NASSAU, Bahamas – They’ll be opponents when the 2015 Popeyes Bahamas Bowl kicks off Thursday, but Tuesday was all about the players from Middle Tennessee and Western Michigan coming together to put smiles on kids’ faces – first on a visit to the Ranfurly Homes for Children and then during a Heads Up Football clinic hosted by USA Football.
“It’s not about Western Michigan or Middle Tennessee. It’s about these kids and being given the opportunity to give back to them,” Western Michigan quarterback Zach Terrell said.
More than two dozen members from both schools attended the visit to Ranfurly Homes for Children – an institution that works to ensure that displaced children feel safe, comfortable and develop a sense of self-worth – where they played basketball, threw around the football and genuinely got to know the kids on site.
“Just to see a smile on their face. I think it brightens everybody’s day just to see that they’re having fun,” Western Michigan defensive back Asantay Brown said. “It’s not about us. It’s about them. It’s a day to give back and to bring joy in the time we have with them.”
The joint service event added some perspective to the two teams, both of which are well accustomed to giving back to their own communities back home. Not only were they able to give back to a Bahamian community that has been wonderful to them throughout the week, but they were able to interact with the competition in a tension-free environment that showcased the awesome power of football.
“It’s bigger than just Middle Tennesse or Western Michigan. For both of us to come together and to participate in this, it’s bigger than both of us. It’s bigger than football. Just making these kids happy is the big picture right now,” Middle Tennessee linebacker T.T. Barber said.
The event also allowed the teams to drop their guard and kid around with one another ahead of Thursday’s game – especially Middle Tennessee defensive lineman Patrick McNeil who was finally able to have a conversation with Terrell after the WMU offensive lineman jokingly refused to point him out.
“He’s a good guy,” McNeil said of Terrell. “I try to make it my job to seek the quarterback. He’s a heck of a player. And I feel like he’s going to give us a run for our money.”
But perhaps no one got more in the spirit of the day than Middle Tennessee offensive lineman Darius Johnson, who at the behest of one of the children, threw WMU mascot Buster Bronco over his shoulder and walked off.
“I was just letting [Buster] know that we’re coming home with a win,” Johnson joked. “He can come home in my luggage if he’d like.”
The day continued for both schools as they joined Chris Merritt for a special Heads Up football clinic hosted by USA Football.
“These are big kids playing with little kids,” Merritt said of the players from both universities.
Merritt, who also hosted a clinic leading up to last year’s Popeyes Bahamas Bowl, has noticed the growth in the community over the past year. “I know the local youth organizations are quickly growing to give these kids an outlet to play football,” he said.
The crop of players participating in this year’s clinic were humbled by their role as American football ambassadors hoping to continue the growing trend for a sport they love.
“We’re here for one common goal,” Middle Tennesse kicker Cody Clark said. “We’re here to win the bowl game, but right now in this moment, we’re here to help these kids out, teach them a bit about football and to have a good time in the process.”
The participating children were able to participate in a number of drills overseen by the athletes, but the highlight of the day came at the end when each child was able to score a touchdown and show off his unique touchdown dance.
It’s a great experience to come out and work with young kids who have never played real football or seen real football before, Western Michigan defensive back Rontavious Atkins said. “It’s special to teach them the game.”
And as both teams learned Tuesday, it’s even more special when it brings opponents together.