South Africa trip made Mandela scholar out of Michigan's Chris Partridge

Angelique S. Chengelis
The Detroit News
Chris Partridge has been so moved by what he saw in South Africa and what he has since learned about Nelson Mandela, he’s sharing much of that with the players he coaches.

Ann Arbor — Since the Michigan football team returned from its annual spring trip this month, visiting Cape Town and Johannesburg in South Africa, assistant coach Chris Partridge can’t seem to get his hands on enough reading material about Nelson Mandela, the anti-apartheid leader and revolutionary who spent 27 years in prison.

While in Cape Town the Wolverines visited Robben Island, where Mandela was imprisoned. He also spent time in two other South African prisons during his nearly three decades in jail. Mandela was released in 1990 and became the country’s president from 1994 to 1999.

“I’ve read three books since I’ve been back,” Partridge said last weekend before the ChadTough gala. “I don’t know what hit me. I started to research him before we went just to get a good feel for it. We he had a tour guide that was in prison there with Mandela for six years for not doing anything wrong except for sticking up for what he believed in. They threw him in jail. He’s now giving tours about that jail.

“What he said was, ‘As political prisoners we didn’t view this as a jail. We viewed this as an opportunity to be together and get what we wanted out of it. When we got released, and when Nelson got released and we won the fight, we looked back at that jail sentence and just felt like it was a positive in our lives.’”

Partridge wanted to know more. David Turnley is a Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer who spent a considerable amount of time in South Africa over the course of 28 years chronicling the country’s apartheid and knew Mandela well. Turnley is a Michigan alum who teaches a course there and is essentially embedded with the Wolverines -- he and coach Jim Harbaugh have collaborated on two books. After the experience on Robben Island, Partridge asked Turnley for guidance.

“As soon as that happened, I went to David Turnley and I was like, ‘David, what do I have to read? I want to learn about this guy.’ He gave me a couple books. On the buses, on the planes, since I’ve been back, I’ve been reading about Nelson Mandela. He’s an amazing human being.”

It doesn’t end there for Partridge. He has been so moved by what he saw in South Africa and what he has since learned about Mandela, he’s sharing much of that with the players he coaches. Partridge works with the safeties and is special teams coordinator.

“I’ve taken so many notes,” he said. “I’ve been sending texts to our players, Nelson Mandela quotes since we got back. Just because, the way he spoke — there’s a quote book I would suggest anyone reads that gives quotes on what he’s thought throughout his entire life on every subject he’s ever touched. He’s so smart and well-thought out and genuine on every single subject. I’ve been reading that and it’s kinda hit me.”

Sharing the quotes has made an impact on the players who, from what Partridge described, gained an enormous amount from the South Africa experience, especially learning about Mandela.

“Our team was so amazed by it,” he said. “When you have 110 kids of different ages and different levels, just to see them so into the museum and the prison, you know it’s something special.”

And then there was the trip to Johannesburg and the safari. Many of the coaches and players shared images from the safaris on social media, close-up images of lions and elephants, among other animals. Partridge learned while out exploring in tour-guided jeeps that hippos should be the most feared.

“The hippos are the most dangerous animal in the world,” he said. “So check this out, we’re five feet from a lion. The lions are looking back at us and the guides were like fine. We’re 30 feet from a hippo that’s in the water and the hippo opens its mouth and both of our jeeps sped away. I was like, ‘What the hell just happened?’ They’re like, hippos are unpredictable. If they open their mouth, that means they’re threatened. They’ll catch you and kill you.”

Twitter @/chengelis