January 19th began as an ordinary day on BYU campus. The skies were overcast and gray, with busy students shouldering heavy backpacks hurrying to class to begin their days. The early morning scene on campus holds a quiet reverence, as everything from sleepy students, to awakening buildings stir out of the quiet predawn slumber. However, the morning quiet was broken as busses full of local 6th graders started unloading masses of children who are bursting with enthusiasm this day to get a glimpse of their “heroes.” Revered names begin to drop from their lips as they start guessing who they’ll see. Kyle Van Noy, Riley Nelson, Brandon Davies, “Juice” Quezada, Futi Tavana, Cody Hoffman, or Charles Abouo are among those mentioned most.
You see, for this one day, these kids have left familiar surroundings and come hoping for more. I know some of their situations, the broken homes, the unemployed parents, and especially the mean spirited comments of their peers. This is the age that they notice examples. They see good and bad examples each day in their life, and from them they take bits and pieces that become the fabric that forms their lives. For this day, they get to escape the fear of what they look like, what they say, and the confusion of who they are, and meet what they perceive as “perfect” people.
I get to work with the athletes at BYU in my job. I know they are not perfect. I know they have their own challenges, their own fears, and mean comments that come from a passionate fan base. I know they are trying to figure out their futures and form their identities also. There are striking physical differences, yet subtle similarities between the two groups who are coming together on this day.
I’m touched as I see the teams going to their assigned locations. The swim/dive team is in the pool, showing the kids their remarkable skills, but taking time to teach about hard work. The volleyball team begins to navigate around a court filled with kids and wayward balls, yet getting their attention to talk about sportsmanship. Football players have tackling dummies, and other kids running pass routes, but still they teach about perseverance overcoming adversity. The tracks, pools, gyms, and courts today become about education, not athletic performance.
And as autographed items are filled, expectations are exceeded, and admiration swells, I feel happy. I see the kids catch the vision of being great in life, of being heroes in school, friendships, and family. I see the athletes leave behind the pressure of practices, school, and competition as they enjoy the energy of the kids. For one day, the frustrations and fears of life are superseded by the sweet spirit of service that hopefully will influence both the kids and athletes in future decisions and adversities.
James Lark gives an amazing talk along with Riley Nelson to the group. Their words are inspiring, their examples admirable. Yet, the stories that they don’t share of tremendous determination and dedication make their message resonate more with me. That they compete for the same position and playing time on a daily basis, yet support and help each other so much is a powerful message. Riley shares how when he was asked to play defense, that James was his biggest support to pursue his dream at quarterback touches me. I learn competition to be great is what these men have learned, not competition to defeat your competition.
Christie Carpenter, Charles Abouo, Brock Zylstra, Kyle Van Noy, Ross Apo, Taylor Woodward, Whitney Wonnacott, Futi Tavana, and so many other outstanding athletes deliver their messages through words and example throughout the day. As they talk about greatness, they demonstrate greatness. For me today, I understand even more what a true hero is, and the power they control. I realize that athletics is not a destination, but an force to elevate people in their individual journeys. I’m grateful that imperfect student athletes today become a little better through serving, that BYU student volunteer group leaders are heroes today, and 1000 6th graders become a little stronger in their resolve to be their best. I realize that we all need heroes, opportunities to draw from positive aspects from others and we struggle to overcome our weaknesses.