When three American football coaches, including Lions offensive line coach Jeremiah Washburn, arrived in northern Uganda to teach orphans the sport, among the first reactions was to laugh. The children wondered why the ball had its odd shape and why one side had white laces.
By the third day of the camp, about 50 boys and girls had learned the new sport enough to play a scrimmage, one that ended with a last-second touchdown and an appropriate celebration.
For Washburn, Dylan Gandy and Matt Burke, the chance to teach children in Africa quickly became more than just another day of coaching drills.
"The kids just had a blast, and clearly we got more out of it than they did because it impacted us all in a big way," said Gandy, a former Lions offensive lineman who's now an assistant high school football coach in Indiana.
The three coaches — Burke coaches the Cincinnati Bengals linebackers after holding the same job with the Lions from 2009-13 — along with Washburn's wife, 12-year-old daughter and 10-year-old son made the trek to work with orphans of the Restoration Gateway project in June. The Christian-based organization houses 127 orphans, most of whom are between ages 3 and 15, in the war-torn east African nation, and its goals center on orphan care, health care, community empowerment and ministry.
UNICEF estimates that Uganda has around 2.5 million orphans. While AIDS plays some role, warlord Joseph Kony's attempts to abduct children and turn them into soldiers for the Lord's Resistance Army separated many kids from their parents.
Restoration Gateway, which is funded by private donations, needs more money to finish building its hospital, but when Gandy said he wanted to go, staff members thought a flag football camp would be the best way to bring the children joy.
"Kids are just kids," executive director Brint Patrick said. "They want to be taught something, they want to be able to participate and they want to play."
More Lions chip in
Gandy, whose 10 NFL seasons included 2009-13 with the Lions, first discovered Restoration Gateway a few years ago through a friend. At the time, Gandy and his wife were looking for a charitable cause where they could provide help spiritually and tangibly.
In November 2013, the project held a fundraiser in Detroit, and in addition to Gandy, Patrick said more than a dozen Lions players provided donations.
Traveling halfway across the world is a much bigger commitment, though. Last year, Gandy hosted a fundraising banquet in Indianapolis, and after talking to the coordinators about a potential trip, he started planning one last winter.
Gandy reached out to Washburn because they became friends after both arrived in Detroit in 2009, with Washburn starting as an assistant offensive line coach before being promoted in 2013. Burke is a world traveler who helped inspire Lions linebacker DeAndre Levy's annual excursions, and Gandy thought his football expertise would help, too. After working with the children, Burke climbed Mount Kilimanjaro, Washburn said.
When Gandy and his wife — who skipped the trip to watch their 1-year-old son — originally thought of making the trip, coaching football hadn't occurred. He had donated money to help with the hospital construction, which already has three of its buildings complete, and thought there were other ways to help the community.
Patrick said the organizers like to hold sports camps every six months for the children. They'd work with soccer and basketball instructors in the past and even played kickball, which Patrick hopes can be a prelude for eventual baseball lessons. With a flat field on the grounds, an introductory flag football camp made sense. It also gave Gandy a chance to see the children using the 36 pairs of cleats he helped donate the year before.
"The kids were really quick to learn throwing and catching, and it wasn't because of coaching," Washburn said. "But they were really quick learners, very athletic and they're very bright children. They got the concept of the game really quick."
Restoration Gateway is about 160 miles north of Kampala, the Ugandan capital. Though Washburn said some roads were nice, others weren't and many lacked stoplights, so the drive from Kampala took about 7 hours — "a little bit of Thunderdome," he said.
The children live in groups of eight with four boys in one room, four girls in another and a house mother watching them. A typical day from them isn't much different than it is for American children as they go to school, do chores and play outside. However, most of the time their sporting experience is playing disorganized soccer.
"They've never lived in environment with coaching," Patrick said. "What I really thought Jeremiah and Dylan could both do is really teach and really encourage and uplift and motivate these kids in a way they've never experienced before."
Though Patrick runs the U.S. part of the operation from Waco, Texas, he spoke with some of the staff in Uganda, who said they saw the children discussing what the coaches taught them when they've played football again. Kicking, though, came natural to some children as some were kicking 30-yard field goals, Washburn and Gandy said.
In addition to coaching football, Gandy, Burke, Washburn and Washburn's family spent some time doing yard work and other chores. Though about 250 volunteers visited Restoration Gateway for various amounts of time this summer, the 110 Ugandan staff members work with the kids daily.
"We wanted to help people see, especially in the NFL, there's so much more than just the life we live in the NFL," Gandy said. "There's so much good we can be doing with the things that we've been very fortunate to have."
Film was winner
While the current and former players Gandy invited couldn't make the trip, some Lions helped ensure it was a success. Offensive linemen Riley Reiff and Travis Swanson and coach Jim Caldwell were among those who donated. Caldwell said he's actually planning a trip to the Middle East to do something similar in the future, and Swanson wants to take an expedition, too.
And after Washburn told team president Tom Lewand, the coaches secured some Lions shirts, shorts and other gear to give to the children.
"There's a lot of Lions fans there now," Washburn said.
And it's not just because they're wearing apparel with a Honolulu blue lion. Washburn showed the children a highlight reel from the 2014 Lions season, which featured a lot of quarterback Matthew Stafford and wide receivers Calvin Johnson and Golden Tate.
"It was neat because they loved Stafford, but they loved Golden so much more than Calvin," Washburn said. "Because they're soccer kids, they call it dodging. Golden Tate can dodge. Calvin just catches the ball, but Golden Tate can dodge everybody.
The biggest reaction from the kids was when wide receiver Jeremy Ross hurdled a defender in last year's win over the Atlanta Falcons in London.
"I actually got a little teary-eyed watching them watch American football and just get so into it," Washburn said.