Commentary

'They have real problems over here'

Group of NFL players leaves lockout behind to deliver hearing aids in Africa

Updated: March 28, 2011, 5:57 PM ET
By Steve Terrill | Special to ESPN.com

Adrian PetersonSteve Terrill for ESPN.comThe country of Rwanda is in a state of recovery. Vikings RB Adrian Peterson and eight other NFL players helped to accelerate the process by distributing hearing aids.

Pros for Africa and the Starkey Hearing Foundation have teamed to deliver more than 22,000 hearing aids to people in Africa during a month-long charity mission with the help of some of the NFL's biggest stars. ESPN.com caught up with the mission in Uganda and traveled with the Starkey/Pros for Africa team through Rwanda.

KIGALI, Rwanda -- Half a world removed from a bitter labor impasse over billions of dollars, a group of NFL players landed in a country recently riven by genocide and turned its attention to the most basic of human needs -- hearing.

In Rwanda, Derrick Morgan (Titans), Gerald McCoy (Bucs), Roy Williams (Bengals), Tommie Harris (former Bear), Vernon Davis (Niners), Vontae Davis (Dolphins), Larry Fitzgerald (Cardinals), Bryant McKinnie (Vikings) and Adrian Peterson (Vikings) took part in a mission to provide hearing aids and other assistance. The trip, in turn, gave the players perspective on the situation back home.

"It feels good to be over here in Africa helping folks while that's going on," said Morgan.

[+] EnlargeGerald McCoy & Derrick Morgan
Steve Terrill for ESPN.comGerald McCoy and Derrick Morgan team up to fit a Rwandan man with hearing aids.

Peterson, whose comments on the labor situation have been controversial, said he didn't want to talk about that and wanted to focus instead on helping people in Africa.

Morgan welcomed the break from talk of the lockout.

"It's a good experience to get away from all that and help people. They have real problems over here. We are arguing over billions of dollars, but they have real issues and real suffering here."

In Rwanda, that suffering comes in many forms. On April 7, the country will observe a period of remembrance for the 17th anniversary of the brutal 1994 genocide, in which nearly a million people were killed in 100 days. Today, Rwanda is experiencing a recovery -- public health and economic indicators are steadily rising. Tourism has replaced coffee as the largest and fastest growing sector of the economy. The visit by celebrities and NFL stars underscores that recovery. It also aims to include the most disadvantaged Rwandans in their nation's renaissance.

According to Tani Austin of the Starkey Hearing Foundation, 85 percent of the people in developing countries who are labeled as deaf are actually just hard of hearing. They will never be able to afford hearing aids so they are never tested. The Starkey group is trying to change that.

The foundation sent an advance team to Rwanda in late 2010 to screen, test and make impression-molds of likely candidates for hearing aids. Then last week, the team came back, along with Pros for Africa players, to fit the actual hearing devices.

Functionally deaf Rwandans -- ranging in age from 2 to 85 -- lined up by the hundreds to receive a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to hear.

This was no mere photo op for the players. They performed hands-on service.

Once a patient was in the fitting chair, NFL players attached hearing amplifiers to impressions already fitted in the ear. They had several models to choose from based on the level of hearing loss in their patients.

Players were responsible for ensuring that the sound was adequate for hearing but not too loud. Interpreters tried to help fill the communication gap, but the Cardinals' Fitzgerald managed to pick up a bit of Kinyarwanda, the local language.

"Uri kumva? Uri kumva?" he asked. "Can you hear here me? Can you hear me?"

This was Fitzgerald's fourth charity mission with the Starkey group.

"The first time I helped someone to hear, I was so moved. I was emotional," Fitzgerald said. "To see a child hear their mother's voice for the first time and see their family's reaction is one of the moments I will never forget. We all have basic needs, and hearing is one of those needs."

Players without Fitzgerald's language skills communicated by clapping their hands for sound checks and using the universal sign language of thumbs-up or thumbs-down as they called out basic sounds -- always from behind, to prevent lip-reading.

[+] EnlargePros for Africa
Steve Terrill for ESPN.comRwandans of all ages lined up by the hundreds to receive hearing aids, free of charge.

At 6-foot-4 and nearly 300 pounds, McCoy is a commanding presence. But one young man he helped could not hear until McCoy attached the largest available device to the mold.

"Bop, bop, bop," McCoy called from behind as he cranked up the volume.

Suddenly, the young man called back.

"Bop, bop, bop!" he said, as his face lit up and he began to cry.

"This is like a dream come true for me," said McCoy. "There's nothing better than the feeling of giving the gift of hearing. It's great to see the finished product. I do charity work back home, but it's great to actually see it in action. Here, you see a person responding and know, 'OK, it works. I helped them.' "

The players could not easily blend in with Rwandans -- many people in the country are short of stature and most are very thin. Yet almost no one realized these were famous professional athletes.

"They are giants! And they are caring for us," said Bosco, 25, after receiving his hearing aids from McKinnie and Harris.

The players also worked on smaller projects and made some interesting observations about the people they encountered.

"The women here are extremely independent. It was real hot one day and some women were helping us with a project digging a well," said McKinnie. "All of the sudden, I realized this woman doing all this work with us had a baby tied to her back the whole time. Women here do everything. They prepare the food and then you see them walk forever with firewood on their head, laundry in their hands and a baby on their back. That's multi-tasking."

The players also took time to visit the Kigali Genocide Memorial and were visibly moved by the experience.

To a man, each player promised to return to Rwanda soon.

Steve Terrill is a journalist based in Kigali, Rwanda.