NC State punter A.J. Cole III started going to Kenya over spring break as a senior in high school. Once he got to college, he needed his best sales pitch to convince teammates to come along with him.
So he called a meeting on campus and promised those interested that they would embark on a life-changing experience. It would not be an easy one. For starters, they would each have to raise $3,000 to fund the trip. They would have to make sure they had a full range of up-to-date shots (not to mention a passport and other travel documents).
They would have to take two seven-hour airplane rides to Nairobi. Then they would have to board a Jeep-style safari truck and head four hours northwest to Nakuru. Once there, they would be staying in bunk beds on the campus of Mountain Park Academy, a boarding school for Kenyan children. Modern amenities would be in scarce supply.
They would spend five days with the teachers and children, doing mission work while also uplifting, encouraging and teaching the children either in the classroom or through sports. Cole got three teammates to join him last spring.
Just a few weeks ago, Cole, Brady Bodine and Nicholas Lacy made the return trip to Kenya and the Mountain Park Academy during their spring break. Starting linebacker Airius Moore also joined them, making his decision at the last moment. Cole promised Moore, “If you go on this trip and don’t think it was worth the money, I’ll personally refund you.”
“It was the afternoon of the first day, he was like, ‘You’re not going to have to pay me the money,’” Cole said Moore told him.
Cole has now made the overseas trek four consecutive years, and each trip has had a profound impact on him. He now sponsors a high school student at the academy named Benedict, using $300 from his cost-of-attendance stipend at NC State to do so.
Benedict used to leave his home at 4 a.m. to walk the 3.7 miles to the school. He is able to live on campus now and is hopeful he will make it to college. In Kenya, roughly 10 percent of students who take a required test to get into college are able to pass.
Benedict and Cole have grown close over the past several years, but that also is the case with the other children at the school. As soon as Cole arrived this spring, he sprinted down a long hill to pick up and hug the children, who all shouted, “A.J.! A.J.!”
Working on a story about NC State players taking a mission trip to Kenya, led by punter A.J. Cole. Love this greeting when they arrived. pic.twitter.com/IXvMK6SUKP— Andrea Adelson (@aadelsonESPN) March 24, 2017
“Half a second later, I was running in, putting a kid on my shoulders, playing with him,” Bodine said. “That’s one of the experiences I remember because, just like that, I was in it. I was playing with them.”
As part of the visit, those on the mission also bring supplies to the children. This year, they brought dresses for the girls, along with the standard pencils, papers and notepads. Cole remembers on one of his first visits watching children take notes in the margins of a newspaper because they had nothing to write on.
Sports also are a big part of what they do, especially because there is often a language barrier between visitors and the children. Some of the older students speak English, but most younger children speak Swahili and/or their tribal language. Though the children have never watched or played in an American football game, the NC State players will throw the football around with them (and also teach them the Wolfpack cheer).
The big sport in Kenya is soccer, and kicking a ball around with the children is always a source of amusement and fun. So is the big end-of-the-week soccer game between the teachers at the school and the visitors. The teachers won 7-2 this year, and the children shouted, “Kenya! Kenya!”
“When you get there, you get so much out of it,” Lacy said. “You get so much more, with the relationships you build with the kids. I love going there. I’m still on a high from going there.”
Lacy, a rising senior, might also have discovered a future career path. A human biology major, Lacy would be able to work in the global health field with his degree, which would allow him to go to developing countries to help combat the AIDS epidemic or help malnourished children.
Cole and Bodine, both juniors, plan to go back again next spring.
“If I come here to college, if I don’t ever go read to kids in Raleigh, if I don’t ever go on a mission trip, if I don’t ever use my platform to in some way help other people, I’ve wasted my time,” Cole said.
Moore plans on going back, too. The trip inspired him so much, he’s decided to sponsor two children -- a boy and a girl in sixth grade. He summed up the trip this way: “They changed my life more than I changed theirs.”