By Zach Berman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 27, 2008
For three days in July, Malcolm Kelly visited a place where few cared whether he becomes a star in the NFL. During that time, he walked without the expectations of a second-round draft choice of the Washington Redskins, for whom the 6-foot-4, 219-pound wide receiver is a promising prospect.
Kelly went back to the continent of his ancestors, lending a hand and a smile to people in Liberia, where 80 percent of the 3.3 million residents live below the poverty line and could not even fathom Kelly's $3.36 million rookie contract.
Kelly traveled to Monrovia, the capital, July 5-10 to raise awareness for Mercy Ships, a global charity that operates floating hospitals in developing countries. Two days were spent traveling, three days visiting a country that underwent almost continuous civil war for 14 years until 2004.
The ship included a crew of 450 providing free medical care to those in need. Kelly traveled with his father, Moses, and his trainer, Chip Smith. Kelly and Smith worked with Liberian athletes and left what Smith estimated as $10,000 of training equipment for the Liberians.
Kelly's main role was to increase visibility for an organization he elected to sponsor upon learning about it from his college roommate, Manuel Johnson. Kelly said Johnson's godfather is involved in Mercy Ships.
Before Kelly was drafted by the Redskins or cashed his first paycheck, he supported Mercy Ships. Yet even with all he heard, Kelly was unprepared for what he witnessed during those few days in Liberia.
"It was life-changing," Kelly said. "You come over here, you take so much for granted. You go over to the water fountain and have a drink. You have water bottles everywhere. It was shocking."
Some of the most powerful memories for Kelly were the people in need of health care. Those with correctable medical conditions such as cataracts, clubfoot, and cleft lip and palate, among others, seldom receive medical attention.
Kelly witnessed a child undergo treatment for clubfoot. For Kelly, who relies on his feet in part to earn a living, it was a lasting image. He explained the visual after practice on Thursday, bending his cleats to appear as if he were standing on the side of his feet. This, Kelly said, is what the kid looked like when he walked.
"It's bad, man," Kelly said. "Real bad."
Kyle Rahn, Mercy Ships' director of U.S. development who joined Kelly on the trip, said the most touching moment she observed came as Kelly visited with a burn victim. "Her face was disconfigured," Rahn said. "Her nose was gone, ears gone. . . . She was pretty frightening looking."
"What happened? What's wrong with this gal?" Kelly asked Rahn. He approached the burn victim, spoke to her, touched her, laughed with her.
"There were so many times with tears in my eyes," Rahn said. "He wasn't repulsed by what he saw."
Even after the traveling party retreated to their rooms for the night, Rahn said Kelly sneaked to the care center on the boat to play with the children.
Kelly sat in the recovery room playing with 6- and 7-year-olds when he told them he needed to leave and would be back the next day. As he walked away, Kelly heard feet clapping behind him. It was the kids.
"They see a white woman like me with a camera crew and around the corner comes [Kelly] -- their faces lit up," Rahn said. "It's instant recognition" that he's like them.
"When you see someone who in their eyes is successful who might not come from the same country but came from the same continent, it gives it more common ground," Kelly said. "When it's someone like them coming back, they open up a little more."
Moses Kelly does not know his ancestry's nation of origin, but said the Liberians greeted Malcolm with "welcome home."
The information offered to Liberian athletes and coaches by Kelly and Smith was met with great anticipation. Coaches asked questions about training, health and diet. Smith told the coaches that he advises his athletes to eat one gram of protein for each pound they weigh. A coach asked Smith if that was in one month. Smith said it was one day, and the coach was stunned.
"That was asking them to grow feathers and fly," said Smith, the founder of Competitive Edge Sports. "They eat three or four grams a day, and it's rice."
Although Liberians were told Kelly was a world-class athlete, they do not devotedly follow professional football, much less University of Oklahoma football. Rahn said Kelly even needed to spend time simply explaining American football. But knowing Kelly was an athlete enhanced the prestige of the visit.
"The very fact he's an American football star opened their eyes," Liberian Ambassador Charles A. Minor said. "What can he do? What he's doing for Mercy Ships itself is appreciated."
Liberia President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf greeted Kelly during the trip, and Minor hosted a reception for Kelly at the Liberian Embassy in Washington on July 17. Within the lobby of the embassy are enlarged photos of Kelly, one with Kelly surrounded by smiling children.
"When you take Malcolm Kelly into the ward, he's laughing and telling stories with people who normally wouldn't have people who care," Rahn said. "It doesn't matter that he's a football player. The fact he cared to sit down and play and engage and share, that's what it's about."
Yet it matters entirely that Kelly is a football player. He wanted his presence with Mercy Ships to lend more exposure to the work they do. The irony is that Kelly's experience in Liberia enlightened him perhaps as much as anyone.
"It changed the way I look at everything in life from here on out," Kelly said. "You wake up and take for granted so much stuff that's given for you. These people over there, they're struggling for fresh water to drink, they eat one meal a day. I mean, can you imagine eating one meal a day? . . . It really lets me know I can't complain about anything I go through. When your parents tell you growing up it could be worse, they aren't lying. It could be a whole, whole lot worse."