600 strong, BYU athletes are in a service league all their own

By Shaun Stahle

For the Deseret News

Published: Monday, July 14 2014 10:00 a.m. MDT

She went on to explain how her passion to play basketball was abruptly taken from her for nine months after an ACL tear in the knee.

“Here I was,” she said in an emotional voice, “a college athlete who couldn’t do something as simple as bend my knee.” Horrible thoughts haunted her, she said, leaving her to wonder if she’d ever play again.

The young women sat motionless as she shared personal anecdotes of persistence and faith, telling how a teammate’s conversion stemmed from a gospel discussion on a road trip one night.

Surrounded by towering trees as evening temperatures cooled, the three athletes lingered long after the devotional to converse with the young women in small groups.

“I’ve invited athlete speakers before,” said Bryan Korth, a stake priesthood leader at the camp. “They always do a good job. They have a way of touching these kids.”

In another setting, following a weekend youth conference in Las Vegas, a counselor in the stake presidency wrote a letter to express appreciation for the teachings and example of a football player and his wife.

“There are not enough exclamation points to adequately express our gratitude,” he said. “Your efforts to develop men and women of Christ are working." The youths listened intently to Adam and Cassidy Hine as they captivated them with their stories and charming personality as a couple.

“Adam spoke of being the type of flag bearer — like those at BYU football games — who is committed to excellence and embraces virtue.” He described how the couple then took their place as flag bearers in the forefront of the youths to lead them in a march to the Las Vegas Temple. “Adult leaders told me that as a result of the Hines’ comments, many youth were inspired to make the temple a part of their future,” he said.

One of the high-profile outreach programs that BYU student-athletes participate in each year is a health campaign called Cougar Strong.

Last year, more than 12,000 elementary school students in Utah County and points south were encouraged by healthy, well-sculpted athletes to care for their bodies with proper nutrition, sleep and strict avoidance of harmful substances.

Because of a hearty donation by a BYU patron, each student received a T-shirt proclaiming his or her desire to be Cougar Strong. “Teachers tell us that the kids wear the T-shirts with a lot of pride,” Cindy Wakefield said.

“It works,” she said. “These athletes have a great effect on kids.”

In their 11 years of service, the Wakefields have many stories to tell, like when the track team delivered five bicycles to a family with five children on Christmas Eve; or how former quarterback Riley Nelson went well out of his way to befriend a young boy who was raised in an abusive home and struggled to make friends. After spending a few hours with the BYU quarterback during Sports Hero Day, the attitude of the boy changed from defiant to compliant, Cindy said.

Even though they are serving others, it’s the student-athletes who are rewarded the most, Bob Wakefield said. “These are usually returned missionaries who know what it feels like to bless others. They often come to our office begging for opportunities to speak or serve.”

Bryan Kehl, a former BYU linebacker and now NFL player, was always asking to speak. “He was quick to accept any invitation, even when he was out of state on another speaking engagement,” Cindy Wakefield said.

“There is great satisfaction in seeing the growth of these athletes,” Cindy continued. “They arrive as green freshmen but leave polished and disciplined, like the young man who turned around his troubled life by serving others and is now planning a temple marriage.

“For all their opportunities and talents,” Cindy Wakefield said, “BYU athletes don’t display an attitude of entitlement but show appreciation for their scholarships by sharing the blessings they’ve been given,” putting them in a league all their own.

Shaun Stahle is a senior communications specialist for LDS Philanthropies, an entity of the Presiding Bishopric Office that receives donations made to the LDS Church. EMAIL: shaun_stahle@byuy.edu

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