Mission trip to Haiti leaves lasting impact on Ole Miss football team

OXFORD, Miss. -- College football players are used to living in dorm rooms that are more like apartments or hotel suites. They’re used to big-screen TVs in the locker room, hot tubs in the football complex or arcade games in the players’ lounge.

They’re not used to life in a country like Haiti, where the “hotel rooms” have no air conditioning, no TVs and no lights.

“It was somewhere basically to just lay your head down,” Ole Miss linebacker Christian Russell said. “That’s pretty much all you really had there.”

Russell was one of 12 Ole Miss football players who took a mission trip to Haiti in March, prior to the start of spring practice. It was a culture shock for not just the players who went but also for head coach Hugh Freeze, who brought his wife and three daughters with him on the trip.

Freeze had taken mission trips before -- he’d been everywhere from Houston to Australia to Russia -- but after the first night, even he was ready to pack it up and go home.

“The first night was tough on me,” Freeze said. “I’m spoiled. I woke up the next morning and told the guys that. I was transparent with them and said all night I was just thinking about how I’m going to write a check and pay for an air change, and we’re going to get out of here. I don’t know about this no AC stuff.

“But man, it was a good challenge for me. I just decided the next morning, ‘Hey, we’re going to attack the day, go one at a time, and God will teach us something from it.’ And He did.”

The trip itself was put together by the team chaplain, who joined forces with a mission group called The 410 Bridge. The purpose was to help get clean water to the area and also spend time in the community, sharing the Gospel and playing with the local kids.

The place where they stayed was on the beach, but the trip was anything but luxurious.

The temperature never dipped below 80 degrees. The AC would only come on at night, and it would turn back off at 3 or 4 in the morning. There was no hot water and no water safe enough for the players to drink or even brush their teeth with. They had to use bottled water all week. It was a different world than the one they had grown accustomed to back home.

“Whenever we showed up to the hotel, I think some people’s expectations dropped to rock bottom,” defensive end John Youngblood said.

For Youngblood, it wasn’t his first mission trip either. He had been to Panama two years ago and to the same area in Haiti the year before. He knew what to expect. But that wasn’t the case for some of the other players, such as Russell, who were going for the very first time.

Among the new players who went was Chad Kelly, the highly touted junior college quarterback who arrived at Ole Miss in January with somewhat of a checkered past. When he signed with the Rebels, he and Freeze made an agreement that if the two were going to go down this road together, the mission trip would be beneficial to him.

Kelly didn’t question it. He hopped on the plane and embraced it.

“He had a huge heart,” Freeze said. “No one played harder with those kids in the afternoon sessions than him. For four hours in the sun, he never stopped. Very few of us could say that. I’m not one. I couldn’t do it.”

One trip won’t change people’s perceptions of Kelly. There are still some who are just waiting for the nephew of Hall of Fame quarterback Jim Kelly to get in trouble again. But his presence on the trip changed some of his teammates’ views.

“It’s really easy to judge a book by its cover,” said Youngblood, Kelly’s roommate on the trip. “I’ve done that to people in the past. But I gave him a chance and I enjoyed being around him. I really saw how this trip got to him and impacted him.

“He was right there, doing everything that everyone else was doing. He wasn’t complaining about anything else. Just like everybody else that went, he really embraced why we were there, what we were doing there and he thoroughly enjoyed it.”

The trip wasn’t about Kelly, though. It wasn’t about any of the Ole Miss players or coaches. It was about the people of Haiti they went to serve.

Russell still remembers one little girl he met on the trip. The players were directed not to give away their bottled water to the locals, but some did anyway. This specific girl would come over and hold Russell’s hand every time before the group was about to leave, knowing he would give in and give her a bottled water before they left. He still remembers her face.

Those are the memories that stay with you even after you return home.

“Once I finally got back into the States, I couldn’t stop thinking about it,” Russell said. “In our world, we have everything. There’s so much we take for granted.

“Those folks over there are praying just to get a chance of rain. We get rain, and we’re like, ‘Oh, it’s raining again.’ It really makes you look at stuff and really be appreciative because you could be in that situation as well. It makes you look at everything differently.”

When the players returned home, they enjoyed the simple luxuries they missed. They went back to having air conditioning, hot showers and clean water. But that week they spent in Haiti will leave an impact on their lives forever.

“I think every individual is different,” Freeze said. “Everybody sees it from a different angle and a different perspective, and what moves someone may not move the other and vice versa. But I think it’s very clear that each person that went probably gets slapped in the face of reality that we have it really good and we are very, very blessed and fortunate.

“Hopefully, that spurs us all on to make the most of the opportunities and lessons we have, where we are, and use that to impact others.”