A simple letter from a father wanting to provide his terminally ill son with an incredible experience grew into a program that has changed the lives of more than 100 families.
In 2005, BYU sophomore and linebacker Markell Staffieri met Andrew Alley, a young boy diagnosed with brain cancer. Alley’s father wrote to the football team, asking if there was any way his son, a Cougar football fan, could attend a game and possibly meet a member of the team; nothing would make his son happier than to shake the hand of one of his heroes.
Coach Bronco Mendenhall granted the boy’s request, and Alley was able to meet the team. The players and coaches were inspired by the boy’s courage in the face of his illness.
“It sparked something in the Mendenhalls,” Staffieri said.
Mendenhall and his wife, Holly, wanted to do something similar for other families in trying circumstances, and the Thursday’s Heroes program was created for that purpose.
The families nominated and chosen for the program attend the football team’s Thursday practice prior to game days and receive gifts from the players. They attend the team meal and team meetings, and are recognized for their strength during the game itself. Both the family and team members feel they benefit from the experience.
After graduating, Staffieri wanted to remain a part of the program that had inspired him during his college years and looked for a way to contribute.
He decided to organize another event to raise funds and support. He had heard of swimmers accomplishing incredible feats of strength and endurance for worthy causes, and he believed that such an expedition would be perfect for the beneficiaries of Thursday’s Heroes.
“I wanted to do something big to attract attention, to symbolize what these kids are going through,” he said.
Staffieri and a group of cyclists mapped out a Hero Ride, which started at LaVell Edwards Stadium and ended at the BYU football game in Boise, Idaho. It was a difficult route, but the participants were motivated by the fortitude shown by the Thursday’s Heroes families during times of adversity.
Over the course of the year, the original participants formed a Thursday’s Heroes Cycling Club to raise awareness for the program and the 2013 Hero Ride. This year’s ride took place this past Saturday, and it was no longer an event for only the most experienced cyclists.
Staffieri’s “brainchild,” as Holly Mendenhall described it, received more support from the community at large in its second year. Around 115 people took part in the ride, with 40 cyclists representing community sponsors.
“We were hoping for a hundred riders,” said Mendenhall, who attended the event with her three young children. “Some people didn’t want to ride and just pay to support it.”
The excitement in the air was high Saturday as the riders took off. Fifteen families honored by Thursday’s Heroes joined the experienced riders in a quick lap of the streets around the stadium. The riders could then take one of several routes around Utah Valley, depending on how far they wanted to travel.
Staffieri believes that allowing the families to participate this year was inspirational for the riders and children. He has noticed that the children who are going through difficult trials often feel like they are treated differently and getting to participate in a bike ride with a large group of people is a fun and normal experience for them. The riders as well appreciate interacting with the children they are supporting.
“It’s as motivating for us to ride by them as it is for them to ride by us,” Staffieri said. “It also makes the children feel like they’re part of the community.”
Mendenhall is pleased with the growth of the program, and the financial support they are receiving from organizations in the community, but she believes the most important aspect of Thursday’s Heroes is still the chance for children to interact with the team and feel like they are part of the BYU football family.
“We want to give them a happy experience,” she said.
Thursday’s Heroes honors the strength of families who do their best to survive despite overwhelming odds, and as the program grows so will the opportunities to aid these families and inspire the community.