When you see what can be done in your own country to make a difference, it shows just how important that can and should be for our own people here in America. —BYU running backs coach AJ Steward
PROVO — AJ Steward’s brother lived in New York City, and during visits Steward had passed through Harlem but never stopped to soak in the famed cultural capital of black America, just outside the glitz of Manhattan’s elite, until he became a BYU football coach.
Last week when a party of 40 or so BYU football players, coaches, wives and support staff returned to Harlem to conduct a camp for the Harlem Jets youth football program, receiver Micah Simon was genuinely touched when kids remembered him and welcomed him back.
For Steward, Simon and others, the BYU trip to Harlem has become a soul changer for all parties, including the middle-school kids who flock to the clinics staged by head coach Kalani Sitake’s charity. It was an idea hatched by the late LaVell Edwards after he served an LDS Church mission in New York City, and a youth football program, the Harlem Jets, is the beneficiary.
“I had a kid ask me why we didn’t come but once a year,” said Steward, the BYU running backs coach who was among the new coaches participating in this charity work, part of Sitake’s More2Life Foundation. “He was so excited that we’d come back. I had to explain we had school, a lot of practice and had a lot of work to do to improve our football program.
“I’ve never done anything like this in my career,” Steward continued. “At Rice, we did some challenger events for kids with disabilities in Houston, but it was on campus.”
This trip to Harlem blew Steward away.
“It was first class, incredible and seamless as far as how everything was meticulously organized. From a coach’s standpoint, we weren’t as hands-on as players, but to see our guys engage with the middle-school kids, it was impressive to see them make an impact and lasting impression on those kids, as well as our players.
“This was the first time I’ve been to Harlem and experienced the culture there,” said Steward, who said seeing what Sitake has done has inspired him. “I’d like for me and my wife to have a charity someday and get involved like this. I asked myself, ‘What can I do to impact a future generation of players?’ It made you want to give more, reach out. It was so fulfilling to me. I have never been involved with anything remotely like this experience.”
Steward said you see people go to developing nations to help people in need and he’s all for that great service. “But when you see what can be done in your own country to make a difference, it shows just how important that can and should be for our own people here in America.”
Assistant head coach Ed Lamb agreed.
“What Kalani has done with Duane Busby, director of his foundation, is impressive. A lot of the cost to fly and house everyone is out of his own pocket, with help of some sponsors.”
Simon and Trey Dye both went to Harlem a year ago and this time around vowed to make what part they played more organized. They created a PowerPoint presentation with a central theme describing what a growth mindset is as opposed to a fixed mindset.
“A fixed mindset is having things given to you and a growth mindset is all about pushing, working and growing,” Simon explained. It is a theme BYU’s program has adopted this season.
Simon and Dye had 10 stations for which they were responsible. One metaphor they used was to explain the difference between a zoo tiger and a wild tiger: Zoo tigers have everything given to them — food, water, shelter — and they become lazy. A wild tiger has to hunt and work for food and must step up to take care of his own.
“The kids had so much fun and their parents stayed out there with them the whole time, so did their coaches,” said Simon. “It was our only break in between semesters and to see my teammates and coaches and their wives give it up to do this was impressive to me.”
The BYU group stayed at the Renaissance Hotel in Times Square and visited a renowned observatory, the 9/11 Memorial & Museum, and saw the Broadway show “Wicked,” taking several Harlem students with them.
They ate famed New York-style pizza, went to Mighty Quinn's BBQ, and went to Magnolia Bakery for banana pudding.
Lamb said it was not lost on him the powerful image and experience of being in Times Square and the contrast a few blocks away from life in Harlem. “We’re hoping to impact those children but it is also an opportunity to give our players and coaches perspective in life and get back from what they give.”
As a metaphor of sorts, it was also not lost on Lamb the symbolism, of the boxes of Chick-fil-A they handed out to the kids. While Harlem has plenty of fast-food restaurants, there are no Chick-fil-A outlets there. The kids cherished the lunches as a novelty.
This was not lost on BYU’s players, either.
One of those athletes was linebacker Sione Takitaki, a guy who has known his share of challenges growing up and was even suspended from playing football at BYU for a year. Takitaki tweeted out last weekend:
“I wish all of Cougar Nation could see what happened today in Harlem. Not only are we impacting lives, but we’re spreading the gospel through our service and experience. I’m so grateful for the coaches and donors who made this trip possible. Lifelong experience!”
The Harlem Jets certainly got love thrown at them last weekend. But BYU came out the winner.
The experience lit a fire inside them.