Trip to South African orphanage changed Carolina's Mike Adams

Panthers safety Mike Adams went to South Africa in March 2017 with Tony Carter, William Gay, Brandon Marshall, Duke Ihenacho, Omar Bolden and P.J. Williams. Courtesy of Through Our Eyes

On most nights growing up Mike Adams, was one of four-to-six kids sleeping in one bed in a small, low-income apartment in Paterson, New Jersey. He often had to walk past drug dealers to get to school. He saw people standing near him shot.

He understands now he was living in poverty, but didn't know any better until he went to college and saw how the so-called other half lived.

Then he realized just how hard he had it growing up. Until he went to South Africa.

In the time it took Adams to visit an orphanage in Cape Town, along the western tip of South Africa, with a group of current and former NFL players in 2017, the Carolina Panthers strong safety realized growing up, he didn't have it so bad after all.

Thirty-six kids living under one roof left an impression he'll never forget.

It made Adams, 37, realize that when enduring the hot, humid temperatures of training camp at Wofford College in Spartanburg, South Carolina, over the next three weeks, that he should be thankful just as the kids at the orphanage were for the smallest gifts.

"No doubt," Adams said. "Nobody I met over there complained. What right do I have here?"

Adams visited another orphanage in Jamaica this past offseason, but the trip didn't have the same impact as the few weeks he spent living out of his comfort zone in South Africa.

"Sometimes when you grow up in an environment where there is poverty and a lot of kids around you are unfortunate you see things that others don't see, it becomes normal," Adams recalled. "It becomes a part of your culture. Then when you go somewhere and see something different ... it's definitely a humbling experience going over there. Sometimes you don't know what is better out there because of the environment you're in."

Adams also made time for a safari during this South Africa adventure. He learned a lesson there as well that helped him better understand a culture that views the United States in a way he'd never thought about.

That happened when he asked his guide if he was scared to be so close to lions, leopards and other wild animals that Adams hadn't seen before outside of television or the zoo.

"He said, 'You know what? I would be more afraid to walk around in New York City,'" Adams recalled. "I was like, 'Really?' But he explained to me how there really isn't much crime out in the wild. I was really blown back."

Eye opening

Adams is not alone. I had a similar experience during a trip to South Africa in late June and early July. There were women and children pushing full wheelbarrows with precious water. Many weren't wearing shoes, and if they were they were worn beyond imagination.

There were countless unfinished homes because the owners ran out of money during construction. Cows were grazing on piles of garbage stacked by the road. It was eye opening.

On the outskirts of Cape Town, people were living in what Adams best described as "canisters," pod-like boxes turned into homes. South Africa's shanty towns were built by the apartheid era government.

But what stood out to both of us, even more than the living conditions, was nobody complained.

"We complain about the littlest things, and they were just living life," Adams said. "And they don't have half of the things we have."

Many of these kids Adams met lived in the same clothes for weeks at a time. That's why they were so appreciative when Adams and his group brought them suitcases packed with shoes, clothes, toothpaste and toothbrushes, toys and other things many often take for granted.

Again, Adams was impacted.

"How we complain so much and they don't even complain," he said. "They go with what they have. They can't wait for it to rain. There is no electricity in a lot of places. Some had shoes ran down, some walked barefoot and yet they all were full of life.

"I was definitely thrown back."

Adams went to South Africa in March 2017 with Tony Carter (cornerback for NFL eight seasons), William Gay (Giants cornerback), Brandon Marshall (Seahawks wide receiver), Duke Ihenacho (free agent strong safety), Omar Bolden (free agent strong safety) and P.J. Williams (Saints cornerback).

They each packed two suitcases, one with their clothes and the other with donations for the orphanage.

They also had plenty of cash, until the woman that ran the orphanage explained how she was trying to build a school but didn't have the funds to do it.

"We all took the money we had in our pockets, like $3,500 or whatever it was, and gave it to her for the construction of a school," Adams recalled. "She was so grateful, so happy. She was like, 'I'll make sure it goes to the right place.' We were like, 'We believe you.'

"I want to go back."

Christmas in March

Kids huddled around the suitcases as Adams and his group began pulling out gifts.

"There was this little girl and the first thing she grabbed was slippers," Adams said. "A young boy, the first thing he grabbed was a ball or Frisbee. So you see the difference in genders. He wanted to play and she wanted to cover her feet.

"But it was cool to see the smiles on all of their faces."

Those with Adams felt the same way.

"This is one of the most humbling experience I've had in my life," Carter said in a video documenting the South Africa trip.

Ihenacho agreed.

"You learn stuff from these kids. They can find happiness in the smallest things," he said. "Not all of us in the states grew up with a silver spoon, but compared to this we do."

Adams is reminded of how lucky he is when looking back before the start of camp, but in reality "it doesn't do it any justice looking at the pictures."

"You have to be there," he said. "That's what I tell people. You can look at the pictures and it may remind you of something, but you have to be there to get that full effect.

"You just telling somebody, they'll be like, 'Oh, wow! Really!' They've got to go.' But until you experience it, you just don't realize how powerful it is."


Adams is entering his 15th season since joining the NFL as an undrafted player out of Delaware. His 21 takeaways over the past four seasons ranks No. 3 in the league during that time. He seems to be getting better with age, and Panthers coach Ron Rivera said this week he expects more from his veteran safety in 2018.

Adams also is making an impact off the field through his "Conquerors Foundation" that has sponsored football camps and other charitable events at home.

He initially was going to do another camp in Paterson in 2017, but then decided to take his charity outside the country. That's how he landed at the orphanage in South Africa in what turned out to be a life-changing experience.

"When we got there the lady had all the kids," Adams said. "We were like, 'When will somebody come pick them up?' She was, 'No, nobody picks up the kids.' She said what happens is usually somebody gets pregnant, and when they have the kid, they drop it off and never come back.

"Little babies! She had 6-month-old kids somebody left at steps."

Adams doesn't know how much longer he can play football. He's in the last of a two-year deal with the Panthers and at an age where most safeties are long retired.

But he knows he can continue making an impact off the field, and can't wait for his next adventure to South Africa.

"And it won't stop there," Adams said. "We've been fortunate enough to blossom in our careers. We don't have to do this, but we kind of feel obligated."