Justin Anderson’s family and friends crowded around him in his childhood home in Las Vegas. The rooms filled with excitement and nerves as Anderson, a senior in high school at the time, gripped the letter dictating where he’d spend the next few years of his life.
It wouldn’t be Chapel Hill, N.C., where, just a year prior, Anderson signed his national letter of intent to play lacrosse for coach Joe Breschi and the North Carolina Tarheels in the same home with the same family and friends circling around him.
Anderson, a Centennial (Nev.) High School Class of 2014 graduate, was a highly touted lacrosse recruit from his freshman year, back when coaches could talk to players from a younger age, concluding his high school tenure with 632 points, including 412 goals.
But before Anderson took his lacrosse career to the next level, he’d make a two-year, life-changing pitstop, maybe in Japan, Korea, Brazil or Missouri like his five older brothers.
Those were the only words Anderson needed to see when he ripped into the envelope. It’s where he would spend the next pair of years, from 2014-2016, serving his mission for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, commonly referred to as the Mormon church. His Division I lacrosse career would have to wait until the fall of 2016 when he’d enroll at UNC as a 20-year-old true freshman.
“I’m a huge believer in kids following their faith,” Breschi said. “I’m never going to keep a young man from following his faith or dream of going on a mission, there was no exception with Justin.”
Concepción is a city in central Chile, about 300 miles south of Santiago, with a population of nearly 220,000 people. There, Anderson wouldn’t get to speak with his family regularly, scroll through social media or shoot on a lacrosse net. He would “put his life on hold to serve God, help other people and find other people to bring into the church,” as Anderson said.
He’d also redefine the expectations set for him.
“Truthfully, I was doing it because my older siblings went on a mission so I thought that would be the right thing to do,” Anderson said.
But the meaning of “right” needed a rebuild, and Anderson – whether he knew it or not – quickly got to laying bricks upon his arrival in Chile.
After a six-week stint at the missionary training center in Mexico City, Anderson chased his faith to Chile, and his full understanding of Spanish followed nearly eight months later. On most days of his mission, Anderson and his companion, who was his assigned partner with slightly more experience in the area, would trek through neighborhoods and knock on doors, hoping to spread the teachings of their church with the locals. One day, the two were walking through Andalién – a small town in Chile, about six miles northeast of Concepción – in the pouring rain, hoping someone would let them in even if it were just to dry off.
A woman named Maria, who Anderson guessed to be in her 60s, let them into her home. The woman told Anderson she was busy and didn’t have time for him that day, but if he and his companion came back another day, she’d hear them out.
They did just that. On their second time around, Anderson and his companion properly acquainted themselves with the woman and her daughter, Ximena, who Anderson said was in her early 40s, and who they learned had an aggressive form of cancer. Anderson invited them both to come to church and be baptized, promising them if they did, they’d see new blessings in their life.
“They started to come to church regularly and eventually became members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints,” Anderson said. “For a time, that cancer Ximena had, after chemo, was gone. It was gone for a very long time.”
Unfortunately, a very long time doesn’t last forever. Ximena was diagnosed with a new, different type of cancer, one Anderson couldn’t recall, and died from it in August of 2020. But Maria reached out to Anderson as recently as a year ago.
“She thanked me for everything we did for her family and her daughter,” he said. “The love and thanks that she had in her heart for us spending so much time with them during that period was something she’ll never forget. While it’s super sad and it’s a very sad situation that her daughter ended up passing away, to see that we had made a difference in that family for so long, it was just amazing.”
It was right.
Construction was complete. To Anderson, from living in and learning from the Chilean people, doing what was right grew to equate to doing what was “morally correct.” It was leaving expectations aside and leading with love.
“People have asked me if I’ve seen miracles on my mission, and yes, I’ve seen miracles, but the biggest miracle you could ever see is a change of heart,” Anderson said. “To have someone listen to your message about Jesus Christ and keeping the commandments and doing what is right in this life, everything changes with them. It’s not only things in their life that change and get better, but their countenance, how they appear and the light in their life. I changed as well. My life was changed for the better just for going on a mission and helping and serving the people there.”
Growing closer to God alongside Maria and Ximena – people who fed him, took care of him and who he came to learn everything about – assured Anderson that Chile was just where he needed to be and that freezing his future in the United States was the right thing to do. Coming back to the U.S., when he was still dreaming in Spanish, however, was tough. But as far as lacrosse went?
“It was like riding a bike,” Breschi said.
“You don’t forget how to ride a bike,” Anderson said.
Anderson enrolled at UNC in the fall of 2016. As a freshman, he played in all 16 games, starting 14 of them on the first midfield line. He went on to captain UNC for the three-straight seasons. Over his collegiate career, from the 2017-2021 seasons, including the extra season of eligibility granted to athletes during COVID-19, he played 65 games, scoring 83 goals and posting 31 assists. In his final season in 2021, Anderson scored a hat trick when UNC ousted Rutgers 12-11 to advance to the Final Four, and he did nearly a week after having his first child, Scarlett, with his wife Priscilla.
UNC would lose to Virginia, 12-11, in the 2021 NCAA Semifinals. Nearly eight years after Anderson committed himself to the Tarheels, his time with them was officially over.
His career, however, was far from it.
One month before the semifinals, Chrome LC selected Anderson with the 20th pick in the 2021 College Draft. In a 2022 breakout season, Anderson scored 16 points (14G, 1T) while being one of the most “open and approachable” teammates, said Chrome attackman Dylan Molloy.
“We talk a lot about the word ‘love’ at UNC. Justin was the epitome of what love is all about…” Breschi said. “We would hug almost every day. We’d tell each other we loved one another. That was a common thing. It was not out of character. Justin would tell his teammates he loved them.”
“I look at [my teammates] as though they are my brothers,” Anderson said. “We are a family. Some of us may have our differences and different personalities, but each person was important as a player on the field and off of it. For me, it was making sure the guys knew I loved them. I tried my best to get to know them and set a good example, to lead by example. If you’re trying to hold somebody to a high standard, you need to hold yourself to a high standard. That’s how I modeled my captaincy at UNC but also my mission. To lead by example, do the right things and hopefully, others will follow.”