They can go back to being enemies Friday when the 2016 Popeyes Bahamas Bowl kicks off, but the relationship between Old Dominion and Eastern Michigan became quite friendly Wednesday afternoon when dozens of players and cheerleaders from both universities came together to give back to a Bahamian community that has welcomed them with opens arms.
“The more events we’ve done together, the more we’ve warmed up to each other,” Monarchs running back Nick Ferrari-Smith said of his Eastern Michigan counterparts.
The players had two events Wednesday to do just that, first with a visit to the Ranfurly Homes for Children and then during a Heads Up Football clinic hosted by USA Football.
Ranfurly Homes for Children is an institution that works to ensure displaced children feel safe, comfortable and develop a sense of self-worth. The Popeyes Bahamas Bowl has worked closely with the organization since the bowl’s inception in 2014, and the visit has become a staple of the week.
“The kids look forward not only to going to the bowl game, but getting an opportunity to interact with these talented athletes,” Ranfurly Homes for Children administrator Alex Roberts said. “Just the opportunity to meet young people who are successful and on their way, it’s a marvelous opportunity.”
The players felt similarly as they gave up a free afternoon to spend time with the kids.
“To come out here and put a smile on these kids’ faces is better than going down a couple water slides,” ODU wide receiver Isaiah Harper said.”
EMU defensive back Aaron Abbott echoed the sentiment: “Coming out with the kids, it’s a blessing that they even want us to (be) here and to be around them.”
While on site, the teams took to the basketball court where they challenged the kids to a game of basketball. Little did they know…
“All of the boys are NBA bound, at least so they think,” Roberts said after he watched his kids school both teams.
“I don’t know what our mindset was going into this, but it should’ve been something different because we’re getting whupped!” EMU linebacker Tyler Onda joked after seeing his teammates get beat. “We are legitimately trying to win this game. I have no idea what’s going on right now.”
The players weren’t the only ones making a difference at the Ranfurly Homes for Children. The ODU cheerleaders were also able to put a smile on the kids’ faces, teaching them cheers and genuinely taking interest in their day.
“This is one of the only events we’re a part of, and seeing it on our schedule, we were looking forward to bringing a positive environment and make it a day for the kids to be excited about.” ODU cheerleader Cameron Prentiss said.
The day continued for the two schools as they joined Chris Merritt for a special Heads Up football clinic hosted by USA Football.
Merritt, a master trainer who has hosted clinics leading up to the Popeyes Bahamas Bowl each of the past two years, has noticed how many of the former bowl participants have kept in touch.
“The kids I’ve stayed in touch with the past couple Popeyes Bahamas Bowls, they’ve stayed in touch with those guys. So they’re making friendships with guys on the other team because they’re working with kids. And at the end of the day, that’s what it’s all about,” Merritt said.
ODU wide receiver Noah Ellison was happy to see the comradery that has developed over the past few days between the two schools. “It feels good to know that it’s not just a rivalry, and we can be mutual friends,” he said.
The children at the clinic participated in several drills that were overseen by the players, but the highlight of the day always comes at the end when each child has the chance to score a touchdown and show off his/her unique celebratory dance. It was one final moment for the kids and the players, two groups who didn’t know much about each other prior to Wednesday, to let loose together.
“The great thing about sports is that none of these guys know each other, but you get a ball out there and immediately you can start being comfortable and interacting,” EMU head coach Chris Creighton said. “That’s the power of sport.”