BYU football players and staff visit the Harlem Jets, a youth, non-profit organization in New York. (Trey Dye/Jenae Hyde)

BYU football players visit Harlem Jets for mentorship program

Harlem — BYU football head coach Kalani Sitake wanted to provide his team with service outlets outside of BYU athletics, so former BYU director of football operations Duane Busby helped Sitake create the More2Life Foundation in fall 2016.

The Harlem Jets

The More2Life Foundation began its partnership with the Harlem Jets, a Harlem-based non-profit youth sports organization, in 2017 — the first year the foundation made a trip to Harlem. They have continued to work with the Harlem Jets football program every summer since. 

The Harlem Jets organization was founded by Harlem-native Jamel Wright, who grew up in apartments adjacent to the Jets’ current practice field. Initially, the Harlem Jets only offered football, but they eventually added baseball and basketball programs, as well as cheerleading and wrestling.

“Football is a physically demanding sport that requires you to be tough and embrace contact and all of that,” Wright said. “Not every kid wants to do that, so then you come up with baseball and other sports that will enable them to be a part of the program.” 

Wright came up with the idea to start the Harlem Jets about 15 years ago after driving past another program’s football practice with his then 9-year-old son, Jamel Wright Jr., who was interested in playing. Jamel Jr. was not old enough to play at the time but joined the following year. 

“We came out, we played and we thought that it was okay, but we felt like there was a lot more that could be done to provide the service to the kids,” Wright said. “So, we decided to create our own program, and therein lies the Harlem Jets.”

Letitia Hodges, the mother of a first season Harlem Jets player, said she has seen the program grow during the time they have been involved and that she recruits all of her friends’ children to join.

“It’s a community program, so it builds the community. It gives them something to do; it gives them something positive to be a part of and just to build bonds and friendships with other like-minded children,” Hodges said. 

Wright explained that there were only two football teams before the Harlem Jets, one in East Harlem and the other in upper West Harlem that children who attended certain schools in those areas could join. 

Since there were only two teams for the entire community, it was hard for every kid to make the cut. That is why Wright wanted to create the Harlem Jets. He hoped to give more kids an opportunity to play.

Because of the limited football opportunities in the area, the Harlem Jets are made up of older, high-school-age groups in addition to middle school and elementary-aged groups.  

“We have never cut a kid,” Wright said. “A lot of kids have cut themselves by not showing up or by not giving us their best efforts, but we have actually never cut a kid. All that is really required is that you come and give us your best effort.”

The Harlem Jets staff is made up of approximately 36 volunteers, which includes Wright, who works full time for the New York City Transit Authority. In addition to this job, Wright said he dedicates around 50 hours per week to the Harlem Jets.

He said these hours come from practice three times a week, office hours, games and school visits. The staff focuses their time on building the kids not only athletically, but as people and students as well. 

The Harlem Jets slogan is seen on the outside of their van. (Jenae Hyde)

“We have a slogan: Jets equal total success. That’s ‘Jets’ phonetically. The total success is you’re doing well academically, socially and then obviously athletically,” Wright said.

The Harlem Jets require progress reports from their athletes and offer ACT and SAT prep, mentoring services, life-skills enrichment, preparatory and private school placement advice and counseling in order to make sure the kids are succeeding at home and in the classroom.

Wright said kids are required to do well academically in order to participate, but acknowledged they understand not every kid is a straight-A student.

“Our goal is to meet you where you’re at and help you get to the next level,” Wright said. “Then, when you’ve gotten to that level, get to the next level. … You have to just understand that when you feel a kid is giving you their best effort, then you have to accept that, but you still push them.”

Another goal of the Harlem Jets, and the reason why they emphasize academics, is to teach their kids that there is more to life than sports. Wright said the relationship between the Harlem Jets and the More2Life Foundation was organic from the beginning because they share the same vision. He called the two organizations “a perfect match.”

“When you say More2Life, that’s how we promote it to our kids: there’s absolutely more to life than sports,” Wright said. “If you don’t do well academically and get that piece done, then you minimize other opportunities in life.”

With hopes of assisting their athletes in gaining a higher education, whether it’s through private schools, prep schools or even college, Wright said the Harlem Jets appreciate BYU football players’ examples.  

Harlem Jets and More2Life Event

A select group of BYU Football players and staff recently held their third annual event with the Harlem Jets. At the June 22 event, players were paired off with kids ranging from 5 to 14 years old to rotate through 10 different activity stations meant to facilitate fun and build life skills like teamwork, communication and service. The stations included activities like setting one-word goals, assembling hospital care bags for kids, using tinker toys to try and build the tallest tower, playing dodgeball and more.

BYU defensive back Troy Warner said the stations combined traditional football skills with important life skills. For instance, at coach Ed Lamb’s station, players participated in speed and space drills while also learning how to properly shake hands.

“It’s just the little things like that that we feel like are important and that’ll help shape these kids into being better men one day,” Warner said.

BYU wide receiver Micah Simon said the event is something the kids look forward to all year. He said the kids’ excitement to spend the day with the players and the players’ opportunity to spend time with them is the main purpose of the event.

“That’s what this is all about,” Simon said. “The opportunity we give them to just have a day where they can be with some people that maybe they relate to a little bit more and just give them an opportunity and a platform to just kind of be open with us and hang out with them for a few hours. That’s the best thing.”

Wright said the event provides the kids an opportunity to interact with individuals who are proficient in the field that they are currently working in and to realize that if they apply themselves, they can one day be in a position like the BYU players.

“You realize that this is a regular person,” Wright said about the kids’ thought process throughout the event. “Although some of them are really big, this is a regular person, and I can achieve what they were able to achieve because they’re just like I am. They are no different than I am.”

On top of the undeniable fun that is had at the event, the impression that the BYU players leave on the locals is ever-present. 

Nelson Jimenez was born in Brooklyn, grew up in the Bronx and currently lives in Manhattan. He is the father of a Harlem Jets cheerleader and football player and said the work that BYU players are doing with the Harlem Jets shows their goodwill.

New York native Nelson Jimenez stands with his daughter and son who participate in the Harlem Jets’ youth programs. (Jenae Hyde)

“This goes a long way because why can’t it be one of our schools from New York coming down?” Jimenez asked. “The commitment alone from BYU is impressive. I’m sure this is something they’re not getting paid to do, and just to come down here and reach out to the kids in Harlem is great. It’s a good thing.”

Murray Allen, the grandfather of a first-year Harlem Jet, said he and his grandson researched BYU the night before the event. He said they watched videos about BYU and the players and discovered the beliefs of the school and players.

He said they believe in a lot of humanitarian efforts and found that BYU did as well, which led him to want to attend the event.

“It’s just really a great, great opportunity for (the players) to be here, and we’re really enjoying exactly what’s going on here in the community,” Allen said.

Chris Diaz and Brennen Pressley, both Harlem Jets, said one of their favorite parts of the day was having Chick-Fil-A for lunch.

Providing Chick-Fil-A for lunch has become a More2Life tradition. One of Simon’s favorite More2Life memories is from their first year traveling to Harlem.

Simon said in that first year, they coordinated with the Harlem Jets coaches, but they wanted to leave some things a surprise. He said they had Chick-Fil-A catered, and as they carried in the boxes, the kids became so excited. 

BYU’s Talon Shumway talks with a Harlem Jet during lunch. More2Life catered Chick-Fil-A to the event. (Jenae Hyde)

Simon said kids began commenting on how they had never had it and would sometimes drive past it and had always wanted to try it. He recalled that moment touching his heart and the hearts of other players and More2Life volunteers.

“Nobody really said anything,” Simon said. “We all just kind of looked at each other and were just like, ‘Wow, we have it good. We can just go to Chick-Fil-A whenever we want, but these kids may not have the money or they can’t get there.’ … It was pretty amazing to see how something so small could really make them happy and feel like they’re worth something in life.”

Another highlight of the event and one of both Simon and Warner’s favorite parts every year is the dance competition. Toward the end of the event, the players, kids and coaches gather in a giant circle as music blasts and people enter the center to show off their moves.

“Those kids were dancing all day with the music, but at the end, they really put on a show for us, which was great to see,” Simon said while laughing.

The event concluded with catered Ben and Jerry’s ice cream for everyone in attendance as well as tables full of BYU and More2Life themed t-shirts made by BYU players in the More2Life office prior to the trip.

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