In Tip of the Fork, student-athletes learn to understand their own leadership style and the qualities of a good leader. Then they put into practice what they have learned through community service. The goal is to create leaders on and off the field.

Creating ‘leaders who give of their time and talent’

Gift to Sun Devil Athletics changes lives on and off the field.

ldon Cooley was 23 in 1941 when he began buying farmland in Gilbert to grow cotton, alfalfa and maize. He soon married his sweetheart, Elona Peel, and together they started a family.

According to their son Jeff, Eldon and Elona cultivated much more than crops during those years.

They began modeling service and leadership to their children. Both served their church and their community. Eldon served on the Mesa City Council and on boards for the Lutheran Hospital, the YMCA and the United Way. In 1962, Mesa named him Man of the Year and in 1972, voters elected him mayor.

Their six children were watching.

“We saw the influence of good leaders giving of their time and their talent and their means — to lead and influence other people,” Jeff Cooley says. “We saw the blessing and how it blessed other people’s lives.

“Even to this day — dad died in ’07, but my mother is still living, she’s 99 — we see people come to us and remember them and the influence they had upon them for good, and changing their lives,” he says. “They were very generous with their means and helping other people.

“When you see something like that, what you feel is good, you want to continue it.”

Continuing the good

Jeff and his wife, Melodee, believe they have found a way to continue that family legacy through Arizona State University.

ASU alumni and long-time season ticket holders to Sun Devil football and basketball, Jeff and Melodee say they have grown to appreciate the leadership qualities exhibited by Sun Devil athletes.

What if they could further develop those qualities, they thought, and cultivate traits such as honesty, integrity and a commitment to service?

So the Cooleys breathed new life into Tip of the Fork, a leadership development program for Sun Devil student-athletes that places a high value on service to the community. They established an academic scholarship for a Sun Devil Football Tip of the Fork student-athlete, and directed an endowment gift to help fund the program.

Years ago, Jeff’s parents created the Eldon W. and Elona P. Cooley Leadership Endowment at the ASU Polytechnic campus, and Tip of the Fork seemed like a natural extension of that gift, Jeff says.

In Tip of the Fork, student-athletes learn to understand their own leadership style and the qualities of a good leader. Then they put into practice what they have learned through community service.

The goal is to create leaders on and off the field.

“Hopefully that will be beneficial to these student-athletes in their life going forward,” says Melodee, “not just while they are at ASU, but to set a pattern for them in their lives, where they can see the benefit of being a leader who sets a good example, who knows how to work with people, who is kind and thoughtful.”

Student-athletes must have a GPA of 3.2 or higher to apply to Tip of the Fork, says its director, Kelli Benjamin, a Sun Devil Athletics academic coach. Once chosen, they progress through the program in a cohort of 15 to 20 student-athletes.

Members represent all Sun Devil sports and develop a multifaceted network of scholar-athletes who share the same goal: leadership development.

“We’re developing relationships with other leaders from other sports teams,” says Corey Stephens, a Sun Devil Football defensive lineman and a recipient of the Tip of the Fork scholarship. “As a football player, we’re a little isolated on the other side of the building, so it’s been great to be able to work with them and learn how they’ve been leading their specific teams.”

Corey Stephens is a Sun Devil Football defensive lineman and a recipient of the Tip of the Fork scholarship. With his nonprofit service, he’s committed to helping “bridge the gap between law enforcement and underprivileged communities that they serve.”

His service commitment is to a central Phoenix nonprofit, Fulfillment in Training, where law enforcement officers connect to the community by promoting fitness, health and well-being. They emphasize service and volunteer opportunities that build and strengthen community resilience.

“FIT’s mission is to bridge the gap between law enforcement and underprivileged communities that they serve,” he says. “There couldn’t be more of a need for that in what’s going on today. I started working with them even before [protests] happened, and I think there is just a massive opportunity for FIT and a huge role for them to play in our Phoenix community.”

Stephens helps structure workouts for community participants. “It’s kind of been put on hold because of COVID, which stinks especially because that’s a huge part of it is training,” he says. “Law enforcement come down and train with the community. That puts people on a level playing field and helps them bond through hard physical activity. When you struggle through something with somebody, you become closer with them.”

According to Melodee, their own children and grandchildren sometimes enjoy attending Tip of the Fork leadership lessons.

“We’ve met some terrific young people,” she says. “Hopefully those student-athletes can have some influence on our family, as hopefully we can have some influence on them.”

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ASU Foundation, one of Arizona’s oldest nonprofits, raises and invests private contributions to Arizona State University. https://www.asufoundation.org/