On Sept. 1, 1984 in Pittsburgh, Brigham Young was opening its football season with a 20-14 upset of Pitt. In Capetown on that day, BYU quarterback Sean Covey was dipping the head of a South African woman into a fountain of water and reciting the rites of baptism.
On Nov. 24 in Provo, BYU was crushing Utah State before the largest crowd—65,508—ever to watch a sports event in Utah. With that victory the Cougars finished their regular season at 12-0. In S�o Gon�alo, Brazil, BYU offensive tackle Don Busenbark was spreading the gospel in areas where 14-year-old boys carried guns.
On Dec. 21 in San Diego, BYU was defeating Michigan in the Holiday Bowl to clinch its first national championship. In Oruro, Bolivia, Cougar safety Scott Peterson was lying diagonally on his undersized bed under flypaper spattered with casualties, listening to the Armed Forces Radio broadcast of the game and biting back the black wish that his teammates not win it all without him.
Spencer Kimball, the current prophet of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, had declared in 1974 that all worthy young men should spend two years—6� days a week, no vacation, no expenses paid—converting souls around the world to the Mormon faith. The proclamation came with no asterisk for BYU football players who dreamed of NCAA championships and NFL careers. As their team became a national powerhouse, many of them struggled in places far from home to accept one phrase in the Bibles they carried from door to door: "To every thing, there is a season...."
Twelve thousand feet above sea level, flatlands stretched where only mountains were meant to be. The land was strewn with stones and stunted scrub brush left to the conscience of the sun. Not a tree, not a single tree, interrupted the crushing loneliness of the Bolivian Altiplano as Scott Peterson and a Jeepful of other Mormon missionaries rolled across it, carrying the message of their prophets to a village of a few hundred Quechua Indians. "I will be a better person and a better football player when I get home," Peterson was saying when the two back wheels sank axle-deep in mud. In his white shirt and tie he climbed out, stuffed brush under the tires for traction and helped push the Jeep free. Then he called together the missionaries to celebrate with a leaping Fun Bunch high five or, as it was called in his new home, choque lo cinco (smack the five).
Once during the 95-mile, seven-hour drive they came upon a group of 13 peasants, squatting and silent, their eyes full of the vast emptiness around them. Peterson glanced down to their feet and saw the outline of a body under a white shroud, attached by two black ropes to a bicycle. "It's another of those 'Whys?' " he said. "Here, there are a lot of questions—and never any answers."
At last they arrived at Andamarca, their destination. The doors of the adobe huts were padlocked. Most of the villagers had scattered across the Altiplano to tend tiny herds of llamas or coax potatoes from the land. The few who remained moved like weary spirits, vanishing behind corners and mud walls when the Americans approached.
Exasperated, the missionaries found the mayor of Andamarca and asked why the people wouldn't come to the plaza to hear the gospel. "The last evangelists who came here killed a man and drained his brain fluid," he said. "I would not go into the countryside around here if I were you. The people might kill you."
Peterson and the others climbed back into the Jeep and began the long drive back to the mission in Oruro. On a football field you expelled your frustrations. On a mission you slowly learned to swallow them.
Six months into his 18-month mission (in 1982 the time span was reduced to 1� years) the softening of Peterson was just beginning. Six feet four inches, 215 pounds, age 19, with the athletic ability to finish third among America's under-20 decathletes in the 1984 Junior Nationals, he was the only freshman to suit up for every BYU varsity game in '83. He seemed destined to be a three-year starting safety and punter, as well as a possible '88 Olympian. Then he chose his religion over America's religion. "I would have felt guilty if I hadn't gone on a mission," he says.