Most high school football players would naturally appreciate hearing from alumni who went on to have success at the college and pro levels.
Former Spanish Fork stars Richard Wilson (who played tight end at BYU) and Isaac Asiata (who played offensive line at Utah and also spent time in the NFL with the Miami Dolphins and Buffalo Bills) certainly have those credentials.
But when Wilson and Asiata returned to talk to the current Don football team after it completed a summer workout last week, their message was about a lot more than football.
It was about helping the student-athletes to understand current events that have highlighted racism, police brutality, protests and the need to be better.
“This is a very confusing, challenging time with a lot of things going on that have to do with race, to do with police brutality, to do with public relations with law enforcement officers and the public they are committed to protect and serve,” Asiata told the players. “I think it’s important for you guys to understand that racism is a alive and it is happening right now.”
Wilson and Asiata didn’t back down from talking about their experiences with racism, the reality of white privilege and the importance of trying to understand each other to be able to bring about real change.
“You can’t have anything change without putting forth action,” Wilson said. “It sucks that it is to the point of protests and riots, but maybe this is something that opens people’s eyes a little bit. This is a chance for this generation to chance how equality is for the United States.”
Both Asiata and Wilson said they felt it was important to speak to the next generation about such important topics.
“I remember a bunch of different guys coming to talk to our football team when I was younger, so I understand the type of influence and impression it can have,” Asiata said. “Where it is easy to have positive things impressed upon you as a young individual, it’s just as easy to have negative things. The difficult thing is trying to chose how you want to be, what kind of person you want to be. The difficult part of doing this is making sure that the message you convey is one of positivity and in this case one of solidarity and unity. That’s what the football team is built on. I wouldn’t have been exposed to so many different races, religions and everything if it wasn’t for football.”
Wilson told the Dons about being one of the only African-Americans in the school when he was at Spanish Fork.
“There weren’t many people of color when I was in school. I’m from a country town that is 95% white,” Wilson said. “My experiences were different. Even if people didn’t mean it, they still treated me differently or thought of me differently because of how I looked. That’s what needs to change.
“We need an understanding that people are people and we shouldn’t be nervous or afraid if a person of color comes into the restaurant you are eating in. The same goes for blacks if a cop comes into a restaurant and looks at them. They shouldn’t feel nervous — but they do. It’s about coming to together unitedly as blacks, as whites, as Hispanics, as Polynesians, to understand that we are all equal and it’s time for change.”
He told about going to BYU and drawing added scrutiny in the testing center because of the stereotype that he wasn’t smart and would be more likely to cheat.
Wilson also talked frankly about white privilege, conveying to the audience that things are different when you are part of a minority group.
“We have all the same opportunities as anyone else but we have to go through different obstacles and different situations to get to the same desired point than white people do,” Wilson said. “It’s real.”
Asiata emphasized that he doesn’t want people to feel guilty about that, as long as they aren’t causing the problems themselves.
“It’s hard to go up to speak and talk about white privilege because it is such a trigger word,” Asiata said. “When I hear white privilege, it’s not their fault but it’s about understanding that there are people who don’t have to go through what Richard and I have had to go through. As long as you aren’t adding to that, it’s not your fault. But we’re still going through that and that’s what you need to understand.”
Asiata told about going with his wife and daughter to the park just last year where they joined a white lady who was pushing her kids on the swings.
"My wife was there with my daughter and I switched her so she could go play with the dogs and as soon as I got to swings, she pulled her kid off the swing, grabbed her other kid and left the park in a hurry," Asiata said. "It is real."
Regarding law enforcement
Asiata also has another unique perspective because he recently became a police officer in Provo.
“I see the guys in law enforcement, in my police department, but I don’t see them as officers,” Asiata said. “I see them as people. They have families. I see them for who they are and it only hurts because the sometimes people only see the badge. On the flip side, there are some people who don’t see the other side of the coin. They just see certain people as criminals or thugs. That’s the issue. It’s weird because I’ve seen both.
“One of the reasons I wanted enter law enforcement is because I wanted to build a bridge where there can be dialogue and understanding between those sides. One of the best things I can do to open that up is to be the best cop I can be. Even now, people will see me in a uniform and take a second glance. They will see a police officer and a person of color — but they need to see that this is a really good cop and a really good person. I want people to see that I’m just a great human being. I see people for who they are and not anything else. The problem comes with people who refuse to see different perspectives.”
Spanish Fork head football coach Dustin Smith told his team that he wasn’t the one who instigated this particular conversation.
“This was not my idea; it was Isaac’s idea,” Smith said. “Isaac texted me and said he would like to come talk to the boys specifically about what is going on. I said of course we wanted him to come. Football is just an excuse to get together but the reason we come together and become a team is that we want to be elite young men.”
Smith was an assistant coach under then-head coach Matt Christensen when Asiata and Wilson played for the Dons. Christensen is now the principal at Spanish Fork and got the chance to explain how proud he is of his former stars.
“The thing that stands out to me about these men when they were young men was how they handled themselves in the classroom, in the community, around town,” Christensen said. “They were examples of what we want our players to be. They were so dedicated. They also reached out to everybody. You guys don’t know the impact you have. I want to thank them publicly for the legacy they left.”
Wilson and Asiata want not just the Spanish Fork football players but everyone to realize it takes everyone coming together with the goal of unity to make progress.
“People want to be understood and heard but sometimes refuse to do the same thing in return,” Asiata said. “When I have discussions with different people, I can often tell right off the bat where it is going to go. Sometimes they just want to tell me what they think as opposed to having that open dialogue about what we can do to fix it. We don’t have to agree but understanding that there are different perspectives is key. I feel like a lot of people have lost that.”
Change will only come, Wilson said, when everyone realizes that we really want the same things.
“This isn’t a black or white thing or blacks vs. cops,” Wilson said. “This is racism vs. everyone. That’s really what it boils down to. Racism is around. Be aware of it and do more to change. Educate your kids. Those are the biggest points.”