Spring break anything but for NC State group

Posted by ESPN.com's Heather Dinich

Day Two, March 2

After playing a couple of games with the other group we head off to the air mattress feeling exhausted and satisfied. Only one day down and we already have made an impact on Pass Christian. To talk and meet with these people you could definitely feel their complete gratitude for the work being done and it was very satisfying to feel as though we are truly making a difference. I am very excited about just the amount of work we are capable of completing this week and I pray that the following days will be as productive.

-- NC State defensive back Zach Powell

On March 1, a small group of NC State football players and staff members traded their jerseys and equipment for T-shirts and chain saws, axes and rakes. They gave up other spring break plans and the comfort of their own beds to spend five nights on the kitchen floor of a Catholic church and help rebuild the devastation that still lingers from the 2005 Hurricane Katrina.

They kept a log book, and each day took turns chronicling their trip.

"By the end, seeing how much each day meant to them, I couldn't ask for anything more than that," said NC State assistant director of football operations Kit Hughes, who organized the 13-hour bus ride to Lizana, Miss. "I knew this was going to be the kind of trip where you give a lot and get even more out of it than you'd ever imagine. It really delivered in every way."

The trip was arranged through Project Hope and Compassion, hosted by St. Ann's Catholic Church. It was a small church -- sufficient for about 200 people -- and the NC State players and coaches slept on air mattresses in the kitchen, where they also cooked their own breakfast, mopped the floors and did the dishes.

(It wasn't too unbearable, 290-pound defensive tackle Wayne Crawford said, except for the fact his air mattress kept deflating and he felt "wrapped up like a taco.")

They also cleaned the bathrooms, but at night, the hosts from the church would cook them dinner, usually local cuisine. They had red beans and rice, po' boy sandwiches, alligator, and one night had a catfish fry. The mayor of Pass Christian also gave them oysters one night.

"People were pretty brave when it came to the food," Hughes said, "but it was a very humble experience."

Powell, offensive guard Desmond Roberts, graduate students Bobby Blick, Jeff Archer and Al Washington also participated.

"It was worth it because we got to go down there, and I can always go to Florida and hang out there and do stuff, but the opportunity presented itself to help somebody and make somebody else smile," Crawford said."

They helped widen and extend part of a curve in a road that had been washed away, they hauled lumber for a group that was building a playground at an elementary school, and were stopped numerous times by grateful members of the community.

"They definitely took advantage of the fact we had some big, physical guys who were there to do work," Hughes said. "They pointed us to the heavy lifting projects in this town."

The biggest project they had was helping an elderly man find his house again. The house -- not to mention a beat-up old Chevy -- had gotten lost in the overgrown shrubbery, and the Pack spent 2 1/2 days cutting back the overgrown brush and 12-foot trees.

"Finishing up this job site became a top priority for us because we had poured that much work into this property we wanted to leave our mark on this old house," Blick wrote in the journal on Day 5, March 5. "I can assure you we definitely did, so much so, that at one point a neighbor stopped by to ask how much we were making for clearing all this land. His reaction was priceless after we told him we were volunteers, his exact words, 'I ain't ever seen volunteers like that.' Those quick words made it all worth it."

"It's still unbelievable to go down there and realize how much is left to be done," Hughes said. "When I first laid it out to the team, I definitely had a bunch of people look at me like, 'Why are we going there? That was so long ago.' It seems like Katrina was a million years ago. Just because you don't read about it or hear about it in the news doesn't mean these problems are gone."

Because there is still so much work to do, Hughes said he has the ambitious goal of getting other ACC teams to join NC State in the rebuilding effort. First, he'd like to incorporate more of NC State's fall sports, as well as bring more representatives from the entire athletic department. Eventually, Hughes said he would like this to grow into a conference-wide project and expand beyond just football.

"This is one area where you truly could cooperate with each other and have it benefit everybody," Hughes said.

NC State coach Tom O'Brien said the program's mantra since he arrived has been "champions in the classroom, champions in the community, champions on the football field," and he encourages his players and staff to do volunteer work.

"It's like anything else we've done here," O'Brien said. "We went to visit the wounded warriors in Camp Lejeune, the young kids that have been wounded in battle, and probably had 15 or so go. We'll go back this year and might have 30. It's one of those things, once the word gets around what a wonderful experience this was, hopefully in the future we can have more. In talking with Kit and some of the kids who went, there's still devastation down there and a lot of work needed to be done. It just speaks to what we're trying to accomplish here as a football team and a football program."

On March 6, just before 5:30 a.m., the group reloaded the van, punched the Murphy Center into their GPS and began the trek back through Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia. They passed the time listening to Crawford's iPod, "exhausted and satisfied" from the impact they left on the community of Pass Christian.

"I guess you could say it was an eye-opener," Crawford said. "You can only imagine until you see."