Michael Brandy, Deseret News
Recent convert Chris Sciarretta poses for a picture at the LDS institute building near the University of Utah.

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 Catholic Mass with his family but felt forced into going and, frankly, it was boring.

"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. Before games, the New Canaan Rams would travel 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."

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 High (Salt Lake City) alumnus 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. And he did — 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 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," he said. "This was Coach Whit. But he was awesome. He truly cares about his players."

Sciarretta was baptized Jan. 17.

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 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."