• 64°

Rebels spend time in Panama

Thousands of college students flocked to Florida this week in search of fun in the sun. Unfortunately, many of them endured shivers and goose bumps instead of severe sunburn and sand between their toes. In other words, Mother Nature had a different weather scenario, near-freezing temperatures and a howling northerly wind which originated somewhere in the Arctic.

By contrast, six Ole Miss football players elected to travel several hundred miles farther South. Their destination was Panama City in the Republic of Panama. That’s like the Panama Canal area of Central America.

Ole Miss senior linebacker D.T. Shackelford of Decatur, Ala. is leading a group of Rebel teammates on a week-long mission trip to the capital city of the Republic of Panama. Plans were to visit an orphanage, feed the homeless, speak to school-age children and run a free football clinic, among other activities.

Hotty-Toddy!

Fellow Ole Miss players Justin Bell of Jackson, Ontario Berry of Mendenhall, Josh Richardson of Moss Point, Kameron Wood of Birmingham, Ala. and John Youngblood of Trussville, Ala., along with team manager Lee Plaxico of Aberdeen, also volunteered to use their spring break helping the less fortunate people in the Spanish-speaking, southernmost country of Central America.

Their devotion to humanity should be commended. They return to the Ole Miss campus on Saturday and immediately jump into the team’s first spring practice on Sunday.

What did you do on your Spring Break?

The group of good-will Rebels is 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 (Hugh) Freeze and his staff have brought to this university,” Powell said of the players’ decision to use their spring semester break 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.”

According to Ole Miss spokesman Joey Jones, 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 Freeze was head coach there.

Powell said that NCAA rules prohibited the players from raising financial support for the trip, so Powell sought support for the entire group of eight. He was overwhelmed by the response to his donation requests. 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 mission trips for sports teams through Score International, got in contact with Powell who presented the spring break mission trip option during 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 that will last a lifetime.

Powell smiles with satisfaction at the players’ commitment. 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.

Certainly, mission trips benefit the mission workers as much as the residents.

March Madness is underway and it means a hot time in Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena, site of this week’s SEC Men’s Basketball Tournament. Florida is a favorite and the Gators are seeded No. 1. They won’t play until Friday noon, awaiting the winner of today’s LSU-Georgia game.

Ole Miss is seeded third, one rung behind Kentucky and one rung above Alabama. Most importantly, the Rebels received a double-bye to Friday’s quarterfinals. They catch the winner of the Missouri-Texas A&M game at 9 p.m. Friday night. The Aggies eliminated Auburn 71-62 last night.

Coach Andy Kennedy’s Rebels (23-8, 12-6) are on the NCAA Tournament bubble. They should make it to the Big Dance with at least one SEC tourney win. However, stranger things have happened.

For some reason, wealthy Ole Miss alumni think the Rebels should be doing better. These same folks pour most of their financial donations into the Ole Miss Football Foundation.

Let’s face it, the best high school basketball players in the Magnolia State often elect to go out of state in search of NCAA Tournament glory. Others, who are the best of the best, go straight from high school to the NBA.

Kennedy and his coaching staff do their best to recruit 5-star athletes to their basketball program but it’s a rare achievement when that happens. The Rebels still are highly competitive in a tough SEC environment.

Meanwhile, at Starkville, many Mississippi State devotees didn’t think Rick Stansbury could coach, despite his high level of success. His final edition posted a 21-12 record. Stansbury elected to step down after 13 years at the helm so he could spend more time with his wife, Meo; and their three young sons: Luke, Issac and Noah.

Enter Rick Ray, a promising coach with great credentials. However, the outlook for Ray’s first season was grim at best. Due to injuries, academic casualties and defections, the Bulldogs were the thinnest of any SEC team. Personally, we thought the Bulldogs would be fortunate to win two SEC games.

Congrats to the Bulldogs (9-21, 4-14). They absorbed the worst-ever losses in Humphrey Coliseum history this season but still managed to finish ahead of Auburn (9-22, 3-15) in the SEC regular-season race.

Ray is optimistic about his program’s future. He also has some strong financial support from the alumni and that can go a long way to turning a program around.

Contact sports editor Tom Goetz by Email: tom.goetz@dailyleader.com