DURHAM -- Duke football player Dave Harding spent most of his summer vacations during middle school and high school drilling wells in Ethiopia, an African nation where over 59 million people have no access to safe water.
Since his arrival at Duke three summers ago, the year-round demands of Division I football and academics have kept Harding stateside. But the veteran offensive lineman is making plans to return to Ethiopia for another service project in May, and this time he will be bringing along some of his closest friends — most of his fellow Blue Devil linemen.
Eleven of the Blue Devils’ 16 returning offensive linemen, plus assistant strength coach Marcus Johnson, will fly to Ethiopia on May 4, just after the close of the spring semester, and return May 16. While in Africa they will drill at least one freshwater well for a rural community, work with kids from all over the country at a sports camp and volunteer at an orphanage.
Their housing conditions during part of the trip will be primitive, and some may experience a heavy dose of culture shock at the poverty they see, but Harding is convinced that the experience will be life-changing and could even benefit the Blue Devils on the football field next fall.
“A lot of these guys have never left the country,” says Harding, a junior who started nine games at center and left guard last year. “It will be good to get them over there. From a personal standpoint it will be exciting to see how everyone responds to it.
“We don’t get the opportunity to do DukeEngage trips and study abroad, so this is our chance to do that and a chance to give back to the world community. And from a football standpoint, by taking this trip we are bound to grow as friends and get to know people better. Some of the upperclassmen don’t see much of the underclassmen outside of practice, but when you go on a life-changing trip like this it makes you closer, so it’s bound to have impacts on the field as well.”
“I’m pumped for it,” says Brian Moore, who will be a fifth-year senior and the starting center next season. “I’m missing graduation for it, but I thought this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity so I think everyone is really excited.”
Harding’s numerous previous trips to Ethiopia were family affairs, as he accompanied his parents, David and Merrie, as well as his two sisters. Father and son were usually engaged in the physical labor of drilling wells for the organization Water Is Life International, a nonprofit whose mission is to provide access to safe water to impoverished communities in the country. The elder Harding is an N.C. State-trained agricultural engineer who is on the Water Is Life International board of directors.
Meanwhile, Harding’s mother (a physical therapist who graduated from Duke) and sisters would spend their time working in clinics and orphanages, providing health care, support and comfort. The scarcity of safe water is a health menace to thousands in Ethiopia according to Water Is Life International. Close to 74,000 Ethiopian children under the age of 5 die each year from diarrhea caused by unsafe water and poor sanitation. What’s more, normal growth and development among girls is frequently impaired by the many hours they spend carrying heavy containers of water.
“My dad was born in Ethiopia and lived there for nine years,” says Harding, whose family’s home base is Orlando, Fla. “We have family who grew up there. We’d go over there for two to three months at a time. The first few times we lived in a shipping container like you’d see on the back of an 18-wheeler, cutout with windows, screens — very primitive. It’s been important to me and my family — a great experience — and I’m glad to get an opportunity to share it.”
Harding’s parents will accompany the Blue Devil linemen on this trip as chaperones. Water Is Life International is handling most of the logistics for the players’ service when they arrive in Ethiopia. The players have been involved in fundraising activities for Water is Life and have helped raise about $35,000 in their first month.
“I’m very impressed with how people within the university and across the board have been really supportive,” Harding says. “They have been amazing.”
The players and their parents will all meet after the Duke spring game on March 31 to iron out any last-minute details. The players have already been immersed in applying for or updating their passports and arranging the necessary inoculations for travel to Africa.
“It’s been amazing how open all these guys have been and their willingness to do this,” Harding says. “It speaks volumes about the type of people we have on the team and the coaching staff. This will be during summer when we are working on getting bigger as an offensive line. For Coach Cutcliffe to say we could go is really a testament to him and what he believes is important — faith, family, future, football. This is backing up what he is really into.”
The linemen shouldn’t miss many offseason workouts to make the trip. It coincides more with one of the few windows in their yearlong calendar where they are able to relax at home for a few days between their academic and athletic commitments. They may not be able to get into a weight room in Ethiopia, but Harding thinks they will get plenty of cardiovascular benefits from the exertion involved in drilling a well at a relatively high warm altitude.
Duke’s O-line loses just one starter from last season — veteran tackle Kyle Hill, who made 46 career starts. Seven returnees have starting experience and all but one of them will be on this trip. The travel squad also includes a couple of last year’s prized freshmen who toiled as redshirts.
There has been one significant addition to the group since last year. The Blue Devils have a new line coach, John Latina, following the departure of Matt Luke to his alma mater Ole Miss. The offensive coordinator at Akron the past two seasons, Latina previously coached the O-line at Ole Miss when David Cutcliffe was the head coach there. He also has been the line coach at Notre Dame, Clemson and Kansas State.
During one of Latina’s first team meetings, he told the Duke linemen that he wanted them to be the most cohesive unit on the field, a band of brothers. That thought prompted Harding to suggest that the group undertake this service project in Ethiopia.
“That’s the core reason for why the offensive linemen are going together, to bring us all closer together and create a stronger bond between us,” says sophomore Laken Tomlinson, who started every game at guard last year.
“This group is pretty close. Our previous coach, Coach Luke, believed we should be one unit, and our new coach, Coach Latina, also believes that we should be the strongest bond on the field. This trip should definitely create a stronger bond between us, so I’m excited for that.”
The linemen hope an intensified brotherhood will help propel their performance to a higher level. Last year they provided protection for the ACC’s No. 2 passing offense and allowed the third fewest sacks in the league. They also delivered the blocks that led to 19 rushing touchdowns, matching the program’s highest total since the school’s last bowl season of 1994.
One of their goals is to establish a much better overall ground attack this season.
“Coach Latina brought in some amazing techniques and ideas, and a different mentality we need to be playing with. He has very high expectations for us,” says Harding. “I know each one of us is striving to live up to those expectations, which has not been easy. I can already tell this guy is great for our program. Each one of us has already gotten better and our running game is looking better every day (during spring practice, which began Feb. 22).
“We want to be able to run the ball. I know we said that last year and the year before, but we have to be able to do it this year. We have a veteran group of guys, a great offensive line coach, great strength and conditioning coaches, and now it’s up to us. We’ve been put in this situation and we need to buckle down and get it done. We like pass protecting, but as an offensive line you want to have a good running game so that’s what we’re focusing on.”