BYU Athletes Have Unique Opportunity to Bless Others with Service

Contributed By Jason Swensen, Church News staff writer

  • 10 March 2015

Bob Wakefield, standing at right, has helped coordinate service projects for BYU athletes for more than a decade. The athletes have visited several Utah schools as part of the Cougar Strong project.  Photo courtesy of Bob and Cindy Wakefield.

Article Highlights

  • Bob and Cindy Wakefield have a unique calling, setting up service opportunities for BYU athletes.
  • The athletes love serving, and the Wakefields rarely have trouble finding one to speak at schools or firesides when requested.
  • The service is viewed as a way to give back to the community.

“For many youth, these athletes are heroes, so the athletes feel an obligation to give back to the communities that support them.” —Bob Wakefield 

PROVO, UTAH

The perception of college athletes has taken a hit in recent years. Entitled. Spoiled. Self-centered.

Right or wrong, those are just a few of the labels that are sometimes connected to students who suit up for intercollegiate sports in the United States.

Student athletes at the Church-owned Brigham Young University are challenging those negative notions. When they are not in the classroom, the field, the court, the diamond, or the pool, hundreds of Cougars are serving in their communities. They are giving back—using their talents and sports renown to help others.

Each year, members of BYU’s athletic teams participate in scores of service projects and activities. In the past year alone, athletes have spoken at devotionals, hosted youth clinics in their respective sports, sung hymns to prison inmates, and utilized principles picked up on full-time missions to teach gospel lessons.

In 2014, thousands of elementary, junior high, and high school students in Utah also participated in Cougar Strong assemblies presented by BYU athletes.

T-shirt clad elementary school students cheer following a Cougar Strong assembly presented by BYU student athletes. Photo courtesy of Bob and Cindy Wakefield.

BYU football player Jamaal Williams, holding microphone, and several other athletes spend a few moments with Utah school children during a BYU-sponsored service project. Photo courtesy of Bob and Cindy Wakefield.

BYU swimmer Hayden Palmer has been involved in a variety of service projects and spoke at a high school graduation. Photo by Jason Swensen.

Service projects with local youngsters have helped BYU swimmer Alexandria Sorensen prepare for a future career in education. Photo by Jason Swensen.

“For many youth, these athletes are heroes, so the athletes feel an obligation to give back to the communities that support them,” said Bob Wakefield.

For the past 12 years, Brother Wakefield and his wife, Cindy, have served as full-time service representatives in the BYU athletic department. It’s not a job—it’s a calling. They are volunteers set apart to help Cougar athletes know the joy of service.

Stakes, schools, and youth groups often contact the Wakefields and ask for a Cougar athlete or two to participate in their devotional or event. They accommodate any reasonable request, and they never have trouble finding an athlete.

The athletes love to serve, said Brother Wakefield.

“Often an athlete will come to us and ask, ‘Do you have any service projects? I need some blessings.’”

The school’s key service project is the Cougar Strong program, where athletes travel to area schools and stage assemblies. At each event, the young students are challenged to be physically, mentally, and socially Cougar Strong.

Many athletes say they have learned the great paradox of service: the more you give, the more you get back.

“As BYU athletes, we have a unique opportunity because a lot of people look up to us,” said Robin Pfister, a sophomore tennis player from Sydney, Australia. “We can make a difference in people’s lives.”

Adam Hine is a running back on the football team, a husband, and a returned missionary. He and his wife, Cassidy, are frequently enlisted to speak at youth devotionals.

“If we can say a few things that benefit people, then it’s all worth it,” he said.

The young fans, of course, love to hear tales from the gridiron, but Adam also includes in each talk gospel principles that he learned in the mission field.

Russell Tialavea is a former Cougar football player who now works with athletes at the school. Giving service helped Russell overcome some of his own early struggles at BYU. Service also helped prepare him for his mission to Chile.

“You come to realize you can have a big impact in others’ lives,” he said.

The BYU athlete service projects have given unimaginable opportunities to senior swimmer Hayden Palmer. “I was even able to speak at a high school graduation,” he said.

Fellow swimmer Alexandria Sorensen added she is grateful for each service project she’s asked to help with. The Texas native plans to be a schoolteacher. Working with young people in the community is preparing her for a future career.

“I feel so blessed to be here, so I feel it’s important that I give something back and serve,” she said.