While most American football players were enjoying the offseason last May, a group of players from Evangel University's team traveled to Kyrgyzstan to share their love of the sport with five teams from the larger Central Eurasian region.
Eleven days later, they returned with stories, memories and lasting connections that transcended the game of football.
Austin Ausbury, Joe Minter and Blake Moss, who are all Exercise Science majors, were led on the trip by Athletic Ministry Coordinator Chad Gehring. The group ran a full-contact football camp in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, focusing on teaching the fundamentals of blocking and tackling, as well as a few offensive plays and defensive schemes.
Ausbury says one of the most amazing and unexpected parts of the trip came before the team even arrived in Kyrgyzstan when they had a surprise seven-hour layover in Istanbul, Turkey. They took advantage of the opportunity for a spontaneous tour and explored the sights - and tastes - of Turkey.
As the camp began and the Evangel players began forming friendships with the Eurasian players, they found they were able to do more than simply coach the young men. Even though many of the players spoke little or no English, they found it easy to build bridges through their shared love of football.
"The relationships I developed with two of the players, Rastom and Paul, were probably the most unique," Minter says. "When the three of us were together, we were always laughing and having a good time, even though Paul only spoke a little English and Rastom spoke no English at all."
Ausbury says one of the close relationships he formed was with a young man named Arteom, who Ausbury says was a skilled athlete - and the biggest guy there.
"He was full of questions about my faith," Ausbury says. "I happily answered all the questions I could and hope that he comes to understand his faith in a very personal way."
Gehring says the players did an outstanding job connecting with the young men at the camp, demonstrating their love for others through their actions.
"I hope they realized that their ability to impact others simply comes through the way they act," he says. "And that something as simple as the sport of football can be used to speak into the lives of other people."
Ausbury agrees that sharing the love for the game of football provided an excellent opportunity to connect with the Eurasian players.
"Being able to play the game of football with the men that we were reaching out to created a bond," Ausbury says. "You can't help but really begin to care about the men over there and their lives and their eternal future."
Toward the end of the camp, the Evangel players had the opportunity to play a live game with and against the players who were at the camp. Minter says the game was one of his personal favorite parts of the trip.
"Not only was it a great experience," he says, "but it was also pretty cool to see the guys actually trying to implement the techniques we were teaching them."
Looking back on the camp, the players agree it was a tremendous success. They have been able to maintain relationships with the campers even after the trip by staying connected through Facebook and email.
While the Evangel players believe they left a lasting impression on the young men in Kyrgyzstan, they also acknowledge that the young men left an impression on them.
"This trip was a great example of the type of love and friendship that can enjoyed across different cultures when two groups share a common interest," Gehring says. "Our players were able to use a talent that God has gifted them with - American football."