Video Report from Kennedy Hardman:
By Justin Rosenberg
NASSAU, Bahamas – The players from Central Michigan and WKU have been treated like royalty since they first arrived in Nassau Saturday afternoon. On Monday, the players were given a chance to return the favor, and they jumped at the opportunity. More than 55 players, coaches and cheerleaders visited the Ranfurly Home for Children on Monday before participating in a USA Football sponsored football clinic for the local children.
“That’s the kind of team we are,” CMU running back Maurice Shoemaker-Gilmore said. “Give us a chance to do something nice, to give back a little bit, and that’s what we were going to do. That’s how it’s supposed to be.”
The large contingency of Popeyes Bahamas Bowl participants engaged with the 27 children – 16 girls, 11 boys – that currently reside at Ranfurly. Playing catch, shooting hoops or just talking, the student athletes did their best to give back to a community that has given so much to them these past few days.
“Every bit of this is paying it forward,” Shoemaker-Gilmore said. “Being in the Bahamas to play a college football game is unreal. Any chance we get to give back at all – it’s the least we can do.”
The visit to Ranfurly hit particularly close to home for CMU running back Saylor Lavalli whose father spent 16 years in an orphanage.
“My family, we really understand what these kids go through. Everyone has a story. Just because someone (has different circumstances), you should still treat everyone the right way,” he said.
While not all the athletes were able to relate to the children in quite the same manner as Lavalli, they were all able to relate to them through the universal language of sports. Sports provides one of the great cultural barrier breakers. Two people pick up one ball. They may not speak the same language. They may not have anything in common. But they both know exactly what to do with that ball. On Monday, the players were able to use that to their advantage as they bonded with the Ranfurly children just minutes after meeting them.
“Whatever background or whatever country you come from – you can use that as a way to connect,” CMU long snapper Nick Adams said. “Sports mirror life in so many ways. These kids are all playing against each other – and they’ve known each other for 10 minutes. But you can already see we have so much in common.”
But it wasn’t just the boys finding common ground with the children. The cheerleaders also made a huge difference for at least one of the Ranfurly children.
“I’m really excited I got an opportunity to meet them,” one of the girls said of the WKU cheerleaders. “They just came up and they were very warm and friendly. It actually made me want to be a cheerleader.”
Popeyes and the Bahamas Bowl has taken steps to ensure that the student athletes’ interactions with the children is felt long after Monday’s visit by making a generous donation to Ranfurly.
“Ninety percent of our operating income is from the generosity of private and corporate sponsors. We are very grateful to Popeyes for their sponsorship,” Ranfurly administrator L. Alexander Roberts said.
The two teams continued their day of service by teaming up with USA Football and Conference USA to sponsor a football camp. The camp was attended by more than 50 local children ranging in ages from 6-to-15 years old.
“We’re glad to be out here helping this kid and teaching them the sport we love,” WKU defensive back Nathan Roush said. “Hopefully we can spread our love of the game for these kids.”
The love seemed to seep out quickly to the youngsters, many of whom had never before played any form of organized football. The kids appeared to thoroughly enjoy each of the activities which ranged from tackling drills to receiving drills before culminating in a touchdown-dancing drill.
“Just looking around the different stations, I see a lot of smiles,” USA Football master coach Chris Merritt said. Merritt, who has coached a number of clinics around the country called out the athletes as a big reason the kids were having so much fun.
“I got a great group of players to work with,” he said in reference to the WKU and CMU athletes. “They’re energetic. They’re involved with the kids. They’re all cracking up and having a great time. That’s what it’s all about – just having fun.”
WKU linebacker Joel Iyiegbuniwe deflected the praise and put all the light on the kids participating in the event. “They’re really energetic and optimistic. And that really helps me,” he said.
Iyiegbuniwe singled out one particular kid who played five sports – none of which were football – as a challenge. “That’s my job – to show them how we play, how much we enjoy it. Maybe if he likes it, we can bring him to the football side,” he said.
While spreading a love of football to the Bahamas was certainly a topic for the day, the day was really about spreading a sense of gratitude to a community that has been so good to those involved with the Popeyes Bahamas Bowl – from the players, to the coaches, to everyone involved with the game.
“The student athletes really want to give back. If you give them the opportunity, they are not only able to give but to receive from the experience,” Popeyes Bahamas Bowl Chairman Britton Banowsky said.
That sentiment was shared by players from both teams, many of whom were still amazed about being afforded the opportunity to play a football game in the Bahamas and wanted to repay the Bahamians anyway they could.
“I wish we could do a little more. They’ve just done so much. They’ve treated us like kings here,” CMU defensive lineman Luke Idoni said. “But it’s great to see these little kids experiencing football. Hopefully they learned some things and get to play with their friends and have a good time.”
At least one kid with prior football experience can help put Idoni’s mind at ease. When asked if he was having a good time, he simply nodded and said, “I can’t wait to use what I learned today.”
In the meantime, he’ll get to learn a little bit more on Wednesday when he watches CMU and WKU battle in the inaugural Bahamas Bowl live from Thomas Robinson Stadium as every child in attendance left the clinic with four free vouchers to the game.