Last Thursday began as a damp and chilly morning, but the air on campus was electrified with the excitement of nearly 1,000 sixth graders who came to see and hear from their sports heroes.
The BYU Center for Service and Learning teamed up with BYU athletes and student volunteers to host the annual ‘Sports Hero Day’ on Jan. 19. During those two and a half hours, sixth graders from various elementary schools in Utah County visited BYU sports athletes, while listening to their pep talks and playing simple sports games with them.
“Now, what are some important things that we need in basketball?” asked Brock Zylstra, a BYU men’s basketball shooting guard, surrounded by young basketball fans in a Richards Building basketball court.
When one sixth grader quickly answered “team work,” Zylstra asked him why. The student hesitated for a moment and said because if players don’t work together they would not win. Complimenting the student, Zylstra related team work to working together in school. After a few minutes of playing basketball, lots of students asked Zylstra and other players to take pictures with them or sign autographs on their T-shirts.
Rachel Anderson, a teacher at Aspen elementary school who accompanied her students here last year as well, said she wished the stations were little longer.
“The kids love it,” Anderson said. “They have so much fun, they love seeing the athletes and doing things with them, especially relay races that kind of stuff. It’s really enjoyable.”
At noon, the young students gathered in the main court in the Smith Fieldhouse, where Cosmo and BYU cheerleaders welcomed them. Soon some of the most famous BYU players, including Charles Abouo and Riley Nelson, came forward and gave short, but powerful speeches. The court was filled with the student’s ecstatic shouts.
“When you have goals, you have a vision of where you want to go,” Abouo said. “I want to challenge you guys to find out what you’re interested in, to set goals for yourself, and to write it down. So when you have some peer pressure from kids that want you to get into things you shouldn’t be doing, you know where you are going and you know you don’t want to give that up.”
This special day would also not have been possible without many BYU student volunteers. Meredith Gaufin, a BYU student majoring in neuroscience as well as Miss Provo 2011, was one of them.
“I love the ending where [the speakers] talked about service,” Gaufin said. “As Miss Provo, my platform is actually titled ‘HERO,’ which stands for ‘helping everyone reach out,’ which explains to people that you don’t need super powers to be a super hero, all you have to do is serve.”
Casey Peterson, director of the BYU Center for Service and Learning, has been running the program for four years. He got the idea while talking with his wife, who attended a lecture on child development at BYU Education Week. It talked about ‘Hero stage,’ a crucial period when fifth and sixth graders find their own role models and desire to be like them.
“What a neat opportunity [it is] for the kids who are looking at their heroes to hear good messages from them,” Peterson said, “not just to hear, ‘this is how you play basketball better, this is how you play football better,’ but to hear ‘this is how you study better, this is how you work harder, this is how you are a better teammate.'”