its attitude toward departing missionaries—from lament to support—when Edwards took over in 1972, and it has produced obvious dividends. Last year, 52 players were former missionaries. There will be nearly 40 this season, including three starters on offense and two on defense.
What solace are statistics, though, for a 19-year-old shivering with fever in a bug-infested room 5,000 miles from home? "Come quick, I think I'm sick," Peterson moaned into a telephone a month after arriving in Bolivia. Susie Mathis, a missionary and one of only two other Caucasians living in Oruro, rushed to his room and found him buried under three blankets next to a space heater, mumbling deliriously, with a temperature of 105�. She tore away the blankets, fed him aspirin and pressed a T shirt soaked in water to his skin.
Peterson recovered in time to get amebic dysentery the next month and aseptic meningitis a week after that. He missed only two days of work and considered himself blessed. One Mormon missionary in Bolivia had mononucleosis, aseptic meningitis, salmonella fever, typhoid and altitude sickness simultaneously. On any day in Bolivia one-third of the Mormon missionaries were sick. Some would take home intestinal tracts so ravaged their diarrhea would be incurable. Seventy percent of the people they live among have, or have been in contact with those who have had, tuberculosis.
Most days, Peterson felt good. On this one he awoke at 6:30 and reread a few paragraphs of the newspaper he had taped over the wall to prevent flakes of plaster from falling on his bed. He dumped powdered milk in a cup of chlorinated water—breakfast—and then, lying back in bed, he studied Scriptures for a little while with his roommate, a missionary from Bolivia half his size. His room didn't have space enough for a desk or chairs. He chose one of his three pairs of mud-caked shoes, and then he and his companion went out to proselytize on the unpaved streets in the poorest section of one of the poorest towns in the second-poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. He picked his way carefully around the piles of trash and puddles of human urine, and the scavenging chickens and pigs and mongrels.
Strawberry blond, a foot taller than most adults around him, Peterson didn't quite blend in. "�Grandote, grandote!" (monster) the children cried as he walked by. "�Tio!" (devil) called some of the older ones. Or more often, tittering at the fact that the missionaries must travel in pairs, they sneered and said, "�Huevos!" (slang for homosexuals). They resented his dollars more than his dogma. Some blamed their economic misery on the strength of the American currency.
Once a boy with a slingshot nailed Peterson with a rock. Peterson seized the weapon, ignored the women in the market screaming at him to give it back, broke it in half and stomped away. Another time, after two hours went by without a taxi stopping to pick him up, he pulled back his punting leg and kicked a passing cab. "This country basically hates me," he wrote in his journal.