Dennis Waszak Jr.
AP Sports Writer
NEW YORK — A spirited brainstorming session over some noodles, vegetables and rice.
That’s how Breno Giacomini and Gary Barnidge — a couple of ambitious NFL players intent on making a difference beyond the field — and their buddy Ahmed Awadallah came up with their mission to take American football all over the world.
“We kind of just sat down at P.F. Chang’s and started talking about what was going to be our next thing to help out the community,” Giacomini recalled of that game-changing dinner in Kentucky in 2011. “We didn’t know sitting at that table that it was going to get this big. Not even close.”
The impassioned idea developed into American Football Without Barriers, a nonprofit organization that educates disadvantaged children in the United States and overseas about the sport.
Next stop: Egypt.
Giacomini, an offensive lineman for the New York Jets, and Barnidge, a tight end for the Cleveland Browns, are taking the field in the Middle East this week for AFWB’s latest international trip after holding camps in China, Brazil and Turkey the previous three years.
“We want to build from the ground up,” Barnidge said. “We don’t want to be a viewer. We don’t want people just watching. We want people playing the sport and enjoying it like we do.”
Giacomini and Barnidge will be joined at German University in Cairo from Wednesday through Saturday by 10 other NFL players, including the recently retired Marshawn Lynch, Pittsburgh running back DeAngelo Williams, Houston offensive lineman Oday Aboushi and Miami tight end Jordan Cameron.
In conjunction with the Egyptian Federation of American Football, AFWB will have free camps — basic, junior and advanced levels — for players ages 14-25, as well as a coaching clinic led by Giacomini.
“The love of the game is definitely spreading throughout the world,” Giacomini said, “and we’re trying to be contributors to that wherever we go.”
Barnidge and Giacomini were college teammates at the University of Louisville, and Awadallah, now a senior engineer at Yum Brands, was their classmate. All three enjoyed community work while in school and decided to take it to the next level when they established themselves in their careers.
Barnidge, selected for his first Pro Bowl, was the Browns’ winner of the Walter Payton Man of the Year award this past season for his work with AFWB.
“Gary and I will be doing this for a very long time,” the 30-year-old Giacomini said. “This is part of Plan B after football.”
AFWB receives proposals every year from American football federations around the world to have the camp held in their country. The group sifts through the emails and discusses their needs — hotels, security and buses to transport the players — and then votes on a site.
Summer camps are also held in Malden, Massachusetts, where Giacomini was raised, and Middleburg, Florida, where Barnidge is from, and one is being added this year in Louisville, Kentucky.
The original plan hatched from that initial dinner meeting was to head to Egypt, where Awadallah was born and raised. He had a high school friend conducting basic football drills there, but the political turmoil in that country in 2013 steered the group to China instead.
“There’s a lot more football in the world than people think,” said Giacomini, the son of Brazilian immigrants. “In China, they started with cone drills and now they’re up to maybe 15 padded teams. In Brazil, they started on the beach and they’re up to like 45 padded teams now. Same thing with Istanbul.”
The players teach the campers techniques to fine-tune their football skills. One of AFWB’s goals is to get a player from another country on a football scholarship in the United States.
“We almost had one kid from China get a D-III (opportunity), but he chose to go to Stanford instead for academics,” Giacomini said. “That’s like, ‘OK, you win.’”
Added Barnidge: “They don’t recruit for football internationally. They do for basketball and baseball and other sports, but they don’t for football. We are trying to break that trend.”
But it isn’t just about the sport for the NFL players. There’s a humanitarian aspect, too, with visits to orphanages and hospitals while the players also learn about the cultures they’re experiencing.
Last year in Istanbul, the group put males and females on the same field — something that doesn’t happen often there, according to Giacomini.
“The girls beat the boys in a relay and that was awesome,” the offensive lineman said. “They’ve never seen that. They were like, ‘Girls don’t ever win around here.’ Well, they did on that day.”
While in Rio de Janeiro two years ago, AFWB went to an orphanage and donated nearly 180 pairs of shoes to children there. Each one of the NFL players sat in front of them, took off the kids’ old socks and shoes, washed their feet and slipped on clean, new socks and shoes for them to keep.
“It’s awesome, man,” Giacomini said. “All the players are like, ‘Man, I just want to keep doing more stuff like this.’ You want to keep these kids off the streets, but we also push education. It’s just a great experience.
“If we change one kid’s life, we did our job.”
AP Sports Writer Tom Withers in Cleveland contributed to this story.
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