UK Football

Africa trip eye-opening for UK football players

UK football players Avery Williamson, left, and Jonathan George came to the aid of villagers during their service trip to Ethiopia last month. At far left is teammate Kevin Mitchell. (UK photo)
UK football players Avery Williamson, left, and Jonathan George came to the aid of villagers during their service trip to Ethiopia last month. At far left is teammate Kevin Mitchell. (UK photo)

Citizens of Ethiopia may not know what American football is, but they might recognize University of Kentucky players after this year's annual Africa trip.

UK seniors Jonathan George, Avery Williamson and Kevin Mitchell spent more than a week in Ethiopia, leaving the states for Africa from May 21-29.

The group spent their days in the Third World country handing out food, clothes and helping families in need.

Williamson, who started at linebacker in all 12 games as a junior in 2012, found out that he had been selected for the trip in February and said that he was grateful and didn't expect to be chosen.

"It makes you appreciate what you've got," Williamson said. "Those people over there don't really have much at all."

When the players walked into towns, people approached them for food and money. When the native people saw foreigners, their first reaction was to latch onto them and hope that they could provide them with some of life's basic needs.

That was an eye-opener for George.

"You see homeless and poor people in America but it was amazing because it was like our bus had celebrities on it," said George, who rushed for 504 yards and four touchdowns as a junior last season.

The people would surround the players' bus like mobs of fans do for tour buses of rock-and-roll bands. Only these mobs were interested in the possibility of being provided food and money.

George was particularly touched by an older man with no legs he met at a leprosy colony. The man, he said, walked around with flip-flops on his hands.

The group was bagging up food and charcoal, one day, when the man with no legs started helping the group bag food for other people.

That's the type of experience that will be etched in the football player's memory for years to come.

George, who said he likes to lead by example, said the trip helped him grow even more in that role.

"It can carry over to the field as well," George said. "When people see you doing special things, people follow that lead."

Mitchell, an offensive tackle entering his senior year, was notified at the last minute that he would have the opportunity to take the trip.

He said that he had heard stories from players who had gone previously but that nothing could have prepared him for the real thing.

"When you see it, smell it, it's a totally different world," Mitchell said. "Kids come up to you begging. Moms are holding their babies. You just want to help them so much but you can't. You can only do so much."

The group met a lot of people but said they became especially close with their driver, whom they supplied with plenty of UK apparel.

"He's a big UK fan now," Mitchell said.

The trip has become an annual one for UK Athletics. The football players take a trip in May, and an "other sports" trip is planned for July, according to Jason Schlafer, a senior associate athletics director at UK.

Schlafer has coordinated the annual trips and travels to Africa with the athletes.

"It's as rewarding as a championship," Schlafer said.

"To see these really good kids that we have as part of our football — and other sports programs — go and give back and actually understand and recognize that they received more than they gave is really one of the more rewarding things you can experience."

Schlafer was particularly moved to overhear the players talking amongst themselves about saving up so they could one day return on their own.

"They wanted to do more," Schlafer said. "And they didn't think they could accomplish what they wanted to accomplish in a week."

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