This spring practice is a crucial one for Purdue’s David Blough. He’s learning a whole new system under first-year head coach Jeff Brohm, a quarterback-friendly offense in which Blough will have to be sharp for the whole team to succeed.
Still, Blough understands that football isn’t everything. That's because of what he does during his rare down time during the spring.
Blough and a group of Purdue athletes spent their spring break earlier this month volunteering at a South African orphanage. It was Blough’s fifth trip to the orphanage since 2015.
“When I reflect on everything I’ve been able to do so far in my young life, it’s humbling,” he said. “I’ve been so incredibly blessed with good health, great family, friends and coaches. So it’s cool to be able to provide that for somebody else who doesn’t have it.”
Purdue athletics chaplain Marty Dittmar started taking the Boilermakers' players to the Bethesda Outreach Ministries orphanage eight years ago. Dittmar was hesitant at first because of the distance. The orphanage is located in Hammanskraal, which is about a 90-minute drive from Johannesburg, which is roughly a 16-hour direct flight from Atlanta.
Once Dittmar saw the impact the players could have on the orphans -- most of whom are parentless because of the AIDS epidemic in Africa -- and vice versa, he was hooked. He got in Blough’s ear about the trip early on.
“I was challenging him about living life beyond the football field,” Dittmar said. “Doing something that will strengthen him inside rather than just outside. He’s the kind of kid who really responds to that anyway. And he got more excited about it than I’ve ever dreamed.”
Blough went on his first trip during spring break in 2015 as a freshman and says his “eyes were opened” by what he saw. The orphanage houses about 44 children of all ages, and another 200 or so come in to the schools in the complex. Many have limited access to clean water or food.
After a few days on that first trip, Blough made friends with several of the kids. They all had a question for him: “Are you coming back?”
“From way they see it,” he said, “everybody who has ever entered their lives has exited.”
Blough didn’t want to do that. He promised the six foster families who care for the kids that he would make one trip for each one of them.
He went back to Hammanskraal again that May. He did the same during spring break and May of 2016. Athletes from several different Purdue sports teams go on the mission, and this year’s trip also included three of Blough’s teammates: cornerback Da’Wan Hunte, linebacker Danny Ezechukwu and safety Andy Chelf, along with graduate assistant and former Boilermakers linebacker Sean Robinson. Blough has been instrumental in getting other players to sign up each year, Dittmar said.
The players live in the village for a week and help out with projects around the orphanage. On the most recent trip, they dug a 60-foot ditch to install a badly-needed water line. The kids also look forward to the annual sports day, when the Boilermakers join them for games such as soccer, cricket and netball. The orphans, Blough said, "think Purdue is the only university in America." Blough, because of his repeated visits, is their idol.
“They don’t care how many touchdowns I throw or how many interceptions I throw,” Blough said. “A familiar face to them is like a celebrity.”
Blough led the Big Ten in passing yards per game (279.3) and touchdowns (25) last season as a redshirt sophomore, but he also threw a league-worst 21 interceptions. He’s working to improve his decision-making this spring and getting plenty of hands-on instruction from Brohm, who played quarterback in the NFL.
After one of Purdue’s early spring practices in which he made too many mistakes, Blough went back to the football complex around 9 p.m. to watch film. He thought he was alone in the building until Brohm popped into the meeting room. Brohm spent the next 90 minutes breaking down the film with Blough, at one point even getting down on the floor to illustrate where Blough should feel the weight of his plant foot.
“I probably talked to coach Brohm more that night than I did in the last few years with the head coach,” Blough said. “It’s special to me, because he cares.”
Blough will not go to South Africa this May as he concentrates on football, but he keeps tabs with the orphanage through Facebook, and he has already signed up for the trip for spring break next year.
“I think that tells you the kind of heart that David has,” Dittmar said. “It’s a heart for service, it’s a heart for God and a heart for people. That’s the kind of guy he is and who he will be all through his life.”