Latter-day Saint who taught missionary lessons in Japan now patrolling the Air Force backfield on the gridiron

There’s no obvious connection between sacking your rival’s quarterback during a nationally televised college football game and humbly sharing the gospel’s message with a missionary investigator in Japan.

But Air Force Academy football player and returned missionary Ethan Erickson is spiritually mature enough to spot a relation. 

On the gridiron and in the mission field, he observed, “results may not come as fast as you may want.

“But later on, you can look back and see the true impact and magnitude of the things that you have done.”

Erickson will be key to Air Force realizing its desired football results in 2021: First, claiming the Mountain West Conference title; and second, reclaiming the Commander-in-Chief Trophy awarded to the country’s top service academy.

“This could be a great year for us,” he told the Church News. “Individually, I’m just trying to get better each day, improve week to week and be the best football player I can be for my senior year.”

The Falcons are 2-1 through three games — including a memorable win against Navy on the 20th anniversary of 9/11. 

A defensive back from South Jordan, Utah, Erickson is one of the team’s leading tacklers. He is also a mentor, especially for younger players still making the daunting dual adjustment to college football and military life.

U.S. Air Force Academy cadet Ethan Erickson is a returned missionary and a key defensive player on the Falcon football team.
U.S. Air Force Academy cadet Ethan Erickson is a returned missionary and a key defensive player on the Falcon football team. Credit: Photo provided by the U.S. Air Force Academy

“[Ethan’s] just gotten better every single year,” Air Force Coach Troy Calhoun told the Colorado Springs Gazette. “Freshman year he was solid. His sophomore year, you could see he really, really started making strides and getting back in the groove of playing football. Helped last year a bunch. Will help this year a bunch, too, in both a nickel and a safety spot.”

The future Air Force officer’s path to his final year of football has followed an unconventional path — at least at the Academy.

After graduating from South Jordan’s Bingham High School, Erickson opted to answer a call to the Japan Kobe Mission instead of spending a year or two playing and studying at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colorado.

“Serving a mission was something I really wanted to do, and I didn’t want anything to come up that would change my mind,” he said. “I also wanted to have four consecutive years at the academy without any distractions.”

As both a football player and an academy cadet/future officer, Erickson is grateful he will compete, graduate and commission with the same group of guys he endured basic cadet training with as an incoming freshman.

Erickson is several years removed from full-time missionary service, but he still draws upon the life-changing memories made wearing a young elder’s white shirt and tie in Japan.

“Just being able to share my beliefs and experiences — and then watch others grow in the gospel — solidified my own beliefs. My mission helped me grow closer to my Savior.”

Ethan Erickson served in the Japan Kobe Mission. The Utah native is now key contributor on the 2021 Air Force Academy football team.
Ethan Erickson served in the Japan Kobe Mission. The Utah native is now key contributor on the 2021 Air Force Academy football team. Credit: Photo provided by Lory Erickson

Learning Japanese was tough, but Erickson relied upon the same people he was teaching for informal “tutoring.”

“There were so many people who were willing to help me out.”

Many of the Japanese people, he added, taught him lasting lessons of grace and thankfulness. “They taught me to be grateful for everything, whether it is a trial or a blessing. I’ve learned you can take everything in stride and be grateful for the journey.”

Erickson reported to the Air Force Academy three weeks after returning home from Japan. His transition marked a dramatic change.

“To go from a completely spiritual environment to basic training seemed like going to opposite ends of the spectrum. It wasn’t easy, but it helped me grow. The lessons I learned on my mission helped me overcome those obstacles and to have the fortitude to make it through.”

As a football player, Erickson admits it took him over a year to return to pre-mission form. He gives props to patient coaches and teammates who knew his potential and desire.

He is also thankful to be part of the Academy’s small but close-knit Latter-day Saint community. Gathering with his friends and the military relations missionaries for weekly family home evenings and institute classes uplift him during challenging periods. They are also opportunities for the returned missionary to again share his beliefs with others. 

“We try to support each other and set a good example for others,” he said.

Air Force Falcon Ethan Erickson takes the field prior to Sept. 11, 2021, game against the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland.
Air Force Falcon Ethan Erickson takes the field prior to Sept. 11, 2021, game against the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland. Credit: Photo provided by Ethan Erickson

On Sundays, Erickson and his fellow Latter-day Saint cadets worship with other young single adults in Colorado Springs-area wards near the academy.

Beyond football, the 2021-22 academic year at the academy will be memorable for Erickson. He will be commissioned a second lieutenant in May and hopes to become an Air Force operations research analyst. He also plans to attend graduate school and increase his Japanese language skills.

“It’s an exciting time.”