WASHINGTON - A top NFL draftee went teary-eyed Tuesday when he told a crowded room that before he catches a single football as a professional athlete, he wanted to endorse the Christian charity that offers life-changing surgeries to the most needy and hopeless in Africa.
"I wanted this to be the first thing I did to begin my career as a professional athlete. I'm not even in the league yet, but I know how important it is to do the right things in the right way," said Malcolm Kelly, who is expected to be in the top 10 picks for the 2008 NFL Draft.
"Mercy Ships is all about that. They deliver free, life-changing medical assistance to people in Africa and third world countries that need help the most," the 21-year-old, 6'4" Christian athlete said.
"As an African-American, I feel a connection there. I just hope that this first small step will help shed light and get the word out on what an incredible organization Mercy Ships is."
The former University of Oklahoma wide receiver was introduced to the Christian medical charity through his roommate as well as teammate, who happened to be the oldest son (adopted) of Mercy Ships marketing director, Todd Robinson.
After hearing about the charity and its mission, the Kelly family almost instantly accepted it as their personal cause that God wanted them to endorse. Raised with Christian values, Kelly credited his parents for teaching him as a child that if he had more than his friends then he should share with those who have less.
Kelly said after hearing the sufferings of those in Africa, it was logical for him to give and do what he can to help.
"Being good at football, people think the only words that come out of my mouth is 'touchdown, touchdown!'" Kelly noted. But he hopes that when people hear him instead speak about Africa they will be curious, start researching, and then help.
The young football star joked that the Mercy Ships International Operations Center in Garden Valley, Texas, is practically in his "backyard," being only 30 miles from his home.
Operations performed by Mercy Ships' volunteer doctors include cleft lip and palate, cataract removal, orthopedic and facial reconstruction. The procedures are relatively simple, but thousands die each year from these easily correctable birth defects.
Half of the world's estimated 40 million blind people could see following a one-hour operation, according to Mercy Ships.
Meanwhile, those that survive the birth defects are often ostracized by their society and rejected by their own parents.
One notable procedure helps young girls in Africa who suffer from incontinence after giving birth, often to a still born. The girls – sometimes only 12 years old when married – are unable to physically support the delivery of a child. They suffer from labor problems and childbirth injuries that often include the inability to control their bladder and bowel.
Out of no fault of their own, the girls are ostracized from society because of their childbirth injuries – that is until they receive help from Mercy Ships. The girls' lives are restored after they receive the vesicovaginal fistula surgery, new clothes and a headband, and a small sum of money to cover bus fare and to help them start up a small business.
Kelly is the first professional athlete to endorse Mercy Ships.
"Malcolm's achievements as an athlete are extraordinary and we are sure he will excel in the NFL," said Mercy Ships chairman of the board, Myron E. "Mike" Ullman III. "But it is his maturity to recognize the potential for helping the poorest of the poor by supporting Mercy Ships in Africa that is most impressive. It makes a strong statement about his personal character and values as a young man."
When drafted, Kelly will join a growing number of outspoken Christians in the NFL who have used their athletic ability as a platform to share about their Christian faith. Notable Christians in the NFL include Tony Dungy, coach of the 2007 Super Bowl champion Indianapolis Colts; Shaun Alexander, 2005 NFL MVP and running back for the Seattle Seahawks; and Hunter Smith, Colts punter and recently Christian rock artist and author.
Founded in 1978, Mercy Ships has performed more than 1.5 million services worth $600 million and has directly changed the lives of more than 1.7 million people. The charity has treated more than 200,000 people in village medical clinics, performed more than 26,000 surgeries and 162,000 dental treatments, and completed more than 800 construction, agriculture, and water development projects.
In July, Kelly will for the first time visit a Mercy Ship docked in Liberia.