‘Ute Proud’ Takes On New Meaning With Former Punter Hank Mondaca
Jun 3, 2023, 6:21 PM
SALT LAKE CITY – Former Utah football punter Hank Mondaca is working to give being “Ute Proud” a much deeper meaning for Utah Athletics with the help of his charitable organization, Athletes For Life.
This summer, Mondaca, along with other former Utah Athletics stars Dave Cullity, Jeff Reyes, and Lisa Mitzel will be taking their talents to the Uintah-Ouray Reservation to put on a football camp with the help of Utah football for the Ute Tribe that resides there.
What Are The Conditions Like At Pine Ridge Reservation?
For those unfamiliar with Pine Ridge Reservation, it’s a dire place where a lot of dreams and hopes never see the light of day. The suicide and unemployment rates are high, internet is virtually impossible to come by, and families of ten or more can often be seen piled into a single-wide trailer.
“Pine Ridge is very unique,” Mondaca said. “It’s the poorest county in the United States and the unemployment rate is up around 87%. There is nothing on the res, there is no infrastructure which then turns into despair and a lack of hope. These kids that we wanted to help at Pine Ridge High School were a product of that environment. They needed some guidance as well, and to know there was hope after school, after sports, and that the connections they make in athletics will be their lifelong friends. It’s tough on the reservation because if you want to make it, to become something, you’ve got to get off the reservation.”
Athletes For Life Have A Breakthrough
Helping the people of Pine Ridge was an uphill battle for Mondaca and Athletes For Life at the beginning. The Oglala Lakota were used to having “well-wishers” come through with extravagant plans to help turn things around only to never return again which in turn made them skeptical every other group to come through.
“Several organizations have been to that reservation and have tried to make a difference in the past,” Mondaca said. “They never followed through. They’d go there for a year, get government funding- whatever that was and the community, the schools, the players, the people never saw them again. When they knew we were coming, I later found out some of the parents and community were telling the kids not to give us the time of day.”
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Eventually Mondaca and Athletes For Life earned the trust of the community by returning every year as they promised they would, and even showing up at times that weren’t promised.
“We really had to prove ourselves,” Mondaca said. “We really had to instill trust not only in the players and the coaches, but in the community as well. It was really neat to go back the second and third year, walk down the street and have people acknowledge us. We wore our garb, and it was very warm, very fulfilling. Not one of those things you think you’re going to receive back.”
Getting Out Of Pine Ridge
A big part of the warm-up for the community has been due to Mondaca and crew raising funds to allow their kids to go to college and experience life off of the reservation. At the time of the first story back in 2020, four kids from Pine Ridge had received scholarships from Athletes For Life to attend college and Mondaca says they are all doing very well.
“They are doing great,” Mondaca said. “A couple of them are still in school. A couple of them have come back home because remember, these are young men who left with a two- or three-year-old son or daughter. They found it very difficult to be away from their family. It’s very rewarding, very fulfilling to know that one, they are still alive. That’s a challenge there as well, and to see that they are making something of themselves as well. They are passionate about life.”
“The scholarships- we love to do that; we love to help out,” Mondaca continued. “The fees we’ve picked up in the past- we’ve paid for books; we’ve paid for courses where some past student-athletes needed to get to graduate. We hope to continue that.”
As Mondaca strengthened his relationship with the Oglala Lakota at Pine Ridge, he also couldn’t help but think about extending Athletes For Life’s reach to a place and a tribe that have meant a lot not only to him, but thousands and thousands of student-athletes who have or are going through the University of Utah.
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“There is a feeling of wanting to give back to the school in any way you can, by whatever means you can,” Mondaca said. “To have that much pride to want to do that, it was very easy for myself and a couple of other guys that I’ve kept in contact with. We definitely want to give back and so part of this venture to Pine Ridge- we thought if we could make a difference there, why don’t we try it in Utah? Why don’t we see what we can make and be of the relationship between the University of Utah and the Ute Nation? I’m proud to announce at the end of June that we’re going to be coming to the Uintah-Ouray Reservation and we’re going to have a camp there in conjunction with Union High School in Roosevelt.”
Mondaca, along with Cullity, Reyes, and Mitzel will be working with Utah football to give the kids and community at the Uintah-Ouray Reservation one more connection to the university that bears their tribe’s name.
“We’re all looking forward to making a difference there and solidifying the relationship between the U and the Utes,” Mondaca said. “What better way to give back to the people whose emblem you wore, whose show you watched at halftime? I can’t wait. I am very, very excited to get out there and run around with the kids.”
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Last year, Mondaca also helped to provide tickets for the “Little Utes” (the Ute Tribe’s version of Pop Warner football) to attend Utah’s annual “Ute Proud” game where their tribe performs a halftime show in an effort to share their culture with the masses. It’s one more facet and way Mondaca hopes to create an even stronger relationship between the University of Utah and the Utes moving forward.
“I thought it would be a good idea to invite those who had never been, out to see a game or who would like to see a game and see their community perform,” Mondaca said. “It was wonderful. They brought a bus out- we would have liked to have had a little more participation, but the ones who went had a tremendous time and they were very thankful for the trip. Hopefully we will be able to do it again this year to keep that interaction with the community involved. In starting this venture with the Ute Reservation, people have told me from the university that they would like to do a little bit more for them, so this is just a little step toward solidifying that relationship.”
How You Can Help
If anyone is interested in getting involved with Athletes For Life, Mondaca encourages going to the organization’s website for more information. Fans can also follow what is happening on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook, as well as KSL Sports who will be along to cover the event later this month.
“They can go to our website: athletes4.life and they can find out a little bit more about our cause. We are getting ready to unleash a tremendous, wonderful marketing campaign across the social sites, so you’ll be seeing us there.”
Michelle Bodkin is the Utah Utes Insider for KSLsports.com and host of both the Crimson Corner Podcast (SUBSCRIBE) and The Saturday Show (Saturday from 10 a.m.–12 p.m.) on The KSL Sports Zone. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram: @BodkinKSLsports
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