Just one year in age separated 17-year-old Travis Wood from the oldest of the Kenyan boys he was standing before, but at 6 feet 2, 190 pounds, he appeared like a giant to them.
So too did 5-10, 175-pound 16-year-old Keifer Rawlings.
The two linebackers from the St. Paul's football team were in Kenya in early January as part of a Fellowship of Christian Athletes mission trip.
Sharing their faith and the sport of football, Wood and Rawlings coached the Kenyan boys for five days, helping them progress from knowing hardly anything about the sport — many of them play soccer — to participating in a scrimmage wearing helmets and shoulder pads.
"When I first found out about this trip, I didn't really want to come," Wood told the boys during one of many moments of ministry that were held before or after water breaks.
"Now," Wood told them, "I don't want to leave."
Wood, a junior, joined the FCA trip at the urging of Rawlings, a sophomore whose parents have been longtime friends of FCA regional mission director Joey Potter, who organized it.
"When I first found out about the trip, I kept putting it off," Wood said. "I didn't want to go out of my comfort zone."
'Makes me feel like I'm special'
For Wood, that comfort zone includes excelling in his other sport of lacrosse. The Hunt Valley resident has committed to play at Johns Hopkins University, having also been recruited to play defense by Maryland, North Carolina, Penn State and Virginia.
Wood also loves football, and to share the sport in a foreign land appealed to him after the first-day shyness on the part of the Kenyans began to dissipate. To get there, it took two eight-hour flights, the first from Atlanta to Amsterdam and the second from Amsterdam to Nairobi, then a three-hour drive to Nakuru, to reach Mountain Park Academy.
"At first, I didn't know what to expect," Wood said. "When I first saw them, I kind of felt like they didn't want us there. It felt like we were forcing it on him, but we really weren't."
Wood befriended one of the boys named Kevin.
"He's kind of like a little brother to me now," Wood said midway through that week, Jan. 2-6. "He makes me feel like I'm special. I also like him because he's a jokester. He's not very good at football. Not very athletic, I would say. But he's always pretty funny. He kind of fits my personality."
Rawlings, a Bel Air resident, ended up bonding with a boy named John.
"He was the kid who listened to me the most," Rawlings said. "He wanted to learn. You could tell he wanted to do it.
"Because I'm near their age, I feel like I can know what they're thinking. I feel like I'm able to communicate with them better because of that. I think they knew I was there to talk to them and help them out."
'A slap in the face of satisfaction'
Wood and Rawlings were the youngest members of the FCA team. The other football coaches included former NFL cornerback Dexter Davis; Tallahassee (Fla.) Lincoln High assistant coach Kyle Eastridge; and Fort Myers (Fla.) Evangelical Christian School football coach Brian Lynch, whose son, Corey Lynch, plays defensive back for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and whose daughter-in-law, Cissie Lynch, is the granddaughter of the Rev. Billy Graham.
Davis, a five-year NFL cornerback from 1991 to 1995 with the Phoenix Cardinals, Los Angeles Rams and St. Louis Rams, served as the point man for handing out the equipment with assistance from Wood and Rawlings.
After the boys received the equipment, they trudged up a nearby hill to the practice field, which was full of pockmarks and dips and even a handful of grazing cows. But the field had a spectacular view of Lake Nakuru and the valley below. By the end of the week, Rawlings and Wood grew used to the lack of a proper football field. They were focused on the task at hand.
"We're all chasing the dollar in the U.S.," Davis said. "We're all chasing the new car, the new house, the newest gadgets. Then you come here, and you get a slap in the face of satisfaction."
Wood and Rawlings made several visits to the Hutch House orphanage, where a few of the Kenyan players lived. They also toured the home of 14-year-old John Ndentu, who lived in a three-bedroom house, the walls of which were made of a mixture of mud and cow manure. The house had no electricity or running water. The toilet was a hole in the ground outside. The bath was a large bowl of cold water, also outside.
"The little things make them happy," Rawlings said of the Kenyan boys in general. "They don't want anything. I feel like they're happy with everything. Sometimes I feel guilty, just knowing the things that I have."
'Under the lights'
The FCA provided extra food and clothing for the Kenyan players — and also some hope.
"My dream," Potter told the Kenyan boys, "is for one of you to make it to the United States, to play high school football, to play college football and to make it to the NFL.
"Can you imagine the kind of impact you could have here in Nakuru if that were to happen? Can you imagine the kind of impact you could make on this community? We could have a football stadium, right here, under the lights!"
Wood and Rawlings said for that dream to become a reality would be difficult. Although a few of the Kenyan athletes stood out — James N'dung'u, 15, looked like a future high school running back and John Ndentu, 14, could hold his own as a defensive end — they lack the infrastructure of constant coaching. They also lack the abundance of nutrients found in an American diet.
But there were two things they did not lack: love for the game and a desire to learn it.
The FCA group went on a safari before working with the Kenyans. The safari included sightings of baboons, lions, zebras, rhinos, giraffes and a leopard.
"The safari was awesome," Wood said. "But that's not what drew me to Kenya. I just kind of fell in love with these kids."
Joey Potter, regional director of mission trips for the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, plans on returning to Nakuru this summer and continuing the football ministry. Those interested in participating in this or other sports ministry trips can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Other information is available at fca.org.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun