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BYU coach Kalani Sitake recalls life-changing moment of kindness, says toughness comes from showing affection, appreciation

SALT LAKE CITY — It was a gesture so small, the man who offered it didn’t even remember the encounter years later.

Kalani Sitake said his parents' divorce when he was 6 shattered his life.

“Divorce is hard, especially for a young kid,” Sitake said during a brief but moving speech he delivered as part of a fundraiser for KAVA Talks (Kommitment Against Violence Altogether), a group that uses storytelling to create dialogue and awareness about domestic violence and violence prevention in the Pacific Island community. “I moved all over the place, and I felt abandoned because my mother wasn’t there. … At this moment, I was nine-years-old, and I was struggling with a lot of things. And when you’re struggling, you’re taught to be tough, to hold things in.” His father worked at a Geneva Steel, and he was desperately trying to “put on a happy face.”

“I was hating life,” he said. “It was just hard for me.”

One day, a group of BYU football players visited his Utah County elementary school and talked to the children about eating healthy, avoiding drugs and being physically fit. After the assembly, the children were dismissed for recess.

Sitake sat alone, watching the players kick the football.

“I was content,” he said. “That was fun for me. Then one of the players walked over to me. … He walked over and sat next to me. He talked to me for a minute, and I don’t remember saying much.”

Sitake choked back emotion as he recounted the story to an enthralled audience.

“But it was a conversation that helped change my life,” he said. “At the end of it, he leaned over, put his arm around me, gave me a hug and he said, ‘Everything is going to be OK. And God loves you.’ I’d heard that probably a thousand times. …that’s the first time I believed it.”

Sitake said that was the moment he decided he wanted to play football at BYU.

“I felt like I was broken, and all of a sudden, this stranger helped fix me,” he said. “Just because he saw someone who was hurting, and he came over and gave a minute of his time.”

In his 15-minute keynote address, Sitake suggested three areas of focus would transform lives — affection, appreciation and communication.

“We can say I love you more,” he said, making the audience laugh with his confession of being a hugger. “Sometimes I think it makes people a little uncomfortable, but their only (negative) response back can be nothing, which is ok. Express more love.”

He said the affection he feels for his children and wife have made him a better man.

“I’ve become a better person and made better decisions because of the added responsibilities of (being) a father and a husband. … It’s elevated how I conduct myself.”

He said parents would be wise to teach their children gratitude by showing it to them.

“I think we can say thank you more,” he said, recounting how he tried to instill gratitude in his oldest daughter by forcing her to say thank you. “I always ordered her to say thank you. You know when she learned the most is when I said to her, ‘Thank you. Thank you, daughter.’ The biggest way to teach them, is to have them live it and to show them.”

He also suggested communicating better as a way to bring those we love closer. “It’s important for us to say I’m sorry,” he said. “I think it’s ok to say we don’t know everything. I don’t have all the answers. I need help. … These are not things that originated with me. I’m not some guru who understands people and understands relationships. I’m just repeating to you what was taught to me by mentors.” Sitake said the toughest people walk way from fights.

“When you’re willing to do that, you feel empowered,” he said. “I tell you this because I am a product of other people.” There is nothing that proves a person’s toughness more than having the humility and ability to change and evolve. His grandfather, he said, disciplined him a lot when he was a boy. And when he was on his deathbed, he apologized.

Sitake said he knew his grandfather was sorry because many years earlier, he’d changed.

“I remember the moment he changed,” said an emotional Sitake. “We were watching (LDS) general conference. There was a talk about abusing children. He put his arms around me and hugged me and never struck me again. Someone who is willing to change, that’s tough. Someone who is willing to say ‘I’m sorry’ and ‘I love you’ — that’s tough. We are those people.”