Honduras honor was Vince Dooley’s finest hour

 

March 19, 2015

Agalta Valley, Honduras—Just one look at the rugged mountains being gently bathed in the morning sun confirms what you already knew: This is truly a place touched by God.

Now getting to the Esperanza (Hope) Middle School and this majestic view requires some effort and not a small measure of Faith. It begins with a flight into the capital of Tegucigalpa where, because of the steep mountains that surround the airport, the landing is considered one of the most difficult in the world.

Those reports were not exaggerated. Our Delta pilot skillfully navigated the mountains and then had to jump on the brakes with both feet before he ran out of runway. He received a well-deserved round of applause.

Then there is a six-hour ride, most of which comes on spine-rattling roads that are savaged yearly by the rainy season and ignored by those with the power to fix them.

But once you arrive and walk through the well-secured gate, you understand how the school got its name.  Despite a poverty of material things that has to be seen to be believed, there is a limitless supply of Joy and Hope on the faces of the people—especially the children. The latest reason for Hope at this school is a new, well-manicured soccer field complete with scoreboard and grandstands of freshly poured cement and steel. The children of the region normally have to play their games on yards of rock and dirt.

On one side of the field is a row of baby hedges fighting hard to become adults. Down in the far corner of this Honduras Field of Dreams are two signs to mark the importance of the day.

One is a large, hand-painted sign:

“Campo de futbol

Vince Dooley”

The other is a more permanent metal sign complete with the image of a Bulldog. It says: “Vince Dooley Field.”

Then, as if on cue, a familiar figure walks through the front gate. Vince Dooley is now 82 years old but he still has the physical stamina and the intellectual curiosity of a man half his age. The aristocratic Southern drawl of his native Mobile, Ala., is unmistakable.  His handshake is still firm.

“How about this?” he said looking over the field that will soon be officially named in his honor.

A few minutes later and 50 years since I first met him, Coach Vince Dooley and I had our picture taken in the shadows of those spectacular mountains.

We were both a long way from home.

Vince Dooley Field | Honduras  | Dedication

March 10, 2015

The invitation came from Jerry Eickhoff, the CEO of Honduras Outreach Inc. (www.HOI.org), which has been helping the people of the Agalta Valley for over 25 years. HOI sponsors mission trips to the region and operates a full-service ranch not far from the school. Jerry had had an ultra-successful career in banking and financial services before helping to found HOI in 1989.

When I learned that HOI, in conjunction with the HAVE (Honduras Agalta Valley Education) Foundation www.havefoundation.org  had built a soccer field which they wanted to name for Vince Dooley, I put it on Twitter and Facebook. I added an unsolicited comment that another field closer to home, namely Georgia’s Sanford Stadium, should also be named in honor of the school’s all-time winning football coach who served the university for 41 years.

Jerry saw my notes on social media and reached out to extend the invitation to attend the ceremonies through Shannon Dill, our associate pastor at St. Luke’s Presbyterian Church, who has a strong relationship with HOI.  The flight would leave in just eight days.

I asked my wife, Maria, what she thought.

“I think you should go,” she said. “And I’m going with you.”

Maria has a strong to connection to Honduras. Her late father, Jaime Villegas, was a professor at Zamorano,  now a world-renowned agricultural university located about 30 miles from Tegucigalpa. She lived there for a short period of time before her American-born mother decided it was time to take the family back to the United States. Maria had not been back to Honduras since leaving as a small child. Our daughter, Sara Catherine, had been there twice on mission trips.

“Okay,” I said. “Let’s go.”

 

March 18, 2015

We were getting ready to board our flight to Tegucigalpa when an old friend appeared.

Bob Hope (yes, that’s his real name) is a co-founder of Hope-Beckham, an internationally-known public relations firm. He is also the founder and co-chairman of the HAVE Foundation and has been sending his “Wilderness Team” to Honduras for over 18 years.

Bob had been inviting Coach Dooley to come to Honduras for a long, long time before he finally said yes three years ago. The HAVE Foundation raised the money to build Vince Dooley Field.

Bob was not supposed to be on this trip because his wife, Susan, was ill. But at Susan’s insistence, Bob changed his mind and was ready to go. Bob had been working towards this week for a long time.

“She said I’d be miserable if I didn’t go,” he said.

After the excitement of the landing and a long wait to get through customs, Jerry and his HOI team met us at the airport.  After walking past guards with machine guns, we boarded two vans and headed out. Destination: Juticalpa, a little over halfway to our final destination, where we would have dinner and spend the night.

In addition to Bob Hope, Jerry Eickhoff,  Maria and myself our traveling party to the Agalta Valley included:

**–Scott Luttrell, Chairman of HOI and CEO of LCM Group, an investment firm based in Dallas.  Educated at SMU and Harvard, Scott came to Honduras and knew he wanted to be a part improving people’s lives. “This place touched my heart,” he said.

**–Camila Reina, Director of Development and Government Relations for HOI. Camila is Jerry’s go-to person on the ground in Honduras. A native Honduran, she comes from a prominent political family. She is an attorney who also holds a degree from the London School of Economics. Very sharp.

**–Steve Stirling, CEO of MAP International, a non-profit that provides no-cost or low-cost medicines to poor countries around the world. Born in Korea, Steve developed polio at the age of one. He and his sister were left at an orphanage and later adopted by a couple from Alaska. He earned degrees from Cornell and Northwestern. The medications he will deliver on this trip will put MAP over the $5 billion (yes, with a “B”) mark in contributions. Steve’s wife, Sook Hee, a delightful lady, was there to record it all with her camera. Steve still needs crutches to walk but it hasn’t slowed him down. His enthusiasm and his passion to help people are infectious.

**–Sheila Poole, a reporter for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, my former employer. Sheila has been at the AJC for more than 20 years covering stories just like this one.

We have professional drivers and security with us at all times. I was reminded by my daughter that during the civil war in Guatemala, which borders Honduras to the West, men were kidnapped from Honduras and forced to fight in the war.

One of the popular stops on the road to Juticalpa is a Mennonite bakery run by a couple from Indiana who came here 40 years ago. While we were enjoying some of their incredible treats, a young man in a mini-cab drove up. His T-shirt read:  “UGA Baseball” complete with an image of the Georgia Bulldog.

How the shirt got from Athens to Honduras was anybody’s guess. But it reminded one of our fellow travelers of this story: During one of the trips he saw a man who came right out of central casting to play the role of Pancho Villa: Big sombrero, two bullet belts crossed over either shoulder; handlebar mustache. The only thing that broke the image was his T-shirt that read:

“Tri-Delt Spring Break.”

We arrived at our hotel and would have a lovely dinner at the outdoor restaurant. Maria received a wonderful treat as Mario Contreras, a professor at Zamorano, where Maria’s father had taught, joined us for dinner. She was able to share pictures of her father at Zamorano in the 1940s and 50s.

Breakfast would be at 6:30 a.m. and then we would complete our journey to the Agalta Valley.

 

March 19, 2015

As it turned out, we didn’t need the wake up alarm from my I-phone.

The rooster crowed, and continued crowing, at 5:30 a.m. sharp.

We had a quick breakfast, reloaded the vans, and we were on our way.

Several miles outside of Juticalpa the roads, as promised, turned very bumpy. The rainy season, which runs from May to November, creates mudslides and potholes. If you’re sitting in the back of the van over the rear axle you feel every bump.

We are still a couple of hours from the Esperanza Middle School but there is already armed security everywhere. The president of Honduras, Juan Orlando Hernandez, will make his first trip ever to the Agalta Valley in order to be a part of the ceremonies.

On paper, we’re on a pretty tight schedule. We are scheduled to take a tour of the HOI ranch at 9 a.m. and await the arrival of the president by helicopter around 10 a.m. Then we go to the middle school for the ceremonies and were supposed to be done at Noon. After lunch back at the ranch, we go all the way back to Tegucigalpa. The goal is to be there before dark.  That was the plan.

But in this part of the world you learn to be flexible.

Rancho el Paraiso (the Paradise Ranch) is a self-sustaining 1,400-acre facility where food is grown, the local population receives medical care, and teams on mission trips are housed. Jerry and Camila took us on a tour of the ranch and the clinic, which includes a full-time doctor.

Dr. German Jimenez has been making the drive we just completed for 20 years in order to treat the people who come to the HOI Ranch. He could have settled into a comfortable private practice in one of the major cities years ago. But he felt he could do more good here. He has. In 2014 HOI received a medal of recognition from President Hernandez for providing health care and improving the overall quality of life for the people in the region. At the ceremonies later in the day with the President, Dr. Jimenez was wearing the medal.

There is a dentist, one of only two in the area that includes about 50,000 people, a pharmacy, and even a counseling center at the clinic named for Dan Pattillo, an Atlanta industrial developer.

It’s starting to get warm so we take a seat on the porch, get a cool drink, and wait for President Hernandez to arrive. He is running late.

About 11 a.m. a single helicopter clears the mountain and heads towards the ranch. It is not the president, but his Chief of Staff, Dr. Jorge Ramon Hernandez (no relation). Dr. Hernandez, we are told, handles much of the day to day work of running the country. He has become a friend to HOI.

About an hour later, two more helicopters head toward the ranch.  One breaks off and begins to circle the landing area. I look up to see an armed guard with one foot out the door of the helicopter. Once the security pass had been made, the other helicopter finally landed.

Juan Orlando Hernandez is young (46), handsome and sometimes controversial. He has been able to make a dent in the criminal element and drug trafficking that has been part of Honduras for so long. Thus, not everyone wishes him well and thus the security detail which, we are told, numbered over 50.

He is also a very good politician, which we will learn later in the day.

His motorcade heads quickly to the school and we follow.

All of the children who attend Esperanza Middle School and the Aldersgate Elementary school across the street are here, dressed in white shirts, khaki pants and skirts, to meet the President and celebrate the naming of the field for Coach Dooley.

Over 100 chairs, also covered in white cloth with blue ribbon, are there for the guests.

A number of presentations are made: Steve Stirling presents the medications and renews his promise to continue to help the region. Scholarships are awarded to two young people in the name of Bob and Susan Hope. The children present homemade quilts to each of the dignitaries.

The President delivers his remarks in Spanish and Camila Reina translates into English.  The President’s staff has prepared him well as he rattles off the pertinent stats of Coach Dooley’s career: 201 wins, 6 SEC championships, 1 national championship, College Football Hall of Fame.

Before the ribbon cutting ceremony, Coach Dooley and President Hernandez place their handprints in concrete to mark the occasion.

After the ribbon cutting ceremony, President Hernandez cuts off several small pieces of the ribbon to present to Coach Dooley and the other dignitaries. This president knows his way around a good photo-op.

Then Coach Dooley kicks the first soccer ball towards the goal. It is a pretty good kick by the former Auburn quarterback, but the goalie makes the stop. Then, the first young people play a game on Vince Dooley Field.

The president says his goodbyes and races back to the ranch to catch his flight back to Tegucigalpa.

Maria and I have lunch at the ranch with Coach Dooley and his wife, Barbara. They have been in Honduras for over a week. Barbara helped the children with the quilts they gave out during the ceremonies. Coach Dooley helped pour a concrete footing for a bridge that will be built over the road that separates middle school  and  the elementary school.

And, it should be noted this day was Vince and Barbara Dooley’s 55th wedding anniversary. It was also the 33rd anniversary for Steve and Sook Hee Stirling.

I met Vince Dooley in 1965 when I was 12 years old and he was the new 31-year-old head football coach at Georgia. I started writing about Coach Dooley as a student at Georgia in the 1970s. I have been present for and written about most of the honors that have come his way during a remarkable life and career. In 2005 I was honored to write his autobiography.

But as we sat there in the dining hall of the HOI Ranch there was a strong sense that this was his finest hour. That’s because of the work that he and Barbara and so many other volunteers had done in the Agalta Valley would forever change the lives of these children.

Then it was time to leave. Maria and I took one last picture with Coach Dooley and Barbara and then boarded our van. Yes, the ride would be long and would be bumpy. And the race was on to see how far we could get before the sunlight was gone.

We were all very tired but still the van was filled with the excitement of what we had all just shared. It was the kind of experience you can only get by being willing to step outside of your comfort zone. And the faces of those children, who lined up for High Fives and shouts of “Hola!” will stick with all of us forever.

At about 9:30 p.m. we rolled into the Hotel Maya, which was very, very nice. A long, hot shower would soon follow. But first we said our goodbyes because the next morning we would go our separate ways.

We had known these people for less than 48 hours but we had shared an experience that would bond us for the rest of our lives.

 

MARCH 20, 2015

Did I mention that the takeoff from Tegucigalpa is as scary as the landing?

I discovered this when the lady sitting next to me crossed herself as we were rolling down the runway.

But we quickly—and I do mean quickly—climbed over the mountains. It was shortly after 3 p.m., Atlanta time. In less than four hours we would be home.

One of the neat things about international travel is that moment, on the flight back, when your plane enters the air space of the United States.

On a trip back from Germany several years ago the pilot came on the PA system to say: “Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the United States of America.” It made the hair on my arms tingle.

We didn’t get that announcement on this trip, but I could almost feel it when we entered the USA (it also helped that the Wi-Fi started working).

I will leave you with this: International travel, especially to a place like Honduras, teaches us many things. First and foremost it should be a reminder that if you were born in the United States of America, you have already been blessed.

For all of our problems, and there are many, and for all of the issues that divide us, we should never forget that our starting place in life was in the best country on Earth.

As Americans and as human beings we have been given an infinite capacity to love, to share, and to bring Hope to places where there is little Hope. It is an incredible gift and one that we should never take for granted.

Adios Honduras. Hasta la vista!

About The Author
- Mr. College Football. Sports reporter for The Atlanta Journal Constitution. Broadcaster for the SEC network on ESPN.