Updated: April 12, 2011 at 12:00 am
Stephan Atrice was supposed to be spreading the word of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints during his two-year mission, but he was also searching for his own answers.
Atrice left the Air Force Academy and its football team a little more than two years ago to go on his mission. He hadn’t planned to go on a mission at all. Then his older brother died without any real cause after a boxing match in Atlanta.
Walker Atrice III, a Golden Gloves boxer and former University of Georgia football player, felt winded during a match in March 2008. After the bout was stopped, he still couldn’t catch his breath. He collapsed at the arena and died.
“They didn’t find anything in the autopsy report,” Stephan Atrice said. “There’s no scientific explanation for how he died, or why. I just know he’s not here. Something like that leaves you with a lot of questions – for what reason, what’s the purpose, what should I take from it? It left you in a place of want.”
To that point Atrice wasn’t too involved in religion. He focused on things like getting on the football field for the Falcons.
“I was going to be this really big football star,” said Atrice, who started his career as a safety but spent most of spring practice this year at outside linebacker. “Mission, shmission. I didn’t even think about it.”
Stephan Atrice looked up to his older brother, calling him often for advice on everyday issues, especially as he struggled to adjust to the academy. Atrice was home in Atlanta on spring break when his brother died. There were no warning signs. Walker Atrice III was a good athlete, just 30 years old.
“It was an extraordinary blow to Stephan,” said Walker Atrice Jr., father of Stephan and Walker III.
Football wasn’t as high on Stephan Atrice’s priority list anymore. He had always been involved in things outside of athletics. His father said he was in the Atlanta Boy Choir at age 5, he was always a good student and his parents had him volunteering to paint senior citizens’ houses and mow their lawns when he was young. Stephan Atrice wanted to explore his spirituality. His father saw that his son became more serious about life.
“Stephan knows the journey is not as long as he once thought it would be,” Walker Atrice Jr. said.
The academy has about 100 Mormon cadets, and it allows them to leave school for a mission within their first two years. Atrice’s mission took him primarily to Puerto Rico, but he also traveled to Aruba, Curacao and the Dominican Rebublic. He picked up Spanish and Papiamento, the most common language in the Caribbean islands. He delivered spiritual messages, helped those who needed to be rescued from drug addiction, and even laid the cement foundation for some houses.
“That’s when I knew I wanted to come back to the academy - I knew I didn’t want to do that the rest of my life,” Atrice joked. “But it was a great experience.”
Atrice said people he met in Puerto Rico and Curacao have stayed in touch since he returned to the academy. He thought about football every night during his mission, he said, and stayed in shape by working out during a 30-minute window of free time every day. Football was just a minor diversion during his mission, however. He said the only way he could describe what he felt doing his mission work was to compare it to what he read in the Bible about Jesus Christ.
“I wasn’t curing leprosy or anything like that, but with the struggle and how downtrodden life is, what the savior did is he uplifted people,” Atrice said. “If people were willing to let us uplift them, we did. I can’t describe how many smiles I saw and how many lives I’ve been able to help.”
When he got back to the academy, classes were hard. Teachers looked at him funny when he asked basic questions about topics covered in the fall semester – things that Atrice hadn’t studied in two years. The football adjustment was a challenge too. He said his footwork was a bit slower and the defense didn’t look quite as familiar as he remembered.
Those things are secondary to him. He said he came to peace with his brother’s unexplained death during his mission. He came back with a different focus for his life.
“I believe God put me on this Earth to do something great,” Atrice said. “Before, how I lived my life or being here at the academy, it was, ‘Do whatever it takes to get on the field.’ Now I don’t feel that way. I feel, ‘Do whatever it takes to make a difference.’”