"Ain't nothing easy in Africa."
Arizona Cardinals physical therapist Brett Fischer wrote those words each night in his journal after a day of serving thousands of Nigerians.
Fischer transitioned from leisurely walking the well-lit chilly hallways of the Cardinals training facility in Tempe, Arizona, to actively avoiding three-foot deep potholes in the dead of night in the village of Isiukwuato in Abia State (Nigeria), where electricity is simply nonexistent.
"I came out at 3 a.m. one night and all I could see were 2,000 eyes staring back at me waiting to be treated," Fischer said. "We were able to serve all those people. For those people, who makes it to the Super Bowl isn't important. They're worried about life and death."
Fischer, along with fifth-year defensive tackle Calais Campbell and second-year linebacker Sam Acho, participated in the trip through Living Hope Ministries, a non-profit organization started by Acho's parents in 1989.
The Achos, who are originally from Nigeria, traveled back home to visit family and childhood friends over 23 years ago only to learn that many of them were dying from sicknesses that could have easily been avoided in the United States. Each year, LHM brings a team of 40 doctors, nurses, optometrists and volunteers to help the people of Nigeria. Sam and his younger brother, Emmanuel Acho, who was recently drafted by the Cleveland Browns, have been active in bringing attention to their family's ministry.
Living Hope Ministries serves mostly in the Southeastern region of Nigeria where illnesses are caused by extreme poverty, a lack of education and inadequate healthcare. Although Nigeria is thriving in some areas, the country is corrupt politically creating a large gap between the rich and the poor.
"We all have a passion for Nigeria and a heart to help the people," Sam said. "The Bible talks about how Jesus came for the least of these. I got to spend time with ‘the least of these.' The kids would look at our old tennis shoes we wore and be amazed. Calais and I went out and gave them a bowl of Rice. We watched a few of the kids share what we easily could have eaten by ourselves. It really opened my eyes to where God's heart is."
The Arizona Cardinals supported the mission by supplying LHM with clothes, shirts and jerseys to pass out. Twelfth-year safety Adrian Wilson and Arizona Diamondbacks shortstop Stephen Drew each sponsored a volunteer as well.
"I think it speaks volumes as an organization," Fischer said. "It brings a maturity to the team when the rookies come in and see the leaders on the team helping out. In the long run, I think it will bring camaraderie when you have such selflessness outside of the game it can carry over to the game itself. It shows the quality of people on our team."
Campbell agrees. The two athletes spent 11 days serving the world's most poverty-stricken people in West Africa, carrying the bodies of grown men and women 150 yards from the operating room to their temporary hospital beds.
"They were in so much pain," Campbell said. "We tried to be as sturdy as we could when we carried them. It was pretty hard watching their faces, but it felt good to be a part of something great. We grew a lot closer working together every day, side by side doing God's work. Hopefully, it affects us on the field. I learned how to have control in high-pressure situations.
"I also learned a lot about speaking up. Those qualities will carry over to football when I need to encourage my teammates. This season will be my first real year where my teammates will be looking up to me as more of a leader. This trip helped me create a voice."
Fischer sees Campbell and Acho on a consistent basis in the Cardinals' practice facility, but watching the two natural-born leaders serve thousands of miles away has made an impression on him.
"It made me excited seeing Calais and Sam's passion," Fischer said. "Just to be able to see their concern for the Nigerians was incredible. Once you get over there that whole genre of ‘Can I have your autograph?' changes. These people are trying to survive life and a professional athlete's signature is low on their priorities. The conditions in Africa were less than ideal. They ignored their personal comfort to put these people in front of themselves."
Over 3,000 adults and 700 children were treated during the medical missions trip, but there was one child that made a deep impact on Sam and Fischer. Three-year-old Daniel was abandoned by his parents when he was young. Daniel was later adopted by a woman in town, but he still isn't a normal child. The boy hasn't been able to see, hear or talk his whole life. But, after the LHM doctors performed an operation on one of his eyes, he left in tears after being able to see for the first time.
"Meeting Daniel was life changing," Sam said. "In the U.S., people get surgery on their eye in a day, but he has to wait a whole year for us to come back and repair his other eye. We're praying for a miracle to happen to him. That's why our goal is to build a hospital, so that help can be in Nigeria year-round."
Fischer also remembered a few patients that left an impact on him, including a 65-year-old woman who couldn't lift her arms over her shoulders from working long hours in the fields and had fractures that had been treated incorrectly by witch doctors.
"I saw things that I had never seen before as a medical professional," Fischer said. "There was a man with a twisted spine, so he had to crawl on his hands and feet. There were kids with vitamin D deficiency where there was nothing we could do to help them but pray. Seeing what the Nigerian people do every day to survive brought a new toughness in me. These people do so much more with so much less."
A week before the trip, Sam and his brother, Emmanuel, held the "First Annual Brothers Acho Football Camp" in Dallas at their alma mater, St. Marks School of Texas. They were able to raise a couple thousand dollars to help build the LHM hospital in an effort to fulfill the $50,000 needed by August to buy 80 plots of Nigerian land where the hospital will be built.
"Their faces are what drives me to help," Campbell said. "If we are able to put a hospital there they could have better conditions. Right now, small fevers and easily preventable sicknesses are killing people. I grew up in a tough situation myself, but the people who grew up in the worst poverty in America have it better than 99% of the people in Nigeria. Every little bit we can do to help counts."
Despite the risks of serving in a third-world country plagued by plane crashes, church bombings and kidnappings, Living Hope Ministries — and the Acho family — operates by the motto: "Safety isn't the absence of danger, it's the presence of God."
In addition to providing quality medical care to Nigerians, Living Hope Ministries spends a great deal of time sharing their beliefs in Jesus Christ with those they serve. LHM holds an annual Pastor Conference to provide Biblical training to young pastors with no access to a seminary or formal Biblical leadership training. LHM also has a heart for children. The organization established an Adopt-a-Child program, providing the children in rural Nigeria the opportunity to go to school and have at least one meal a day.
"Ultimately, God has a plan for each and every one of our lives and God's plan is going to happen whether or not we like it," Sam said. "God is much bigger than that. He had us go over there for a reason. There's crazy stuff that goes on in America, as well that we have no control over. Realizing that I have no control over the situation puts me at ease just knowing that God is in (charge)."
As these athletes approach one of their most challenging weeks — training camp starts July 25 — they are entering more prepared after their experiences in Nigeria.
"Physically, I definitely got in shape carrying patients to the post-operation room," Campbell said. "Emotionally, it was very uplifting and encouraging. Spiritually, it brought me closer to God, seeing how blessed I truly am. After being there you don't want to complain too much. It's hard for me to put into words. In football, no matter how down we are, we need to stick together. I learned in Nigeria that no matter how bad situations are, we must stay in good spirits."
Campbell, who was a second-round selection (No. 50 overall) in the 2008 NFL Draft, has been a big part of the Arizona Cardinals defense, so much so that the team placed the valued franchise tag on the defensive end. The starter led the team in sacks in each of his first two seasons and in 2011 again piled up a team-best eight sacks, along with 73 tackles, an interception, 11 pass-knockdowns, two forced fumbles and 11 tackles for loss.
Campbell recently signed a five-year contract worth $55 million with $36 million of that over the first three years. Even though he's accomplished an extraordinary amount on the football field, going on a mission trip to Africa had been a lifelong dream of his.
"When it comes to football, the people who actually make it compared to the ones that don't are those that go the extra mile and work hard," Campbell said. "I developed a stronger work ethic by serving nonstop for long days. Hard work is the only way to be successful. It was literally one of the best experiences of my life. Being able to play football for a living is an unbelievable job. The Nigerians don't have much, but no matter how bad the situation is, they are always joking and laughing. I play better when I realize I'm out there to have fun."
Sam also saw action in 2011 — as a rookie he had 40 tackles, seven sacks and four forced fumbles. After Sam's fifth trip to Nigeria, he will be approaching training camp with the optimistic Nigerian mindset.
"The NFL is a grind," Sam said. "It's not easy. Everything about this trip puts life into perspective. I have no reason to complain about the heat in Arizona when people in Nigeria don't have a house or car with AC in it. In Nigeria people who have nothing have joy, so I have no reason not to have joy. It has prepared me for training camp because training camp is not easy, but it's fun."
Photo Gallery from the Living Hope Ministries Medical Missions Trip