Panama City has long been known as a popular spring break destination for college students. The warm weather and white, sandy beaches attract thousands of young people looking for fun and relaxation.
This year, six Ole Miss football players are traveling to Panama City for spring break week.
But it’s probably not the city you’re thinking of.
Senior linebacker D.T. Shackelford (Decatur, Ala.) is leading a group of Rebel teammates on a week-long mission trip to the capital city of the Republic of Panama, where they will visit an orphanage, feed the homeless, speak to school-age children and run a free football clinic, among other activities.
Fellow Ole Miss players Justin Bell (Jackson, Miss.), Ontario Berry (Mendenhall, Miss.), Josh Richardson (Moss Point, Miss.), Kameron Wood (Birmingham, Ala.) and John Youngblood (Trussville, Ala.), along with team manager Lee Plaxico (Aberdeen, Miss.), also volunteered to use their spring break helping the less fortunate people in the Spanish-speaking, southernmost country in Central America.
They are in Panama Monday-Friday this week before returning to Oxford on Saturday and immediately jumping into the team’s first spring practice on Sunday.
The group is being led by Ole Miss football chaplain John Powell. The eight Ole Miss representatives are teaming up with 10-15 other college and professional athletes on the trip, as well.
“It says a lot about not only their character, but the environment that Coach Freeze and his staff have brought to this university,” Powell said of the players’ decision to use their one off week of the spring semester for a mission trip. “They understand the importance of giving back to those who are in need, and this opportunity gives them a chance to do that in a real way.”
Powell is in his first full year as a member of the Ole Miss Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA) staff and the football team’s chaplain after serving as a regional FCA director in west Tennessee. He was the Lambuth University football team’s chaplain when Hugh Freeze was head coach there.
Powell said that NCAA rules prohibited the players from raising financial support for the trip, so Powell raised support for the entire group of eight. He was overwhelmed by the response to his donation requests, as he received more than $1,600 above what was needed for travel and living expenses while in Panama.
“My hope is that we all come back realizing how blessed we are here and that will carry over into how we look at our teammates, how we serve our community, how we approach our education and being grateful for all those things,” Powell said.
The idea for the trip was planted by a former Ole Miss player and current NFL wide receiver, Micheal Spurlock.
Spurlock, who was a quarterback for the Rebels from 2003-05, went on a short-term mission to Panama last year with Tampa Bay Buccaneers chaplain Doug Gilcrease and some teammates. Spurlock and his wife wanted to return this year but were unable to, so he reached out to his Ole Miss family to see if a group of current Rebels could go.
Gilcrease, who organizes short-term overseason mission trips for sports teams through Score International, got in contact with Powell, and Powell presented the spring break mission trip option in a players’ Bible study. Six players and a manager expressed their desire to go, and now they are spreading the grace and mercy of God to the people of Panama.
So while these Rebels may not be lounging on the beach or partying with their friends in the other Panama City, they are gaining a spiritual and cultural experience they will never forget.
And they are using their influence and experiences as college student-athletes to bring joy and hope – and even a little football – to a needy people.