The connections between BYU football and New York City can be hard to see.
After all, the Cougars’ last game in the state of New York was in 2000 at Syracuse University, and the last roster member to hail from New York City was defensive end Rudy Zander in 1955.
Yet, thanks to coach Kalani Sitake and his More to Life Foundation, the ties between the Big Apple and Provo are growing stronger.
Coach Sitake took a group of current players and coaches to the neighborhood of Harlem April 26 to 30 to talk with local youth about educational opportunities, what it takes to be an athlete and help them see what life can offer them.
“We made a lot of connections with the kids there,” said freshman running back Ula Tolutau.
The group visited two middle schools in Brooklyn, where players and coaches talked and visited with students in assemblies on Friday, April 28.
Coach Sitake notes on the foundation’s website that a similar event from his childhood continues to impact him, and the foundation’s goal is to create more of these transformative moments.
“It was such a beautiful moment, especially with the kids at the middle schools that we got to speak at and getting to know the flow of New York,” Tolutau said.
On Saturday, the team held various activities with the Harlem Jets, a non-profit after-school group based in the city. The Jets’ website states the group’s goal is to help kids remain physically active and motivated through academic enrichment programs, tackle football, cheerleading, basketball and wrestling.
The day included a football clinic about teamwork, skills, focus, growth and mindset; a goal-setting workshop and a service project putting together humanitarian kits for the homeless.
“My favorite part was definitely seeing the kids compete with each other,” Tolutau said. “They were pushing each other and motivating each other.”
— Harlem Jets Inc (@Harlem__Jets) May 1, 2017
The football connection to Harlem itself actually goes back to late coach LaVell Edwards’ time as a public affairs missionary for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints from 2002 to 2003.
Edwards helped coach the Harlem Hellfighters, a high school team named for the 369th Infantry Regiment that fought in World War I.
The team was created after former NFL player Duke Fergerson found out Harlem hadn’t fielded a high school football team in 62 years.
Edwards helped coach the team until his time as a missionary came to an end in 2003.
Fourteen years later, Sitake’s foundation was able to bring BYU football and service back to the area.
“I’m excited about the More to Life Foundation and the opportunity to use this platform for the benefit of others,” Sitake said. “Being able to help people is what charities and serving is all about — it’s about people.”
The event was aimed at the local young people, but it impacted all who were involved.
“You can have an impact on people, and they also have an impact on you,” Sitake said. “I know our coaches and players who were able to participate this past weekend were benefited by those kids in New York while we were there striving to serve and benefit them. It was so cool. I loved seeing how excited everybody got about what we were doing. I loved just being able to see the joy in the kids’ faces.”
After the weekend back east, the players returned to Provo with a renewed appreciation for the things they have in life.
“It definitely humbled us as we were there to think about the opportunities and advantages we have and how grateful we are for the things we have,” Tolutau said.
The More to Life Foundation will host a similar event in Los Angeles on May 27. Additional foundation events will be held in Lehi, Utah, on May 12 and in Dana Point, California, on May 30.