Roy Williams, the former Oklahoma star, has been a guy I've tried to follow his entire NFL career. As much as I remember that spectacular play he made in the Red River Rivalry, where he flew, Superman style, in from the blindside over a Texas running back to jar the ball loose from Texas quarterback Chris Simms, I also think back to the way he opened up about the stigma he had faced when he was younger, struggling in school as "a resource kid." Initially, that ESPN The Magazine feature on Williams was going to focus on him being such an "instinctive" player, but the more I talked to him and those close to him, the more it proved to be something much more than that. He spoke about how that label and other more blunt labels affected him growing up and he hoped by telling his story it would have an impact on other kids who might be dealing with similar issues.
A few weeks ago, I noticed a tweet from colleague John Saunders, where he mentioned Williams and a cause the five-time Pro Bowler is involved with called Pros For Africa. The more I read about Pros For Africa, which was formed by a group of old Oklahoma Sooners, the more curious I became.
Jay Mitchel, an Oklahoma City attorney who attempted to walk-on at OU for basketball in the late 90's, had become close friends with Williams and reached out to him two years ago to see if the Sooner great would be willing to raise awareness and money for a project in Africa that was the brainchild of his boss, Reggie Whitten, another Oklahoma City-based attorney. Whitten had begun plans to help a school run by Sister Rosemary Nyirumbe called the St. Monica's Girls Tailoring Centre in Gulu, Uganda after he had taken a life-changing trip to Africa in the wake of his son's death. Whitten chose Uganda because of the gruesome conditions for children in a country that has been so ravaged by war that the average age in northern Uganda is merely 15-years old. Many of these children's parents have been killed or died from disease.
"Northern Uganda has been ravaged by war and disease for more than 20 years," says Mitchel. "According to the United Nations, at one time it was one of the worst places on the planet for children. These kids need help. It's not their fault they were born into such terrible conditions. They are no different than us and so grateful when we come to visit. It's amazing to see how happy and content the people of Uganda are with so little.
To say Williams was moved would be an understatement: "I said 'I want to go as well. I am in.'"
Whitten, Mitchel and Williams along with another co-founder, Bill Horn, were able to also recruit fellow Sooner stars Mark Clayton, Tommie Harris and Adrian Peterson. "Jay called people he knew from college and I had hosted Tommie and Mark on their recruiting visits," said Williams. "They know I wouldn't get into something that doesn't have some substance behind it. They wanted to get on board too."
Even though the four OU All-Americans had grown up out of state with Harris, Clayton and Peterson being Texans and Williams, a Californian, they developed strong roots in the Oklahoma community and have left quite a legacy for OU football. It has grown to take on even more meaning thanks to the inspiring off-field work they're doing.
"Football is just what we do. It doesn't define who we are," Williams says. "We are some young men who love to give back. When I was in college, my hand was always the first hand to go up when Coach (Bob) Stoops would ask 'Who wants to go visit a hospital?' I know the importance of being able to give back and uplift somebody when we're in that position. If you spend 30 minutes or an hour to go to a hospital or visit somebody just to give some encouraging words or listen to them, that goes miles and miles."
They formed Pros For Africa, a nonprofit organization based in Oklahoma City. Last year, after taking 8-10 shots each and a weekly diet of Malaria pills, the group flew 19 hours from Oklahoma to Dallas through London en route to Africa with a team of physicians and engineers to provide humanitarian aid. They each paid their own way to get over there. The NFL stars dug water wells, started construction on a second school and distributed food.
Williams was overwhelmed by what he saw and by what he felt.
"It is so sad," he said. "There are kids everywhere. When you driving along the road to go to Gulu (Uganda), you see kids sharing watering holes with livestock. People always ask, 'Why do you have to go to Africa?' Well, until you see what it's really like over there, you don't realize how huge the need is. If you see how bad they are living, you'll think our homeless here in the States are living in luxury. They can put their hand out and people may give them money. They can go to a Salvation Army and someone will give them food. They can go to a shelter and have a roof over the heads. In Africa, it's so sad. Those are ever-lasting memories.
"I was just looking at some of the pictures we have with the kids. In spite of all the hardships that they go through, they still smile. We complain about a car cutting us off or traffic, where we honk our horns, but come on now. We worry about petty stuff. They have huge problems over there and they don't even complain about anything."
The group, which raised a little over $100,000 for the children of Africa in 2010, returned to Africa for two weeks in March with an even bigger contingent that included almost a dozen NFL players, among others recent Oklahoma star Gerald McCoy as well as the Starkey Hearing Foundation, which fitted more than 2,000 hearing aids on the trip.
According to Mitchel, hearing loss is a major issue facing the people in Africa, explaining that a basic ear infection in Africa may cause hearing loss if untreated. Other contributing factors include disease, trauma, genetics and other conditions. (Starkey teaches them to clean their ears, but with little access to medicine or medical treatment there isn't much anyone can do).
"I'm so happy that we added Starkey," said Williams. "To see a child's face, where they go from a blank look and then when you put that hearing aid on them and they hear for the first time, they start smiling and they start crying. And it's not just that fact that they're hearing for the first time, but they're hearing your voice, so it means that much more to you.
"When you hear more and more people want to get involved, you can feel the camaraderie, where you have that feeling that I am apart of something special. And that makes you appreciate what you're a part of even more. Then when you go on the trip to Africa, you see it. "Wow, look at the lives that we're able to impact. Look at these smiles on these kids and women's faces. Even talking about it makes it grow and appreciate it even more.
"I tell people all of the time when I speak to kids: It's not about how much money you have in the bank or what kind car you drive. Life is about the kind of impact you have on other people's lives while you're here. I ask them, 'What kind of legacy are you going to leave when you're dead and gone?' I want my legacy to live on through these young kids and women that we're helping so they can bless somebody else."
The Sooners support group also has branched out to form Pros 4 Vets, with country music star Toby Keith. Pros 4 Vets has recently put on a football camp for kids at Fort Hood and several of the football players have visited VA hospitals with P4V.
"It's so close to my heart because my grandpa was a vet," Williams says. "Whenever I go to a VA and talk with some of the older guys, I remember my time sitting with my grandpa. When they're talking, I feel like I've heard a lot of these stories before because it's like I'm listening to my grandpa again. I soak that up as much as I can."
Mitchel is bringing another contingent back to Africa in August with plans to start the construction of a third school in southern Sudan. The group is expected to also include some NBA players. Just last week, Mitchel and his brother Jared, staged a three-day Pros For Africa event in their hometown of Woodward, Okla. Clayton, Williams and more recent OU players Quinton Carter, Brody Eldridge and Reggie Smith attended the event that culminated with a dodgeball tournament. In all, Pros For Africa raised almost $20,000 for the children of Africa at the event.
Mitchel says the organization is in the process of planning several fundraisers, but don't have anything on paper. They are hoping to host one in New York with the Jets' Santonio Holmes as well as one in Tampa with McCoy.
Williams said he will be more hands on with the organizations after his football career is over. He hopes to continue to build on the momentum: "We want to partner up with more organization to reach more people," he said. "We would love to be able to actually go to each one of the countries in Africa to hand out hearing aids, dig some water wells. pass out clothes and conduct medical clinics. We want to be able to impact all of the countries over there to give them motivation to uplift them."