A few Saturdays ago, Drake University’s football team beat CONADEIP, a team from Mexico, by the score of 17-7.

Yes, it’s unusual to see the result of a college football game played in May. This, though, was no ordinary game. It was the Global Kilimanjaro Bowl in Arusha, Tanzania, the first time an American football team played in Africa.

I spoke to the student-athletes at Drake two years ago, and visited with athletic director Sandy Hatfield Clubb while I was there. She knew I have been very involved in African sports, and we talked about her own interest in Africa. She had been to Tanzania three times and loved the area.

About nine months later, Clubb called to tell me that Drake was putting together the Global Kilimanjaro Bowl. I knew it was big; American collegiate athletes going to Africa to play are rare. The only other group I’m aware of is a Big East All-Star basketball team coached by Lou Carnesecca that I helped organize to go to Angola in 1982.

Drake made the long journey and played the game in front of 11,817 people in a contest that was broadcast by ITV throughout most of Africa and parts of Asia and Europe. The team and traveling party also climbed Mount Kilimanjaro and spent four days in community service projects in the area, which included:

  • Building a girls’ dormitory at Kitaa Hope Orphanage, a home to children ages 4-12 orphaned as a result of HIV/AIDS.
  • Building a house for teachers at the Tema Secondary School; currently, the teachers must walk many miles to the school located in the foothills of Mount Kilimanjaro.
  • Repairing walls and painting three dilapidated classrooms at Mawenzi Secondary School in the town of Moshi.
  • Interacting with village children in various ways throughout the journey.
  • Running football clinics for local youth.
  • Drake coach Chris Creighton seems to be cut from a different cloth than most college football coaches. This was his third international trip since he became a head coach, first at Wabash and now at Drake, and it’s the biggest. I met him at a dinner a week before they left, and he told me, “I know that there are life lessons here that I could never teach. I am excited for the opportunity to bring my guys into an environment that they might have never seen in their lifetime.”

    I was asked to speak to the players and coaches in the days leading up to the trip, and I could tell from their questions and their knowledge that they were really looking forward to going.

    I knew when they returned home to Des Moines this week, they wouldn’t be the same people they were when they left, and I told them that. I’ve been to Africa more than 30 times since my first year out of college, starting with graduate school in Kampala, Uganda. That first trip changed my perspective on so many things: what poverty really looks like, what democracy can mean to people who’ve never experienced it, and what real freedom and equality might look like.

    They asked how I thought they would be received in Tanzania. I told them how gracious and warm the people of East Africa are, and that the team would be appreciated for being there to entertain and to serve.

    This defensive stand (that's Drake in blue) helped the Bulldogs to victory. Courtesy of Chris Donahue.

    And, in fact, that’s precisely what has happened. In an email from Tanzania, Drake linebacker Cameron Good told me, “We’ve seen so much and we’ve been with these kids who have never seen or heard of football before and then we’ve gone to their orphanages and schools, so it has been a huge culture shock. It is a little tough to focus on the game because of all the other activities and the emotions of seeing some of the hardships these people face. The pictures that have stuck in our minds are the faces and the smiles of the children we’ve been coaching. They have never seen people like us and they have never seen a game like this, and to see them catch the ball or run with the ball has been priceless.”

    Quarterback Mike Piatkowski, also in an email, noted, “It has been unbelievable so far and it is hard to believe we are in Africa. With the group on my bus, we went to an orphanage and it wasn’t particularly nice; but the kids were so happy to see us and it was so great to see such an incredible and appreciative reaction from kids who don’t have the things that we do. It was very humbling.”

    Their coach will carry the message home, too.

    “In terms of the clinics, I’m so proud of our players and the job they are doing after practice,” Creighton said by phone. “They just have so much passion and enthusiasm for these kids and for teaching them the game.

    “For me, it has never been about the game. The game is what allows us to be here and for the rest of the things to happen. I didn’t want the game to consume them, and it has not. I think everyone is soaking in driving through the streets of Arusha and seeing things they have never seen before and that has been powerful.”

    Their reactions don’t surprise me. I hope now that they will someday be in a position to think differently about Africa when they read about global affairs and the roles being played there by individual leaders and countries. They can now break the stereotypes and images of Africa that so many Americans carry. They will know that it is a warm, wonderful place; and I trust they will be willing and able to help influence their government to make decisions that will help the people of Africa more directly.

    Throughout my lifetime, I have seen the United States act as if the countries of Africa were all but invisible. We pay attention to events in Europe and Asia with great regularity and purpose; when it comes to Africa, we seem to barely notice the unsanitary living conditions there — the lack of good water, the malnutrition, the enormous gap between the rich and the poor and the civil wars in many parts of the continent that have led to the deaths and displacement of millions of people.

    What will the Bulldogs bring home? Among other things, memories of smiles all around. Courtesy of Chris Donahue.

    When we have focused on Africa, it’s been largely through the prism of sports: the sports boycott of South Africa because of apartheid in the 1970s and ’80s, and then the World Cup in South Africa last summer. Maybe now, although clearly to a lesser degree, the Drake Bulldogs — who gave up their normal postseason tie-ins through the Pioneer League for the 2010 season to be eligible for the trip to Tanzania — can use their experience to bring some attention to the continent.

    Said Clubb, the athletic director: “For me personally, it is validation and confirmation that sport has a very special place in the human race, not just as a form of human expression but also as something that speaks a language that crosses barriers. It gave them a way to communicate. It shows that sport has a very special way to serve humanity.”

    I hope that there will be more college teams going to Africa in the near future. For now, we have the Drake ambassadors to spread the word about the continent.

    Richard E. Lapchick is the chairman of the DeVos Sport Business Management Graduate Program in the College of Business Administration at the University of Central Florida. Lapchick also directs UCF’s Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport, is the author of 16 books and the annual Racial and Gender Report Card, and is the director of the National Consortium for Academics and Sport. He has joined ESPN.com as a regular commentator on issues of diversity in sport.

    Source: ESPN.com,  A life-altering football game for Drake, by Richard Lapchick, Special to ESPN.com. Originally Published: May 30, 2011