Whiting Homestead News
April 18, 2010
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So how do two stories involving high school football relate to the family?    Keep reading......

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Connecticut Athlete Walks on at Utah,
Walks into Baptismal Font

By Trent Toone
Mormon Times
Tuesday, April 13, 2010

SALT LAKE CITY -- He was raised in a Connecticut Catholic home more than 2,200 miles from Utah.  So how did Chris Sciarretta end up walking on the University of Utah football team and converting to the Mormon church?

That's a good question," he said with a laugh.

When the story is pieced together, the key elements include loyal friends, a Mormon girlfriend and her friendly family, a concerned mother and a dream to play college football.

But even if Sciarretta never plays a down in Rice-Eccles Stadium, coming to Utah has already changed his life.

"If I hadn't come to the U., I don't know if I would have joined the church and gained a testimony. Being out here made it happen for me," the scout team linebacker said. "It's pretty amazing."

Sciarretta describes his upbringing like this: "I come from a big Italian family. They're loud, they drink, they yell. So looking back of course I never heard about the church because my family didn't quite fit the bill to be Mormon."  

As a young man, he attended his family's church, but "Something didn't feel right," he said.

Sciarretta's first exposure to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints came during his sophomore year of high school thanks to a unique football team tradition. Most games were on Friday, but occasionally the New Canaan Rams played on Saturday. Before those rare games, the team traveled to a local church for a motivational message and a prayer.

"We always ended up going to the LDS church before the big games," he said.

One of Sciarretta's teammates, Daniel Neeleman, was a Mormon who always offered inspirational pregame prayers. Sciarretta was impressed with him and the two became friends. Then he met Daniel's little sister, Victoria. By his junior year, Chris and Victoria were dating, and he was attending church meetings regularly.

"In the back of my mind I remember everyone saying, 'Don't go out with her, she will try and convert you, don't do it, man,'" Sciarretta said. "I had no idea what they were talking about (at church), but I felt something that was undeniable. It was a feeling of happiness. Everyone was so nice. Three hours flew by," he said.

While he continued to learn about the LDS Church, Sciarretta captained New Canaan to its third straight state title during his senior year. More than anything, he wanted to continue playing football in college. There was interest from some Division III schools, but the 5-foot-10 linebacker wanted to play at the Division I level.

Enter Matt Cole, Victoria Neeleman's brother-in-law, a Cottonwood native and former Utah walk-on. He knew members of the Utes' coaching staff and recommended his young friend make a phone call. Before long, Sciarretta had plans to fly out to Salt Lake City and attend school at Utah.

Cole also invited Sciarretta to meet with the missionaries. He did this on his own without Victoria, and without telling his mother.

"I snuck around my mom somehow saying I was going to a friend's house. I walked by her with my Book of Mormon under my shirt," he said. "It just wasn't the right time to tell her and I didn't want to hurt her."

As he read his Book of Mormon and prayed each night, Sciarretta at first hoped for the kind of dramatic conversion that involved an angelic manifestation, but it didn't happen.

"I soon realized that I was being extremely dumb and that it wasn't going to happen," he said. "Instead for me it was just something I came to understand little by little."

Victoria Neeleman said Chris, a self-appointed designated driver for his friends, was prepared for the gospel.

"He stopped drinking completely. He never swore. Everything was so easy to give up," said Neeleman, who is now attending BYU. "Friends would make fun of him and he didn't care."

Unfortunately, there was little time to meet with the missionaries because walk-on tryouts were about to start out in Utah. Fortunately, he became roommates with Robby Tripp, who was preparing to serve an LDS mission. Sciarretta said Tripp and many others influenced him to continue investigating the church.

Following Utah's win over Cal in the Poinsettia Bowl, Sciarretta returned home with the goal of telling his divorced parents he had decided to be baptized.

His father said he was old enough to make his decision, but his mother had a more difficult time.

"She flipped out," Sciarretta said. "But eventually, after a lot of discussion, she changed. She saw that I am a better person. I hope later down the road she might consider going to church."

With his parents' blessing, the only other difficult task for Sciarretta was mustering the courage to knock on Utah football coach Kyle Whittingham's door and invite him to the service. He was a freshman walk-on, after all.

"I was really nervous. This was Coach Whit. But he was awesome. He truly cares about his players," he said.

Sciarretta was baptized on January 17, 2010..

Now 18, Sciarretta is running with the third-string linebackers in Utah's spring drills and pondering the possibility of serving a full-time LDS mission. It will also be a tough topic to bring up with his mother, he said. If he did go, he wouldn't mind serving where his ancestors walked in Italy.

"As I continue to pray about it, it seems right," Sciarretta said. "I truly believe with the gospel so many things are possible. I have never felt happiness like I do when I am going to church or reading the scriptures."

Just Before the Snap of the Ball
Adapted from a Fireside Talk
given by Daniel Neeleman in 2006

Seven years ago my family and I were transplanted from our comfortable easy going lifestyle in Salt Lake City to a place that was far different from anything I had ever experienced.  This place had trees that were tall and numerous, property lines all divided by ancient colonial rock walls.  At the focal point of the town stood a place called God's acre, where five different denominations met in five separate chapels.   And our church was nowhere near this proclaimed holy acre.

Suddenly, our family was under the microscope.  We were the ones that people were curious about, partly for the size of our family but more so by our chosen faith.

Mormonism had already made its mark in this affluent area before the Neeleman's had ever arrived.  In fact, a fair amount of the LDS businessmen that work in Manhattan reside somewhere in our area.  Many are prominent business men and leaders in their chosen professions, but then again, so is everyone else in town.

My father served his mission in the Recife Brazil mission, serving a people that had close to nothing in what the world would consider valuable.  These people learned how to accept the gospel of Jesus Christ.  Their humble lifestyle and caring attitude gave them open hearts and contrite spirits.

So when my father was made the ward mission leader upon arrival in New Canaan, he expected no troubles.  Back to the glory days he thought.  Wrong.  The difference between teaching the gospel to the humble spirits in Brazil was night and day compared to teaching the egos of the rich and the famous.

As a youth in the community, I have had a better chance than anyone to be an example to my friends and their parents as well.  Adults can be stubborn in every aspect of their lives, but if there is a situation involving the welfare of their children, they will always give you their undivided attention.

Just like anywhere in our country, high school kids back east love to get into the party scene, often against their parents will.  When asked not to participate in this renegade behavior, many of my peers will just tell their parents, "Come on Mom and Dad, don't act like you didn't do the same stuff when you were in high school?" And it's absolutely true.

In this case unfortunately, history repeats itself.  Kids of successful parents find no problem with acting in the same manner that their moms and dads did in their early years.

In the weeks preceding the start of this past football season, I thought long and hard about how, as a captain, I wanted to act in order to lead my team to victory. 

Thinking back to previous years, I knew that past captains had worked hard at every opportunity.  I wanted to exhibit that quality.

They had included everyone, no matter what kind of playing ability they possessed, and I knew I should do that as well.

Football is full of egos and testosterone, loud music and cursing.  So my goal was to give something to the team without taking anything away from the game I loved.

After losing our opening game in front of our home crowd, the team was in emotional shambles. They never expected to lose that season. This is where I saw an opportunity.

Calling the team together right there on the field of defeat, we began to talk about what it would take to bounce back and never lose again that season.  Slowly we weaved our way toward what I wanted:  A team Dry Season, which included completly refraining from the use of any drugs or alcohol by all of the team members.

Expecting an all-out mutiny by the team, I was shocked to see that many people agreed with these standards, and were grateful for the opportunity to sacrifice as a team.  The humbling experience of the loss had opened a door that would change our season.

There were those who twisted their faces and rolled their eyes.  I said to them, "I know for a fact there aren't many teams that are strong enough to make this kind of commitment, but I promise you it will give us an edge on our opponent, so do you want to win or not?"

As members of the church, this may not seem to be that big of a deal, but to these guys it was quite something to agree to.  But they wanted to show to the town and the rest of the school that this team was serious and wanted to go places.  Starting with the first day of school, the dry season began and so did our road to success.

All gifts from God are for those who obey his laws.  We were playing better, feeling better, and having fun the whole way.  It's funny how God can find ways to put himself in the center of all types of our different lifestyles.

Before many of our games, especially the big ones, the entire team would attend a morning devotional in one of the appointed churches in the town.  During the course of the season we met in the Congregational, Episcopalian, Roman Catholic, and of course the LDS church.

A clear contrast however could be seen between the devotionals.  In the Catholic and Protestant churches, a priest would lead us in opening prayer, then lead us in opening song, followed by a few words, then he would also close by giving the benediction.

At our church devotionals however, each of the members on the team were given assignments.  One would play the piano, while another would conduct the opening song.  Two others would give the opening and closing prayers and a member of the ward would give the talk.

The team really liked the idea of members of our own team participating in the service.  In fact it fascinated fathers most of all, that boys at age 16 and 17 could play and lead music, give meaningful prayers, and make it look like we've been doing it our whole lives.  Truth being, some of us have.

The week before the State Championship game, I was approached by my Roman Catholic coach who asked me whether our devotional could be held at the Mormon chapel.  "The other church wants to do it at their place but we need to do it at the Mormon Church, that's where the big wins are coming from"  he stated frankly.

"So tell your priest we'll pay the organist, the janitors, the music lady, anything that needs to be done to make it work" "Of course," I replied smiling and explaining that the money wasn't necessary and that I would call the bishop to make the necessary arrangements.

As I walked from his office I couldn't help but think that this man was starting to realize that faith in God gives us confidence and assurance where it is needed.  And the place he wanted to go to feel that peace was our meeting house.  That was a mission experience in itself.  God proved to me that day that people look to him in all situations.

The following morning at 7:00 AM, we congregated in the chapel.  My uncle Steve flew back to witness our team's struggle to the top and also to give the team devotional.  He spoke directly to the players and explained how we would always remember this day no matter what happened.

He closed by telling us of a higher being that all of us have felt in some way during the course of our lives.  And how that supreme figure would never abandon us and would remain in our hearts for as long as we would keep him.  It was a special message.  The silence in the room was incredible.

After the bishop spoke, we sang the closing song which was the Battle Hymn of the Republic.  By the second verse, everyone was getting pretty into it, which I knew was a good sign.

Driving to the game, I said the first of many prayers that I would be giving that day.  This one was a personal prayer; the next would be with my Mormon teammates kneeling in the showers before pre-game.  We then would pray as team by reciting the Lord's Prayer.

I can't tell you how many times just before the snap of the ball I have called upon my Heavenly Father to assist me in the upcoming play.  Often I will say things such as "I will read a whole chapter, no, two chapters tonight, if you help me on this play Heavenly Father."  However, once I make such a promise to him, I carry out my end of the bargain no matter what happens.

Six hours later we were state champs.  There was celebration and tears of exhaustion and happiness. Above the crowd, one chant began to gain volume "Mormon God, Mormon God."  Yes we were state champs, which felt great, but also because of the seeds that were planted in the hearts of these young men.  I am grateful for the opportunity to be a tool in the Lord's hands, and to serve sheep of a different fold. 

Our team's prayers were answered that day, and we defeated a very good football team 53-21 in the CT State Championship Game.  On the trip home, the team spent much of the drive singing the Battle Hymn of the Republic, barely knowing even the chorus but loving every minute of it.

From that season, I have been able to see four of my friends from the team enter into the waters of baptism to make sacred covenants with the Lord.  One boy with his grandmother and two brothers were baptized with their parents in one of the most beautiful baptismal ceremonies I have ever been to.  Three of these boys are now preparing to serve full-time missions and since that 2006 season, the New Canaan football team has won four consecutive state championships.

Daniel Neeleman served in the Brazil Brasilia Mission

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