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Video: From Africa to the NFL, and back again

  1. Transcript of: From Africa to the NFL, and back again

    BRIAN WILLIAMS, anchor: Finally tonight, our MAKING A DIFFERENCE report about a man who comes from one of the poorest places in the world in the grips of a brutal civil war . Now, he just happens to be a pro football player and you'll see him on NBC tomorrow night in the season opener as his Vikings take on the world champion Saints in New Orleans . His name is Madieu Williams , and our own Ron Allen has retraced his story all the way to Sierra Leone in West Africa , where he goes to give back.

    RON ALLEN reporting: Madieu Williams has come home to a school he built in a poor community in Sierra Leone .

    Mr. MADIEU WILLIAMS: I see a lot of myself in these children and give them an opportunity, the sky's the limit.

    ALLEN: He's brought volunteers from a group called Healing Hands and a friend and fellow football player, D'Qwell Jackson . Handing out basic school supplies. Most classes often don't have books. Most students never finish grade school .

    Ms. DONNA AVILA (Volunteer): It's emotional to see those kids so bright, bright, bright and eager and excited and happy.

    ALLEN: Dentists came, too, for most kids their first visit.

    Unidentified Dentist: It's going to be OK there. I promise you.

    Mr. WILLIAMS: This is my street.

    ALLEN: Williams was born in this war ravaged nation, 10 years of civil war , infrastructure destroyed. More than half live on about $1 per day. Now Williams is a star football player, number 20 on the Minnesota Vikings , but never far from his roots. You've said you don't want to be defined by football.

    Mr. WILLIAMS: Yeah. It doesn't last long. The acronym NFL, "Not For Long." And for the most part...

    ALLEN: That's what NFL stands for?

    Mr. WILLIAMS: Well, in the locker room, at least, that's what it is.

    ALLEN: I never knew that.

    Mr. WILLIAMS: But at the end of the day , I have other interests outside of football. Take a look at it...

    ALLEN: Williams left Sierra Leone for the US when he was nine.

    Mr. WILLIAMS: Yeah, that's the house.

    ALLEN: That's not much.

    Mr. WILLIAMS: No.

    ALLEN: He says his family, especially his mother, a nurse who he lost at just 45, taught him compassion. He named his school for her.

    Mr. WILLIAMS: To keep her memory alive. I know that's something that she would have wanted. The Madieu Williams Center for Global ...

    ALLEN: He further honored her by giving $2 million to the University of Maryland , his alma mater.

    Mr. WILLIAMS: It's priceless, the amount of lives that is going to be -- that is going to be affected for a lifetime.

    ALLEN: His endowment will fund education and health care research to help places like Sierra Leone .

    Dr. JAMIE FLORES: Does that hurt?

    ALLEN: It will also bring more volunteers like Dr. Jamie Flores , a plastic surgeon, here examining Zina , 13, disfigured by a tooth infection, abandoned by her family.

    Dr. FLORES: They have six dentists for six million people.

    ALLEN: How difficult is it to be here?

    Mr. D'QWELL JACKSON (Cleveland Browns Linebacker): It's disappointing knowing the lack of resources.

    ALLEN: More than 40 percent of children here never see the age of five. Williams has accomplished quite a bit, but if you ask him he'll tell you this is really just the beginning. He wants to build more schools for higher grades so that kids like this have a chance to go all the way through high school . Back at the hospital, Flores performs a routine procedure to give Zina relief. And that football player and friend of Williams is so moved by the suffering he makes this promise to Zina .

    Mr. JACKSON: I'm going to make it my personal business when I get back to see to it that that girl has an education. And that's -- and that's my word.

    Mr. WILLIAMS: Five times two.

    ALLEN: Essentially the same promise Madieu Williams has made for the children of Sierra Leone . Ron Allen , NBC News , Calaba Town , Sierra Leone .

    WILLIAMS: And Madieu Williams and his teammates take on the Saints tomorrow night.

By NBC News Correspondent
updated 9/9/2010 5:13:38 PM ET 2010-09-09T21:13:38

I've been to Africa dozens of times. However the trip to Sierra Leone was unique. Why? We went to cover "good news," make that "wonderful" news stories. We did a story about a professional athlete from the States born and raised there, who returns every year trying to help more kids get an education. Another story is about the US Peace Corps, that nearly 50 year old idea of President Kennedy, that just sent the first volunteers to Sierra Leone in 16 years. The Peace Corps, like just about every other western organization, had fled Sierra Leone's decade long civil war and its lingering aftermath. And finally, there's a story about an old slave fortress, Bunce Island, and an American professor trying to get it the recognition and attention it deserves for its inhumane and brutal contribution to history.

This was my first trip to West Africa. I've been all over the continent covering wars, famines, floods and various other disasters, natural and man-made. This was a trip about Americans in a far flung corner of the world doing incredibly selfle ss things. First up, was Madieu Williams. He's number 20 on the Minnesota Vikings of the NFL, a free safety entering his 7th season, who plays the game in a solid and unspectacular way. He's a guy who doesn't crave the limelight. He's not a self promoter. He's humble. He's so many things the stereotypical brash, multi-millionaire, egomaniacal professional athlete is not.

Williams was in Sierra Leone during the off-season doing his life's work. He was born and raised there until he was 9. He then came to the US with his family, and has been living the American dream. He returns to Sierra Leone each year. He's built a school on a hillside overlooking the Atlantic coast on the outskirts of the capital Freetown.

It's a school in a community where none had existed before. The staff had to turn students away when it opened, so many wanted to attend. The teachers either volunteer or earn very little money. That's the way things are done over there. Williams was visiting with a group of volunteers from a foundation called Healing Hands, based in Baltimore, teachers, doctors, dentists, even a business man and a civil engineer, there to help. They brought school supplies like books, pencils and rulers. Many schools don't have many or even any. They brought expertise to help train the staff. And mostly they brought big open hearts, and tried to show the people in this desperately poor nation that somebody cares.

That's the kind of thing that Madieu Williams makes happen, when he's not banging heads with the best of them in the NFL.He also recently gave his alma mater the University of Maryland two million dollars of his own money. It's the largest gift ever from someone so young. He's 28. The money has helped start a global health initiative. Williams hopes the research will help find ways to improve health care and education in places like Sierra Leone. All that is pretty telling about what kind of person Williams is, a guy who gives millions from his own pocket, because he's concerned about poverty in the developing world.

Williams says his family instilled in him early the importance, make that the necessity, of giving back, and often putting other first. He took us to his old neighborhood. I was expecting more. The family home is a rundown two story structure that looks like it might get washed away by one of Sierra Leone's monsoon afternoon rains storms this time of year. But the family had more than most, Williams explained. They had TV, a phone, even running water, which they shared with neighbors.

Williams mother lived the lesson of helping others. She was a nurse, who often took her son with her through the hospital wards. Williams named the school he built to honor her. Sadly, she is no longer with us, a life cut short a few years back. Abigail D. Butscher was just 45.

During this visit, Williams returned to some of those same hospital wards his mother used to take him to. The foundation he's teaming up with on this trip, Healing Hands, does most of its work in pediatric centers around the world. The story of how this partnership came together takes us briefly back to football, and the University of Maryland. Dr. Jamie Flores, a plastic surgeon who volunteers for Healing Hands, was once a defensive tackle for Maryland's college team. A few years ago, the school honored him for his humanitarian work. Williams was another honoree. They met, hit it off, and now they're standing together in a dingy children's ward in the hospital where Williams was born, trying to figure out what's needed most and how to get it here.

This is a long-term commitment. And in fact, that's how Williams answers the inevitable question about, how can you be optimistic and hopeful in a place full of so much misery and despair? His answer, "small victories, patience and time." It's a pretty remarkable story about a man who never forgets where he came from, a talented, successful pro athlete who could be almost anywhere else he wants to, but chooses to spend so much of his time, thoughts, money and effort in a place few Americans ever will go.

We hope you'll enjoy our story on the NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams,and the extended interview, video clips and pictures linked here, as much as we enjoyed the actual time spent in Sierra Leone.

Greetings From Freetown

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Africa marks a day for children

'Thank you' to a Peace Corps volunteer 40 years later

NFL's Madieu Williams honors mother's memory in Sierra Leone

Slideshow: Surprising beauty amidst struggle in Sierra Leone

Photos: From Africa to the NFL, and back again

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  1. A view of The Abigail Butscher School started by NFL player Madieu Williams of the Minnesota Vikings. Set in the hills outside Freetown, Sierra Leone, and named after Williams' mother, the school has more than 150 primary school enrolled. Williams hopes to be able to expand on the school's success and build more high schools to accommodate the students. (Amber Payne / NBC News) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. In a country where more than 40 percent of children don't survive past the age of five, Madieu Williams' endowment funds health care programs in partnership with Healing Hands. Here, a young boy recently treated at one of the clinics sits quietly with his mother as he recovers from a successful surgery. (Amber Payne / NBC News) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Two young students proudly don the uniforms of the Abigail Butscher Primary School in Sierra Leone. (Ron Allen / NBC News) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. In a shanty town along the main road east of Freetown, Sierra Leone, where there is no fresh running water, laundry is part of the landscape. (Amber Payne / NBC News) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Children of Abigail Butscher Primary School release their energy during an afternoon break. (Amber Payne / NBC News) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Dusk on the West African coast, just outside the downtown of Freetown, Sierra Leone. (Amber Payne / NBC News) Back to slideshow navigation
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