Athletes become heroes for sixth-graders

Elliott Miller
Mitch Matthews points to the end zone in a game against Nevada. Matthews was one of the athletes that spoke to sixth-graders for Sports Hero Day. (Elliott Miller)

BYU’s average age dropped significantly the morning of Jan. 22, as more than 1,200 sixth grade students took over lower campus.

Students came from schools across Utah Valley for Sports Hero Day, an annual event organized by BYU’s Center for Service and Learning. The event provides the opportunity for young kids to meet their athletic heroes and interact with them personally.

Groups of students spent two hours rotating through stations for various sports, including football, volleyball, gymnastics, swim and dive, tennis and more. At each station, BYU athletes talked briefly with the kids about an important sports-related value, then led an activity where the students could play with the members of that team. The sixth-graders ran drills with the football players, learned how to serve with the volleyball team, flipped into the gymnasts’ practice foam pit and shot around with the basketball team, all while learning about the qualities of a hero.

“They taught us about good sportsmanship and that no matter how much you win, you still have to try your hardest,” Canyon Elementary School student Gunner Eyre said.

But the sixth graders weren’t the only beneficiaries of the day’s activities. Parker Dawe, an offensive lineman on the football team, expressed the pleasant surprise of seeing the young students’ abilities and potential.

“We gave a speech about goal-setting, but what was amazing is that you could already tell these little sixth-graders had goals and things they want to work on themselves,” Dawe said.

Chris Crippen, director of the Center for Service and Learning, emphasized that these kinds of interactions are the reason Sports Hero Day exists.

“Sports Hero Day is all about influencing children to come to college and to participate in athletics as a positive way to use their energy and enthusiasm,” Crippen said. “Essentially we want them to identify heroes in their lives that can push them to achieve their goals, and we invite athletes to talk to that point.”

The students returned to the Smith Fieldhouse for a pep rally and assembly after rotating through all the teams’ stations. The cheer team, dunk team and Cougarettes kicked off the show to thunderous applause and cheers from the kids. Cosmo the Cougar began the assembly portion with a speech of his own, thanks to the help of a Cougar translator.

Three student athletes followed Cosmo with speeches similarly focused on the importance of picking strong role models. Anna Richey, one of the captains of the all-girl cheer team, emphasized to the sixth-graders that they can achieve just as much as their heroes through small steps and perseverance. Soccer forward Ashley Hatch and football wide receiver Mitch Mathews then spoke, sharing stories of their own personal heroes.

Thursday’s event was the fourth time Chelsea Fairbourn has volunteered for Sports Hero Day. She explained that her repeated participation derives from the effects she observes in the sixth-graders each year, specifically citing an experience she had her freshman year with one quiet student.

“He was kind of left out from his group, alone, and I watched him as he got to interact with some of the athletes,” Fairbourn said. “As I pushed him to get involved, he totally changed. He came in with such a negative attitude, and he left completely different, so happy and upbeat.”

Despite the athletes’ designation as the heroes on Sports Hero Day, the purpose of the event is to help the sixth-graders understand they can achieve their goals.

“Our hope is that we point them in the direction of positive role models that are local, so they can connect with them in an ongoing process,” Fairbourn said. “My goal is that they recognize their hero and how to be a hero for somebody else.”

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