Credit MileHighReport on the find
Making a difference
Broncos rookie Alphonso Smith spent part of the summer of 2008 working with the Nyanya Project in Africa
By Brian Howell
© 2009 Longmont Times-Call
Several time zones away from home — listening to a language he didn’t understand and surrounded by the type of poverty he’d never seen — Alphonso Smith got an opportunity he’ll never forget.
“It’s something that everyone, if they have the opportunity, should take advantage of,” Smith said.
A second-round draft choice of the Denver Broncos in April, Smith is set to begin his rookie year when training camp opens later this month. For the 5-foot-9, 190-pound cornerback, football has been a way of life since his youth.
One of the greatest experiences of his life, however, was acquired away from the field, in an impoverished village just outside of Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.
In June of 2008, Smith and two of his Wake Forest University teammates — Kevin Patterson and Chantz McClinic — took an opportunity to be a part of the Nyanya Project and help a set of grandmothers in the village of Kawe.
Wake Forest faculty member Mary Martin Niepold started the Nyanya Project two years ago (the grandmothers are called “nyanya” in Swahili) after volunteering in Kenyan orphanages.
After learning about Niepold’s first trip to Africa, in 2007, Smith and his teammates inquired about helping out, and then jumped at the chance to go.
“Being an African American, when it comes down to it, that’s where my ancestors are from,” Smith said. “Just to have a chance to go and not only to go, but to assist people and help people who are in need (meant a lot).”
In 2008, Niepold led a team of 20 to help train several Tanzanian grandmothers — most of whom are taking care of children orphaned because their parents died of AIDS — to make crafts and learn how to market them. The group also built a shelter for several of those grandmothers.
In Dar es Salaam, Smith and his teammates were miles away from the Winston-Salem, N.C., campus where they were given a measure of celebrity status as football players.
It was a different feeling for Smith, who’s grown used to being a star.
He stood out on his pee wee league team in Pahokee, Fla. In high school, he shined at cornerback and quarterback — in fact, he could have played quarterback in college, at Indiana, but knew his future was at defensive back. He wound up at Wake Forest, where his 21 career interceptions set an Atlantic Coast Conference record.
Then, in April, the Broncos thought so much of Smith that they traded a first-round pick in the 2010 draft to jump up and snag him in the second round.
Without question, Smith’s been on the NFL path for years. But, while Smith has proven he’s a remarkable talent, he’s also got an oversized heart.
Smith has been involved with the Santa’s Helper program at Wake Forest, wrapping and delivering presents to children in Winston-Salem. He has also donated his time to speak at high schools.
Joining the Nyanya Project gave Smith an opportunity to help others on a new level, and Niepold was glad to have him on board.
“You can’t help but love him,” said Niepold, who refers to Smith as “Zo.”
The people in the Kawe village were drawn to him quickly.
“Alphonso is so outgoing,” Niepold said. “When we got over there, he was doing push-up contests with the kids in the village. He was teaching them how to do certain dances, he was singing with them. The guys were really involved with the kids in the village where we were building the house.”
On one occasion, Niepold saw Smith outside a sculpture shop. He couldn’t understand the Swahili spoken by the natives, and they probably couldn’t understand him. It didn’t matter. Smith started rapping and dancing. The African people outside the shop gave him a drum beat.
“He doesn’t know a stranger,” Niepold said.
Smith doesn’t shy away from hard work, either. One of the main purposes of the trip was to build a shelter for a set of grandmothers in the Kawe village.
The grandmothers’ existing shelter was nearly destroyed — three of the four walls of the one-room building were down and the roof was caved in.
“The elderly grandmothers were sleeping in one corner,” Niepold said. “It was so in disrepair that the villagers had begun shunning the grandmothers. They looked depressed.”
The first order of business in building the shelter was to finish tearing down the old one. Smith, Patterson and McClinic got together and shoved the last remaining wall to the ground.
“The whole wall just went completely down and they just brushed their hands and said, ‘We can do this,’” Niepold said.
From there, the group rebuilt a new shelter. This time, it was four rooms and, by the time it was done, the grandmothers had a lot more than a new place to live. They had a new level of respect from the villagers.
“It gave them not only a safe shelter, but dignity,” Niepold.
Smith got something from the experience, too. He developed a newfound appreciation for life in the United States.
“The great thing about it is, I’ve never encountered people who are as happy as they are,” Smith said. “Even though they struggle and they are going through a lot and they don’t have the resources that we have in America, they’re still happy. It kind of humbled me a lot and it was just a great experience.
“It’s something that you learn about in school, and just to have a chance to visit the continent and to visit Tanzania and to do some charity work on top of it was just refreshing. It was a great opportunity for me and the other guys.”
Niepold was especially pleased to see Smith and his teammates take full advantage of the opportunity.
“I sort of designed the trip so that they would have a learning experience,” she said. “None of them really knew what to expect.
“It was all that I hoped it would be as an experience that would change the lives of the student-athletes. I am totally convinced that it moved them deeply.”
Without question, the experience has impacted Smith.
“It humbled me a lot,” he said. “It made me realize that we’re so blessed. The poorest person in America would be rich over there. It humbles you.”
Perhaps more than ever, Smith appreciates his opportunity to play football, and the doors the sport has opened for him.
A year removed from his life-changing trip to Dar es Salaam, Smith also appreciates the struggles of those around the world. And, if he’s lucky, he’ll get to help them again some day.
“If I had a chance to go back,” he said, “I’m definitely going to take another trip to Africa.”
Brian Howell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org