You can see the happiness in the picture Kieron Williams took. The little girl who so quickly became his friend sits smiling on a swing in her purple dress. Just 7 or 8 years old. Full of energy. Always wanting to play games. Look at that picture and you would never know what she did not have.

One day, the football player from Nebraska asked his new little friend from the Dominican Republic to write down her name. He knew how to say it, but wanted to know how to spell it.

"She didn't know how," Williams said. "That was one of the biggest moments for me. Most kids around the age of 7 or 8 know how to write their names. Yeah, that was a big shock."

Williams still doesn't know how to spell it. What he does know is he'd go back again to that village if he could. To see her. To keep making a difference.

"The kids there, they made me realize that's kind of what I want do when I'm done with football," Williams said. "Work with kids. Just have an impact on them."

It's the kind of trip that can change your perspective in a hurry. It was accomplished one week in May, as 25 people connected with the Husker Athletic Department visited the Dominican Republic to help build a basketball court and paint a mural on a community center.

"It's a very poor village. Limited electricity. No plumbing, no roads. Just an eye-opener to myself and the student-athletes," said Keith Zimmer, Husker senior associate athletic director, who leads the Life Skills program.

The mission, besides the obvious desire to serve others with less, is to help the student-athletes come back with a different lens on life. "And maybe they're inspired and motivated in a different way for their future," Zimmer said.

Twenty of those on the trip are current Husker athletes from a range of sports. Five had just graduated the day before yet were on a bus at 2 a.m. to make the trip.

For someone like Williams, it's one of the few spare weeks he has all year without any football responsibilities. But when he heard the trip was funded by the Athletic Department, he knew it was an experience that shouldn't be passed on.

Williams applied and wrote the required essay. A committee of 15 reviewed the applications of 40-plus applicants. Critical details for the trip were planned out by Life Skills coordinators Stacey Burling and Jordan Wilson, Zimmer said.

Everyone on the trip gets their hands dirty. Williams found himself pushing dirt in a wheelbarrow up and down a hill half a mile 8 to 10 hours a day for four days straight.

"I wouldn't call myself a fix-it guy but I would say I'm a hard worker," he said.

A day after returning from pushing wheelbarrows, Williams was in an English class and working out for football again.

Feeling changed from just a week.

The kids in the village didn't know anything about Husker athletics, of course, but they knew they wanted to be friends with these visitors.

Zimmer said NU athletes found creative ways to play with the kids with limited resources, while still putting in some serious work in challenging conditions.

"Motivated like athletes are," he added. "Very competitive to try to see a project through from start to finish."

It's the second straight year Nebraska athletics has been involved in a service-abroad trip. A year ago, Husker athletes lent a helping hand in Guatemala. NU linebacker Josh Banderas, who made that trip, called it a life-changing experience.

"If I'm tired on the field, and I have to fight to get to the next play or have to fight to keep giving 100 percent effort," Banderas said last fall, "then maybe I'll think about these people from Guatemala who sometimes don't get to eat that day."

Even if the conditions on the trips are not what those around here are used to, some of the athletes find it tough to leave.

The friendships and faces that come with them are so full of impact.

"I would say the majority would say that was the most difficult part of the trip, the separation from the kids and the family," Zimmer said. "These families were just so appreciative and genuine. It was hard. Because our athletes knew they were coming back to a better place and the conditions we were in for a week is the only lifestyle that those people would ever know."

In the case of Byerson Cockrell, the recently graduated Husker defensive back, he was awakened each morning around 6 a.m. by a 12-year-old boy named Yoandi.

There was a language barrier, but Yoandi wanted to hang out with Byerson. So he showed up early, before school. The little guy gave the football player a nickname. Guichi.

Cockrell didn't know what it meant. He asked people in the area. They didn't know. Turns out it was just the name of some other person the kid knew. In any regard, for a few days the former Husker had a new name and that was just fine.

Consider now that Cockrell had never been outside his home state of Mississippi before he came to Nebraska to play football a couple of years ago. He was the first in his family to graduate college.

"Growing up in the place like Columbus, Mississippi, you will rarely see somebody go on and do great things," Cockrell said. "You will not see too many people going on and playing college football or going and doing some good in life. To be honest with you, you hear bad things about the kids I went to high school with. You'll hear they're locked up, and I hate it. But that's actually just the truth of what you're normally going to hear."

Cockrell, who decided to take a break from football after his senior year in 2015 and did not participate in Nebraska's Pro Day, wants to be a different story. The type of person who made something out of trying circumstances, and encourages others to do the same.

"I'm one of those guys who really want to make a change and inspire the kids," Cockrell said. "I actually take a lot of pride in that, that I graduated, especially from some place like Nebraska. … I'm going to keep doing my thing and show the kids there's more out there. There's a lot of things that you should want to explore in life and learn from."

Now Cockrell is planning to use a post-eligibility opportunity from the the Athletic Department to make another extended trip in a few months to help people in Ghana.

Zimmer has seen how Cockrell has changed since arriving to Lincoln. He could see it in him as he watched him work in the Dominican Republic.

"It was a way to for him to grow as a person, to grow his confidence," Zimmer said. "And I think after a trip like that, he believes anything is possible. There's nothing he can't do."

Reach the writer at 402-473-7439 or bchristopherson@journalstar.com. On Twitter @HuskerExtraBC.


Load comments