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Tampa Bay Buccaneers' Gerald McCoy calls relief mission to Uganda and Rwanda 'life-changing'

On the typical offseason trip, success is defined by returning rested and rejuvenated, with the tan lines to prove it.

Gerald McCoy gained a bit more from this excursion. He brought back pictures and memories and stories to tell, but he also got this:

A transformative experience.

Two weeks in a war-torn region of Africa where the basics that Americans take for granted are considered indulgent might not sound like a hoot. But McCoy, the Bucs' 2010 first-round draft pick, said joining a relief mission to Uganda and Rwanda last month made him a new man.

"It was life-changing," McCoy said. "You kind of re-evaluate what's important to you because of how some people live over there. We complain about so much, but we have it so good and don't even realize it."

McCoy, 23, traveled with the nonprofit group Pros for Africa, an organization that counts NFL stars and fellow Oklahoma alumni Adrian Peterson and Tommie Harris among its co-founders and includes physicians and business leaders. Formed in 2009 and based in McCoy's hometown of Oklahoma City, the group ventures to places many can't find on a map, assisting mainly women and children affected by poverty, war and natural disasters. This year's contingent included NFL stars Santonio Holmes and Larry Fitzgerald.

They dug wells, clothed children and provided medical care. They offered hope and lifted spirits. But McCoy would tell you he's the lucky one.

"It was so satisfying," he said. "I can't wait to go back."

Among the things that left McCoy wanting more was Pros for Africa's newest venture: providing hearing aids for hearing-impaired children.

The father of a young daughter, McCoy was particularly touched. Charity work is not new to him, but this was different.

"I get to do a lot of things for other people," he said. "But when you are able to give somebody the gift of hearing, that's just amazing."

McCoy returned with fond memories of the young women at the Akilah Institute for Women in Kigali, Rwanda, a college for girls that trains students for careers in the fast-growing tourism industry. McCoy and Titans defensive lineman Derrick Morgan visited the school, which was founded by Tampa native Elizabeth Davis.

That's where they met genocide survivor and English-speaking student Blandine Ineza.

She was 5 years old when the country's 1994 uprising led to the murders of most of her relatives. In her household, grandparents, aunts and uncles were slaughtered. She saw her grandmother being bludgeoned to death. Her mother was brutalized for weeks and still suffers from mental trauma. Estimates say fighting between the Hutu and Tutsi tribes killed 800,000 to 1 million in a span of three months, and the country is still recovering.

But during the visit, Ineza, now 22, gave no indication of the horrors she'd seen. Instead, she served as a tour guide, taking McCoy and Morgan to the city's genocide memorial and other popular spots.

"They were so humble," Ineza said by phone in her broken English. "And they were so kind. It makes me feel so happy when people come to my country."

She felt inspired that two famous Americans would go out of their way to visit. Little did she know McCoy was admiring her all the while.

"She had such a great personality," he said. "That's what's great about what's going on over there. We gained motivation and strength from them. Nobody looks back. All of them are so positive."

Said Ineza: "After the genocide, I thought my life was over. But I (eventually) said I have to concentrate on my future. … Now I have a vision for my future, and I can do whatever I want."

The trip left McCoy with an image of Africa utterly different from that of some Americans.

"There's a horrible misconception about Africa," he said. "The misconception is that people walk around with bones through their noses and live in huts. It's not like that at all. They're just like us. And Africa is a breathtaking place."

McCoy was struck not only by the beauty but by the natural resources.

"It's the motherland," he said. "The fruit is the freshest fruit you will ever taste."

The wildlife is a little different, too. McCoy embarked on a gorilla-watching expedition in the Rwandan countryside and got, perhaps, a bit more than he bargained for.

"They were a few feet away from us," he said. "Probably 5 or 10 feet. One actually walked right past me!"

Guides instructed the players on how to show signs of respect to the animals so the humans wouldn't be viewed as a threat. McCoy admitted some apprehension, but the experience turned into one of his most memorable on the trip.

As for describing American football to Africans, he's not sure he succeeded despite much effort.

"A little kid asked how do we play football and run so fast when we're so fat," McCoy recalled with laughter.

The boy was, of course, referring to soccer — the only "football" most Africans have ever known.

McCoy might try recruiting some of his Tampa Bay teammates to go on next year's trip. And judging from his account, he'll be a good salesman.

"This trip is not for everybody," McCoy said. "But I really, really encourage people to go."

If others are lucky, they, too, will return with more than a tan.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers' Gerald McCoy calls relief mission to Uganda and Rwanda 'life-changing' 04/12/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, April 12, 2011 8:29pm]
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