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Oak Park's village manager returned from Africa's second biggest city on March 25, with four professional football players, a little wisdom and some extra color in the face.
Tom Barwin traveled about 6,000 miles from Oak Park last month to visit the country of Nigeria for 11 days. He flew there from New York with his 24-year-old son Connor, a second-year defensive end with the Houston Texans, along with three other NFL players.
Reflecting back on the trip a few days later, Barwin said every minute was "riveting" in Nigeria. But images that stayed in his mind were a small impoverished child with malaria, a passing slave ship, and seeing $300-a-month cops toting AK-47s.
"It's a different world for a lot of people, but the country knows these things, they're working on them, and they're tremendously blessed with resources," he said.
Barwin and the four NFL athletes flew off to Nigeria as part of the Amobi Okoye Foundation, started in 2007 to help bring supplies and education to Okoye's native country. (Okoye is one of Connor Barwin's teammates on the Texans.)
Much of the time was spent putting on football clinics for about 500 kids, according to Tom Barwin. Other stops included a three-hour tour of a slave port, meeting with the special assistant to the president and touring a local TV station.
Barwin also met the recently retired chief of the national police force and chit-chatted over pepper soup with goat meat at his house.
In a phone interview last week, Connor Barwin said the football camps in Lagos (the second most populous city in Africa) and the capital city of Abuja stood out from the rest of the trip. For their own safety, they couldn't roam around town much, hampering his dad's inquisitive nature.
"That slowed his curious side down a little bit, but I still think he ran with us the whole time and kept up with all us young fellas," Connor Barwin said. "One thing he really liked was they have a definite appreciation and respect for elders. I'd say he was like the old man over there, and he enjoyed those ideals."
By the end of it, Tom Barwin said, he was ready to get back home to the luxuries of clean tap water and being able to walk just a couple of blocks when you get a taste for pizza. Electricity drops constantly in Nigeria, and 40 percent of the country is illiterate.
He thinks, for the poor children in Nigeria, the NFL and Nigerian native Amobi Okoye were symbolic of where hard work and dreams can take you.
"Hopefully they touched a few souls. I'm pretty sure they did," Barwin said.
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