Next time you see Gordon Hayward flush a dunk or hit a shot, look closely for the gray wristband he wears. He wants you to see it. He specifically wants young people to see it. Etched in yellow letters against the gray are the words: “Eyes up — do the work.”
That’s the credo of a movement, started here in Utah, known as Especially for Athletes. It’s a program for kids involved in sports, but it extends to many others.
Hayden Borg, a 15-year-old freshman quarterback and guard on Corner Canyon High School’s football and basketball teams, who heard Hayward speak about E4A, wears the same wristband, as do a couple of thousand other kids, most in Utah, but also in other western states. It reminds him, he says, of the commitments he’s made simply to try to fulfill his potential as an athlete and to be a decent person.
“When I look down and see the band, I remember to try to put a smile on other people’s faces, to try to make a difference in other people’s lives,” he says. “It means you always look for people to help, not just thinking about it, but doing it.”
Before cynics dismiss that as intrusive or hokey or self-righteous, hear Hayden out.
“I just try to make new friends at school,” he says. “I look for someone who is sitting alone and go talk to them. I try to brighten someone’s day. I try to do the work in my sports, but also as a student, in my family, and try to help others for the better.”
Jadon Johnson, senior middle linebacker and captain of Alta High’s football team, wears the same band and attempts to do the same things.
“I took an oath to keep my eyes up, to look for opportunities to do things above athletics,” he says. “To stop bullying at school, to help classmates, to talk to other kids. I got to know a 15-year-old boy at school named Michael. He didn’t have a lot of friends. Some of the players went out of their way to get to know him, to sit by him. He totally changed. He started coming to our games. Now, he knows all the guys on the football and basketball teams.”
Johnson sees himself not as any kind of hero, just as an 18-year-old who has attempted to do the best he could at football, and also reach through sports to be engaged, to be kind, to be a friend to others who might need it. The Hawks had what for them was a disappointing season — they finished at 6-5 — but Johnson says the Especially for Athletes program, which was adopted by most of the team, helped players round out who they are.
“We feel like we’re making memories,” he says, “that we can keep forever.”
Especially for Athletes was developed by Dustin Smith, a coach who lives in Cedar Hills and works with Ty Detmer, putting on quarterback clinics. He said the idea came to him while watching some athletes misuse or abuse the higher profile sports gave them. Those kids were egocentric, boorish, entitled.
“I saw parents spending all their money on how to throw a football or how to hit a tennis ball, but nobody was teaching these kids how to handle the attention that comes with athletic success. A kid can become kind of a rock star and it can lead to foolish behavior. When athletes do good things, the difference they can make can change lives.”
Smith, who co-wrote a book with the same title as the program, highlighted basic principles for athletes on and off the field to which they adhere, things such as “competing without contempt” — “There’s no reason to hate the other guy because he’s wearing a different uniform,” he says — and “becoming your best” and “seeking to bless, not impress.”
His push includes hints of religion, but in a mild, general sense, and is more complicated than the aforementioned tenets. Still, Smith’s program can be compacted into two sentences: Do the best you can at everything you do. Be aware of those around you who might be struggling.
“There are 160,000 kids who skip school every day because they’re afraid they’re going to be bullied,” he says.
Smith encourages young athletes to use what he calls their “sport light” — the cachet they gain as athletes — to help others feel more accepted, more welcomed, more valued at their schools, and to help themselves gain perspective.
“People are screaming for athletes to stop pounding their chests,” he says. “Especially for Athletes helps them to use their talents to help others. They are given an extra level of attention for a short time. They can help others and save lives.”
American Fork High uses E4A as a part of a comprehensive program among athletes at the school to build character because, as athletic director Joe Atwood puts it, “that’s one of the things sports is supposed to do.”
“We’re doing some good things at the school, but none of us is as good as we want to be,” he says. “It helps the kids remember to do the things they should be doing. They watch some videos, go to some training, handle problems like bullying. They make some personal goals and commit to doing good things — practice hard, play hard, try to get a 4.0, look for students who are struggling, include other students in social groups, sit next to people they don’t know. And they wear the wristband to remember to go out and be a force for good.”
Like Hayward, Detmer, the former BYU and NFL quarterback who is now a high school football coach in Texas, embraces and endorses E4A.
“We talk to kids about how they can be a good person and a good athlete,” he says. “Maybe other kids look up to them and athletes can use their ‘sport lights’ to make others feel good about themselves, to feel included. They can do little things that might be important to someone else. As an athlete you can be a good guy. You don’t have to have a big ego. You can do things the right way.”
GORDON MONSON hosts “The Big Show” with Spence Checketts weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM/1280 and 960 AM.