BEREA, Ohio -- NFL players spend their offseason in various ways. Five Cleveland Browns joined players from around the league to wash the feet of orphans in Brazil.
In February, on a trip organized and funded by Browns tight end Gary Barnidge and Jets lineman Breno Giacomini, several players flew to Brazil to bring U.S. football to the country and shoes to an orphanage.
“It was a very humbling experience,” said Browns linebacker Barkevious Mingo, a former first-round pick who made the trip. “Those kids are less fortunate than most, and they still found time to come out and smile with us. It just made the whole trip worth it.”
Barnidge and Giacomini founded American Football Without Borders with the mission “to spread American football to different corners of the globe with a humanitarian cause.”
Two years ago, the two discussed a trip to Egypt with a friend who was Egyptian. The country’s revolution derailed those plans, so they decided to go global again and went to China. This February it was Brazil, and joining them from the Browns were safety Johnson Bademosi, center Alex Mack, tight end Jordan Cameron and Mingo. Among others on the trip were running back DeAngelo Williams of the Panthers, lineman Russell Okung and running back Marshawn Lynch of the Seahawks, and receiver Golden Tate, now with Detroit.
The goal is to bring as many good elements of U.S. football as possible to the international community, as well as to help kids. AFWB hosts a clinic on every trip, then visits an orphanage. In Brazil, Barnidge partnered with the charitable group Samaritan’s Feet to bring shoes to kids who needed them.
Teaching football to the far reaches of the globe isn’t far-fetched. The International Federation of American Football (IFAF) has five federations worldwide and members in countries as varied as Nigeria, Mongolia, India and New Zealand.
“Everywhere we go they have something organized as far as playing football,” Barnidge said. “In China they had six teams, and now they’re up to 10 and they’ve been invited to play in other countries. It’s growing just in the two years since we’ve been there.”
Many of the NFL players who traveled did a short blog on the AFWB website about their experience. Cameron included a photo of a teenager in Brazil who had a tattoo of former Panthers and current Ravens receiver Steve Smith on his calf.
“Our overall goal is we want to get kids from other countries recognized by colleges here,” Barnidge said.
One of his 2013 campers in China came to Williams’ U.S. camp, where a Division III school offered him a scholarship on the spot, Barnidge said. The player turned it down to go to Stanford, but Barnidge took the recognition as a good sign.
Language differences pose challenges, but Barnidge said that is overcome by simply showing the young players what to do.
“The camp alone was awesome,” Cameron said. “Just being able to help and teach the game that we love so much to other people was important to us.”
The orphanage, though, was an experience that will linger for a long time.
“One of the heaviest things ever,” Cameron said. “You see these kids and you almost want to adopt every single one of them. But at the same time they’re so positive and happy for us to be there.”
“They’re living in an orphanage,” Mingo said. “And they still found time to come out and visit with us and play. Amazing.”
Players spent time with the kids, kicked the soccer ball and did whatever they could. They then washed the feet of the kids before giving them shoes, courtesy of Samaritan’s Feet.
China’s orphanage had an entirely different level of experience.
“A lot of the kids had disabilities,” Barnidge said. “It’s heartbreaking. They’re out in the middle of nowhere and it’s just not fair. Why does this have to happen?”
But what Barnidge also remembers is that those kids were simply happy to meet American football players.
“Seeing their face smiling, that in itself is very rewarding,” he said.
The trip does involve some vacation time; the group bonds as they spend time together in the country after the humanitarian work is complete. Barnidge and Giacomini fund AFWB entirely on their own, though they’re actively looking for a sponsor.
For Barnidge, it’s part of giving, which he considers important. He works with Ohio Guidestone (formerly the Berea Children’s Home) to host 10 kids at every game and take them on a Christmas shopping spree. He said he wants to give back to “the less fortunate kids,” which is why he decided to visit the orphanages and partner with Samaritan’s Feet.
“In the position we’re in we can touch lives just by saying hi or spending time with somebody,” Barnidge said. “I don’t think people understand that enough. Just by spending 10 minutes with someone or signing an autograph you can change somebody’s life.”
“It wasn’t until we really got there,” Mingo said, “that it all made sense.”