The life of both missionaries and athletes are often described as battlegrounds. For Anthony Vercollone, a Marine Corps 1st Lt. combat engineer and former FOCUS missionary, his time with FOCUS and his experience as a college athlete truly prepared him for a physical and spiritual battle.
One of eleven children in a family of athletes, Vercollone became a three-sport athlete at St. Anselm’s College—soccer being his primary sport. “We’re all very competitive,” he said. “It helps to drive each other to be better soccer players and better at what we do.”
His brother, Luke, became a student-athlete at Seton Hall and was involved in Varsity Catholic, FOCUS’ outreach to college athletes. It was there that Vercollone learned about FOCUS, and applied to become a missionary with Varsity Catholic. Despite his previous commitment to the Marines, Vercollone was allowed to postpone his commissioning for missionary work.
His Varsity Catholic mission led him to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, one which he described as being “as challenging as one of the most challenging years in the Marine Corps.”
“I was expecting one thing and got a totally different thing. It was hard, in the fact you’re shooting in the dark like you’re trying to hit a knuckleball. You didn’t know what was going to happen. You take a swing and miss a lot of times, but sometimes you hit it out of the park.”
Vercollone returned to the Marines in 2009, and during his first tour in Afghanistan, his faith was tested as he struggled with the death of one of his soldiers.
“My solemn prayer beforehand was that none of my men would be lost, that if anyone was going to go that it would be me,” said Vercollone.
A week before Christmas, Vercollone was notified that one of his men had lost both his legs after stepping on an IED. “I was praying, ‘God keep him alive,’ and was sure God was going to take care of him and that he’d be alright,” said Vercollone. “They told me he didn’t make it, and I was very distraught.” At that point, he wanted to reject God for not answering a big prayer. “I didn’t have time, though, and said ‘alright God, I’ll have to trust you,’” said Vercollone. “I just remember a lot of grace being poured in. It’s hard to explain, but you have to trust that God knows what He’s doing. You can say it, but more than anything I’ve been put to the test on putting my words into action.”
Now back from his second tour in Afghanistan, Vercollone is stationed at Camp Pendleton in Carlsbad, Calif., and still playing soccer. He calls the Catholic faith the “keel of his ship.”
“The keel keeps the ship balanced. It will prevent you from flipping or turn you back over when you do.” Vercollone said it was hard to go to Mass regularly while deployed, and so he supplemented his prayer life with the rosary and reading. “It’s been a faith journey,” Vercollone said. “It’s never perfect, but [just like sailing] you never get perfect conditions.”
The most stable habit Vercollone has found for his faith life is going to Mass on Sundays and regular confession. “You almost want to put faith life to the back burner and say, ‘come on God, I’m working hard here.’ It’s rewarding and it’s hard. It’s a lot different than when I was a missionary,” he said.
“You’re going to be constantly reminded of your humanity. So get ready for it! Don’t stray too far. You don’t want to be hanging on the edge when your ship falls over. You want to be on the middle so when your ship gets righted you’re still on board. Stay close to Mary – she’ll keep you on board.”
Vercollone has found that the most effective way to evangelize as a Marine is to work hard and be a model of good leadership. “I don’t have to preach. I’m not trying to win, simply trying to do my best. You never know what’s going to come up just by doing your job and trying to live out the faith…and I say trying.” He said that he is still learning how to live out his faith well. “I was going through conversion as a missionary and still am now. As a missionary, I had a lot of learning to do—about my faith and myself, making faith more a part of me and understanding why I wanted to do that. You do it because it’s true and beautiful.”
Vercollone stressed how important it is to get involved after college or after serving as a missionary. “As far as faith life…get ready to work. You had it given to you…now you have to go look for it. You have to go out and make it on your own – be involved or start something,” he said. “Your faith is the most important thing. They even say it in the Marine Corps – ‘God, Country, and Corps.’ You take care of number one and the rest should fall into place. FOCUS taught me the importance of making God number one.”