Four Husky football take a life-changing trip to S. Africa

SEATTLE — Johnie Kirton didn’t think much of the talk former Husky Anthony Kelley gave to Kirton’s class when they were freshmen.

Kirton, like so many other young Division I football players, was mostly concerned with football and the possibility of a future in the NFL back in 2004. But four years after Kelley, a linebacker on Washington’s 2001 Rose Bowl team, told a new crop of Huskies about an opportunity to study abroad, Kirton and two of his UW teammates, Luke Kravitz and Desmond Davis, enter their final session of spring football with a new perspective on life.

Kirton, a defensive tackle from Jackson High School, Kravitz, a fullback from Olympia, and Davis, a walk-on cornerback from Olympia, all spent the past three months on a study abroad trip to Port Elizabeth, South Africa with Kelley, now a graduate student at Washington. The trip was through the Comparative History of Ideas program at Washington. Erick Lobos, who was senior defensive tackle on last year’s team, also was on the trip.

“Freshman year when we first came here, we did the bridge program and Anthony said something about it, but it was just a joke back then, at least that’s what it seemed like,” said Kirton, a Comparative History of Ideas major. “But then six, seven months ago, it became more serious, so we made the decision about then … It was a positive for me not only in the school aspect, but internally from the things that I saw and the things that I got to do down there.”

A new perspective

Kirton talked about the trip giving him and his teammates better perspective on life, helping them to not “take what we have back home for granted.”

The three football players were in class during their mornings, then spent the afternoons helping out in local schools both in the classroom and with after school athletic activities.

Kirton recalled giving one student a new tennis ball, something that would seem like a small gesture back home, and being amazed at what it meant to the children.

“In two weeks it had been rubbed bald,” he said. “There was no fuzz on it. That’s how much they loved it and cherished it.”

Kravitz said his interest in the program was also piqued when Kelley spoke to his freshman class, and that he has always considered going.

“He told us about his trip and how it really changed him and really put his life in perspective,” said Kravitz, who rushed for 34 yards and four touchdowns as Washington’s backup fullback last season. “It made him understand what his education was for and that was something I wanted to take a look at. And if the opportunity was there, I definitely wanted to exercise that. Really what it came down to was getting outside of America and understanding that there are different ways about going about life.”

Kravitz, Kirton and Davis may or may not have big senior seasons in the fall, but regardless of what happens on the field, they know now to appreciate what they have. The idea of the trip isn’t to feel sorry for the students they worked with, but rather to use the lessons learned on their trip to make themselves better people in their everyday lives.

“For now I’m just going to internalize what I learned there and use it to better myself back home in America,” Kirton said.

Kravitz illustrated perhaps the harshest reality of what they saw in South Africa. When talking about his plans for the future, he mentioned a desire to return in two years when the World Cup is being played in South Africa. He hopes to reconnect with some of the students he met on his trip, but fears that many won’t be healthy or alive “because the devastation of AIDS is so prevalent down there.”

Suddenly a fourth-quarter fumble doesn’t seem quite so life-altering.

A better person

Kelley is happy to know that his words to incoming freshmen has made an impact and led to them broadening their horizons.

“I tell them that as student athletes, you come here to a university like Washington, this is an opportunity for you to grow on a holistic level,” he said. “You’re going to have all the materials to become a great athlete, but at the end of your time here, you want to make sure you maximize your opportunities to become a better person, not just as an athlete but as an intellectual. This is an opportunity for you to be a part of something that’s beyond you, that’s not revolving around your athletic ability. It’s helping you evaluate yourself as a person.”

Like so many other student athletes, Kelley came to Washington viewing college as a stop on his way to the NFL. He struggled to qualify academically and sat out his first season in 1998 as a partial qualifier. Everything changed for him in the winter of 2001 when, with the help of a Mary Gates Scholarship, which is given by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, he spent winter quarter studying in Cape Town, South Africa.

He returned behind in football, but changed in life.

“The biggest thing was, with it being an engaging experience, it kind of took me outside of the athletic department,” he said. “It was something that allowed me to turn the mirror on myself and really see how small I am in this big world and let me look beyond myself and football and things that were just revolving around me. It allowed me to look at others and their needs and what I needed to get involved in.”

Since that trip, Kelley, 28, has gone from a student who once struggled to qualify to a college graduate. He is back in school working towards a master’s degree in Education, Leadership and Politics. He was the student speaker at a ceremony bestowing an honorary degree to Archbishop Desmond Tutu. He has returned three times to South Africa and raised thousands of dollars to bring to Seattle a dance troupe he encountered on his first trip. Kelley and his wife Tonya ended up adopting one of those dancers, a girl named Siya, when she was 13.

“I don’t expect everybody to be blown away like I was, but what I can see is that there were a lot of seeds planted,” Kelley said of Kirton, Kravitz, Davis and Lobos. “I can see them taking a second thought about things. Characteristically I saw them grow throughout the trip being exposed to different environments, ideas and questions that kind of challenged them on their ideas. I felt like they had some seeds planted that I hope will have a positive effect on them.”

A balancing act

But as positive as the trip might have been for the current Huskies, the cold reality is that spending three months abroad set them back from a football standpoint. Kravitz said the players adhered to a strict workout regiment in South Africa, but the players still missed voluntary workouts and conditioning with their teammates.

Coming back from South Africa, the players found themselves starting spring at the bottom of the depth chart. Kirton, who is moving from tight end to defensive tackle, would likely have started low on the depth chart anyway, but Kravitz was the team’s No. 2 fullback last season and saw plenty of playing time. Despite being listed low on the depth chart, however, both saw significant time with the second teams during Saturday’s practice.

When asked about having players study abroad, Tyrone Willingham spoke of both the positives and the negatives of the trip.

“It is truly a great opportunity to go abroad,” Willingham said. “But the truth of the matter is, they have two responsibilities; their education and their football. In most cases, it is the football that brought all of our group to this university. They all have different majors, but they all share football. That is unifier. That is the single factor that has them here, so they have a responsibility to that. Part of the things that take place during the winter are a lot of leadership and that’s how you groom and develop and grow your football team. So you don’t want them to miss that, but yet at the same time, you want them to have the world experience.”

Kirton and Kravitz both said coaches were not thrilled with their decision to leave for the winter, but neither regrets the decision.

“The coaches weren’t really too happy about us going,” Kravitz said. “We’re leaving the team for the whole offseason and missing drills and that kind of thing. Especially Johnie and I being seniors, they wanted us to be there to lead the team in offseason workouts. But it was definitely worth it. It was the opportunity of a life time to be able to go to Africa and study abroad and I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”

Contact Herald Writer John Boyle at For more on University of Washington sports, check out the Huskies blog at /huskiesblog

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