When Matt Barkley decided to come back for his senior season at USC, he wanted a last hurrah with his close friends and to leave a legacy for younger players to carry on.
And neither goal had anything to do with the football field.
Earlier this year, Barkley, punter Kyle Negrete and center Khaled Holmes started planning a trip to Haiti to help build homes for the victims of the 2010 earthquake. But once word got out, more people wanted to join and soon, 16 USC football players were headed on a trip that could potentially change their outlook heading into one of the most anticipated USC football seasons in almost a decade.
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"This is an opportunity to serve as well for our teammates to kind of grow and gain perspective and try to do one last thing before my life gets crazy, before all of our lives kind of separate after USC and this is like the perfect opportunity," Barkley told Yahoo! Sports.
"It's going to be a neat opportunity for these guys to have their eyes opened to true poverty and true struggle that's going on in the world rather than the so-called struggles that we have here in Southern California. I think seeing the young guys hop on board and guys you wouldn't expect go on a mission trip like this and want to go full force, it's encouraging to know that you might be having an impact on them."
The group left the night of graduation on May 12 and is working in a village called Sous Savanne. The trip was spearheaded by Barkley's father, Les, and backed by a group called Hope Force International, which helped raise the money for the trip.
"We found a place for everybody to stay," Les Barkley told Yahoo! Sports. "It's got a roof, it's got electricity and it's fine. It's a walled compound, armed guards and that's where everyone will be staying altogether. And they'll get up in the morning, they'll go up into the hills and build homes.
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"Most of the schools were completely destroyed, so these kids, most of them, have these schools in little tents. It's kind of indescribable. So, the boys are going to go in there, do building, bring the orphans some food to eat and play with them and just engage with them and hopefully bring a little bit of joy to them. This SC team, and obviously I'm biased, but it's just comprised of so many great young men who are kinda other-centered anyway, so I know they're going to be a real blessing to all the people down in Haiti who they come into contact with and of course they're going to receive a great blessing in return."
USC players will build four homes for four families, begin construction on an orphanage and teach and spend time with people of Haiti. The trip is six days — many had to be back for the start of summer school — but will be an experience the players think will change their outlook on life and football.
"Everyone here is blessed and we're not exposed to some of the things that are really out there and once we're exposed to that and being able to help, it's a life-changing experience that would make anybody humble," safety T.J. McDonald said. "I think that seeing that stuff and to come back and talk to our teammates will give us a new look as far as adversity, as far as things that we're worried about regarding football."
For the Barkley family, trips like these are old hat. Barkley said his first mission trip was building homes in Mexico when he was in junior high school. He and his family went to South Africa over Christmas in 2008 and Nigeria during Christmas 2010. That year, punter Kyle Negrete joined him and when the two returned, pictures of their trip got other guys asking about how they could join on the next trip. Because the Trojans had little time off this year, Les Barkley thought a trip to Haiti might be the best destination, though he wasn't ready for the number of guys who wanted to go. They had to cut off the group at 16, but many more players would have joined if there had been room.
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"I think what's so unique is the amount of the guys going and just the size of the group," Negrete said. "Obviously there's a bunch of great stories about people doing great work around the world. But you don't ever see 16 blue chip recruits when they came out of high school — the best players in the country — and guys who were involved in the gang life and to think that now they have an opportunity to now go to Haiti and serve people. I think that is what's so unique about this."
For some, the trip couldn't have come at a better time. For the first time for several of these players, USC will be eligible for a bowl game and the hype surrounding this year's team will be at an all-time high. So taking a trip like this, where all of the team's leaders and influential players are exposed to the poverty of a third-world country, will allow them to appreciate what they have and keep the rest of the team grounded as the season treks on.
"I'm not saying we're going to come back and it's going to completely change our mentality about everything," McDonald said. "But it can definitely put things in perspective and we can definitely share that knowledge with other guys and what we took from it and be able to show them if we do face adversity and if we do face something that may not go our way, we're still blessed. We're still here doing what we love to do."
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