SOUTH BEND, Ind. — When Notre Dame football returned to campus at the beginning of June for the start of summer workouts, seven players were absent.
Instead of enduring squats and cleans in the heat of northwest Indiana, linebacker Jaylon Smith, wide receiver Corey Robinson, defensive tackle Jerry Tillery and four other Irish football players were nearly 9,000 miles away in South Africa, trading in their customary campus comforts for safari hats, bandanas and weeks without Wi-Fi.
Smith headlined the group of seven football players and, in total, 16 Notre Dame student-athletes who traveled to South Africa for three weeks at the beginning of the summer to experience a pioneering study-abroad program for Irish student-athletes.
Smith—an AP second-team All-American in 2014 and the prized chess piece of head coach Brian Kelly’s defense—and company missed the first week of summer workouts.
“I sent two trainers with him,” Kelly joked. “I felt a little bit better.”
Often unable to pursue standard study-abroad options like other students, the Irish athletes toured apartheid museums, visited orphanages, scaled Table Mountain and went on a two-day safari, fitting such tourist activities around morning workouts, afternoon classes and service projects in the local townships.
“South Africa was life-changing,” said Robinson, Notre Dame’s second-leading receiver in 2014 with 40 receptions and five touchdowns. “I’d put it in that category. You understand your position as a student-athlete in a whole new light. It’s not just about scoring touchdowns at that point. It’s about changing people’s lives.”
In recent years, Kelly said, Notre Dame has sought, unsuccessfully, a study-abroad option for student-athletes. This year, three weeks in South Africa were born from months of planning.
Program leader Anre Venter, a Notre Dame psychology professor and 1980 graduate of the University of Cape Town, was approached by Notre Dame International in the fall. Meanwhile, Ruth Riley, the former Notre Dame women’s basketball star, 2001 national champion and eventual WNBA standout, returned to campus in the fall for graduate school and served as the intermediary between the study-abroad department and the athletic department. Venter led study-abroad trips to South Africa with non-athletes in 2009 and 2010, while Riley logs loads of service time in Africa.
“Anytime you step outside the box and experience life from a different perspective, it definitely changes you,” Riley said. “I felt like my experiences throughout Africa completely changed my worldview, my paradigm, how I saw myself in it and what my role and purpose was. I felt like our student-athletes could really benefit from that.”
So Smith, Robinson, Tillery, long snapper Scott Daly, offensive lineman Mark Harrell, defensive lineman Doug Randolph and walk-on running back Josh Anderson, along with athletes from the Irish women’s basketball, volleyball, soccer, swimming, fencing and men’s golf teams, set out for Johannesburg from Washington Dulles International Airport in mid-May—an 18-hour flight that had Smith nervous.
One problem: Tillery, a true freshman, missed his connecting flight from Louisiana to Dulles.
“Jerry always gets left behind,” said Robinson, laughing.
Once Tillery and a few other late arrivals met the group in South Africa, they all spent a few days in Johannesburg visiting historical sites and gaining exposure to recent apartheid stories, for instance. A two-day safari at Kruger National Park followed, before two full weeks in Cape Town.
“The whole intention behind these programs, especially the study abroad South Africa, is to expose kids to a different culture, to put them out of their comfort zone,” Venter said.
Robinson, who missed a week of summer practice in 2014 while on a missionary trip in Brazil and who visited Japan in late July, had never before been to Africa, for example.
“It’s an incredible country,” Robinson said. “It’s a diverse melting pot of all these cultures.”
While in Cape Town, the athletes met with Chester Williams, a star winger on South Africa’s 1995 Rugby World Cup team, the subject of Clint Eastwood’s Invictus. South Africa hosted and won that 1995 Rugby World Cup, mere months after the end of apartheid in 1994. Riley called Williams “one of the most inspirational athletes” she’s ever heard speak.
“Seeing how he used sports to break down racism in South Africa, the power of sports was really made evident to me,” Robinson said.
Williams even extended Smith, who led the Irish with 112 tackles in 2014, some pointers on form tackling.
Unlike Venter’s previous study-abroad trips to South Africa, Notre Dame did not enlist a third-party provider for housing, transportation and field trips. Venter traveled to South Africa during the first week of the spring semester to make preliminary arrangements and assess costs.
The athletes worked out from 8-10 a.m. at the University of Cape Town Research Unit for Exercise Science and Sports Medicine under the direction of Irish associate director of strength and conditioning Elisa “E” Angeles. In addition to training at the same facility as South Africa’s rugby players, the Notre Dame athletes could receive any necessary treatment from the local trainers and physiotherapists. After workouts and breakfast, the 16 athletes had two to three hours of class—regular meetings that actually began back in South Bend before the trip and continued on campus after the return to the States in June.
Following class, the group had time for tours and service. Through Riley’s work with Hoops 4 Hope, a global not-for-profit organization focused on youth development through sports in southern Africa, the Irish athletes connected with the local youth.
“They were all astounded by the poverty that they were faced [with], especially when you were looking at these kids in the schools and the townships who were very happy and smiling and living in positions that in America we would consider atrocious,” Venter said. “I think they were touched by that.”
Robinson stressed how sports “can literally save lives” by educating kids on preventative measures or compelling them to pursue higher education.
“That’s unbelievable to me,” Robinson said.
Following their three weeks in South Africa, the football players returned to campus and joined their teammates a week into the workouts directed by director of football strength and conditioning Paul Longo, who was more than happy to oblige to the trip, Robinson said.
“I just think it shows a piece of what we can do in balancing both academics and athletics here and making it work,” Kelly said.
The head coach received a healthy Smith, who arrived with a fresh perspective heading into 2015.
“I really don’t even know how to explain it, just the culture, the togetherness over there, being able to see the wild, going to the two-day safari,” Smith said. “It was just eye-opening.”