Miami Dolphins

Miami Dolphins coach’s summer break: A mission of football and faith in East Africa

In a small part of a largely forgotten part of the world, there are Dolphins fans, thanks to offensive line coach Jeremiah Washburn, who travels to Uganda every summer to teach orphans the game of football.
In a small part of a largely forgotten part of the world, there are Dolphins fans, thanks to offensive line coach Jeremiah Washburn, who travels to Uganda every summer to teach orphans the game of football. Courtesy of the Washburn family

Some sobering facts on a part of the world few Americans think about, and even fewer ever see:

Uganda, the landlocked nation in East Africa, has 2.5 million orphans — or one-fifth of the country’s kids between the ages of 6 and 17.

One in seven kids die before their fifth birthday.

Name a calamity, and Ugandans have endured it.

AIDS. Malaria. Corruption. Economic dysfunction. And, until not too long ago, civil war.

Many of this generation’s kids lost their parents to the Lord’s Resistance Army, a guerrilla group and religious cult led by the notorious Joseph Kony that has waged war throughout East Africa. The LRA wanted to turn Uganda into a theocracy and purify the people of the Acholi sub-region.

The LRA has killed Acholi parents, and also abducted orphans and forced them to become child soldiers.

Jeremiah Washburn, the Dolphins’ new offensive line coach, has heard these stories, and he has met the survivors.

For the past four summers, Washburn has run a football camp at Christian orphanages in the Acholi region, teaching kids America’s No. 1 sport and ministering to their physical and spiritual needs.

“Sports is a common language across the globe,” Washburn said. “It’s the way that we all speak. They picked it up really well. It was very rewarding for all of us. It [has been] a powerful experience, obviously.”

And it’s been a family affair. During the NFL calendar’s few quiet weeks, when many coaches are recharging for a grind to come, the Washburns hop on a daylong flight to Uganda, where no five-star resort has awaited them.

Washburn, speaking to the Miami Herald recently, joked that he and his 13-year-old son questioned their wisdom (and sanity) this past trip after their 10th straight day with a cold shower. But that doubt was fleeting. His faith and the impact their work has had on the kids keeps him coming back.

The idea began in 2015, when Washburn was the Lions’ offensive line coach. One of his ex-players, Dylan Gandy, had gotten involved with Restoration Gateway, an orphanage on the Nile River in Uganda, and told Washburn that he thought a sports camp there might work.

After a bit of convincing, Washburn agreed to do it — and the experience was so profound, he has gone every year since.

Longtime friend — and current Dolphins defensive coordinator — Matt Burke joined him that first year. Washburn’s dad, NFL lifer Jim Washburn, who worked for the Dolphins in 2016, made the trip this past time.

The camp has done nothing but grow, expanding to a neighboring orphanage called Otino Waa. Washburn’s sister Jessica was so touched by the experience that she moved to Uganda on a mission of increasing child literacy.

But for Washburn, it’s a pilgrimage of football and faith. His group spends weeks in Acholi, teaching the game’s fundamentals; it’s basically a passing camp with no tackling.

And while he knows American football is barely an afterthought to most locals — the World Cup was on during his most recent visit, and the tournament was all anyone talked about — he has seen some retention among the kids.

So much so that this year, he organized an inter-orphanage tournament. The coaching strategy by the winning team’s captains would have made Adam Gase proud.

“She started substituting players in and out,” Washburn said. “We asked her what she was doing. She said, ‘When we have to convert a first down, I like to put the quick players in so they can get a first. And when we have a lot of room, I like to put the tall, fast players in so we can get down the field.’

“And I thought, ‘My gosh, you’re a coach! You’re substituting players.’ She’s sending in signals to the quarterback. I thought, ‘This is amazing. We’re on this patch of grass on the Nile River and she’s substituting players and understanding these concepts.’ It’s really neat to see our game, at least, played on a different level over there.”

Even cooler: When his camp unites families torn apart by war, disease and poverty.

Washburn has a story for that, too:

“There’s a young man, he’s in high school or secondary school as they call it, at Restoration Gateway. We were unaware, but at Otino Waa, the other place, his brother and sister were there. They had been separated. There are a ton of stories like this. Everybody has their story and what they’ve overcome. At some point, you think, ‘My gosh, this is a really strong group of people here.’ It was pretty powerful. We all were pretty emotional.”

Think Washburn’s trip to Africa was dangerous? Navigating the roads of Broward Country proved far worse. Upon his return from Uganda, he was involved in a horrific bike accident. While he should be fine, he suffered an injury that will likely confine him to a golf cart when training camp begins Thursday.

Washburn was riding his bike near his South Florida home on Federal Highway when a passing vehicle not only hit him, but rolled over his leg. There was fear at first he might lose it. Thankfully, he suffered repairable ligament damage, but does face a long recovery. His coaching will not be limited, Washburn insisted.

“If Howard Mudd can get guys to play well off of a golf court with the Colts for all of those years, I have no excuse,” Washburn said. “My dad got leg whipped six years ago on the sidelines, broke his knee. Ended up having a really productive season with his group. There’s no excuse. I think we’ll be fine.”