By Craig Haley, FCS Executive Director
Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - No college football team will go to greater lengths to win a conference championship this year than Drake University.
The Bulldogs will chase the Pioneer Football League title far and wide. The non-scholarship FCS league is comprised of 10 schools in eight states spread coast-to-coast, from Florida and New York to California. Their five road games total over 4,600 miles from their campus in Des Moines, Iowa.
But that pales to where they will travel in May. The Bulldogs will become the first American football team to play on the continent of Africa when they face the Mexican All-Star team CONADEIP at the Global Kilimanjaro Bowl May 21 in Moshi, Tanzania.
So, what's another 8,385-mile road trip?
"My vision for the program," fourth-year head coach Chris Creighton said, "has always been to make playing football at Drake one of the most incredible experiences of our players' lives."
In doing so, Creighton has thought way outside the box.
The 42-year-old began to pursue the Africa trip two years ago. By NCAA rule, Drake has to play a non-American opponent. Creighton eventually focused on Mexico, where the American version of football is more popular than you might think. The CONADEIP squad was selected from a league which played its inaugural season this past fall.
While Creighton has led his squad through spring practices the last three weeks, his players have been as busy getting immunization shots and buying the proper hiking gear as much as they have been catching footballs. Their practices conclude with a spring game on campus April 23.
"There's definitely something in the air with the knowledge that we're about to make the trip in really just over a month," Creighton said. "We don't normally get to play a game in May. So kind of everything we're doing just has a heightened sense of awareness that it's not going to be such a long wait as normal."
Drake's trip essentially is broken into three parts. It begins with the 16- to 17-hour flight (from Minneapolis, including a stop in Amsterdam, The Netherlands) on May 17 into May 18. The following two days, the Bulldogs and CONADEIP will have morning practices, followed by early afternoon youth clinics to teach American football and then late-afternoon tours to a local hospital and village.
The third part of the trip is the longest. On the first three days following the game, the teams will break into three groups. Each day, two of the three groups will help construct an addition to an orphanage in Moshi and work with a youth organization, while the other group will go on a safari.
On May 25, the teams will start a six-day climb of Mount Kilimanjaro - 4 1/2 days up and 1 1/2 days down. They will take different routes and meet at the summit, where they will hoist their respective university and national flags.
The Bulldogs will want to follow Creighton's lead up the mountain. He is an experienced climber, having ascended mountain ranges such as Mount Rainier in Washington, Mount Hood in Oregon and Kings Peak in Utah - all the high points in those states.
Lastly, Drake's contingent will depart Tanzania on May 31 and arrive back in Des Moines on June 1.
Not surprisingly, much of Creighton's excitement derives from the opportunity "to be with Tanzanians and for our guys, hopefully, to be doing some good work and really spending time with the people there."
Drake will take an experienced squad on its trip. The Bulldogs, who finished 7-4 overall and 6-2 in the PFL last year, return 10 starters on offense and seven on defense.
The starters include eight who earned a form of All-PFL honors last year: tackle Evan Lawrence and linebacker Tyler Moorehead on the first team; left guard Stephen Flynn on the second team; and quarterback Mike Piatkowski, wide receiver Drew Blackmon, defensive tackle John Sawhill, cornerback Michael Lahart and punter Billy Janssen on the honorable mention squad.
The trip is costing nearly $4,000 per person and the team raised much of the money last year. The fundraisers included a lift-a-thon and a "Points and Sacks for Africa" program in which people pledged a set amount for each point or sack registered by the team last season.
"I'm overwhelmed about the fact that this kind of a dream is becoming a reality," Creighton said. "It's taken a lot of people and a lot of work to make this happen. So I'm kind of in the state right now where it's like this has been one of my life dreams. We're not there yet, but all systems are go."