It will be about another four months before Russell Allen and wife Ali welcome their first-born child, a son, into the world. But the Jacksonville linebacker and his wife are nervously anticipating an important arrival of another kind as well.
Every day, Allen goes to the mailbox at his home in San Diego and hopes for a letter from the 7-year-old child he and Ali sponsor in impoverished El Salvador.
|Russell Allen's desire to serve brings rewards in El Salvador and Jacksonville. (Getty Images)|
And of Natalia Pamela Crestin Hernandez, the 7-year-old girl they sponsored, and of the families they met during their two-day trip to the tiny Central American country, nestled between Guatemala and Honduras on the Pacific Coast.
"It's something I know both of us will never forget," said Allen, of the trip set up by teammate Aaron Kampman, during a weekend phone call. "You go there and you think about all the things the people don't have. But you leave feeling like there is this sense of great contentment and gratitude for what they do have."
A little history here: We first became acquainted by phone with Allen last summer. Our story at the time was fueled partly by the fact Allen had beaten the NFL's long odds and earned a roster spot with the Jaguars in 2009 as an undrafted college free agent, started five games (second most among all undrafted free-agent rookies that year) and had amassed the most tackles by an undrafted rookie linebacker (46) in at least 10 seasons.
Perhaps the more significant part of the equation was that Allen, from San Diego State, had very quickly immersed himself in the Jacksonville community by regularly visiting a pair of local juvenile detention centers.
On at least one occasion, Allen, 25, brought along teammate Kampman for a session. Last month, it was Kampman, whose social consciousness and deep faith have long been a hallmark for the two-time Pro Bowl defensive end, who dragged Allen along for the trip to El Salvador.
Kampman and wife Linde had been to El Salvador before and, through the group Compassion International, sponsor a child there. Last year, we wrote that Allen's narrative as a player could be "too good to be true," but that he might be even better as a person.
The trip to El Salvador certainly validated that.
The four-day trek -- two days for travel and two for the actual visit -- included the Kampmans; Russell and Ali; and Seattle defensive tackle Craig Terrill and wife Rachel. Green Bay wide receiver Jordy Nelson was originally scheduled to attend as well, but was forced to cancel because of recent wrist surgery.
The three couples spent some time in the capital city of San Salvador, but they also ventured out into the countryside, visiting modest homes with dirt floors and no glass in the windows. Arranged in part by Compassion International, which sponsors more than 30,000 children in 150 centers or "projects" in El Salvador and which partners with churches there, the trip permitted the three NFL visitors to see firsthand the efforts of the group.
And to realize how much more needs to be done in certain countries.
El Salvador, by the way, is the most densely populated country in Central America, and one of the most poor. The population is approximately 6 million and the per capita annual income is only about $7,500.
Recalled Allen, who has appeared in all 16 games for the Jaguars the past two years, and started in nine: "We went to a home with four children, where the father hasn't worked for six months, and the mother works 12 hours a day, seven days a week, for, like, $4 a day. But they're so happy for the little bit they have. They really are a gracious and dignified people. But there's a lot that still needs to be done."
At the "projects," the Salvadoran children are fed and clothed and educated for about five or six hours a day, and taught some real-world skills, from those as complicated as computer use to others as rudimentary as sewing or cooking.
In a home, one of the children briefly disappeared for a few minutes, then returned with every letter the sponsor had ever sent, and a picture. Another child, Rudy, tightly gripped a photo of Nelson, and was more impressed that the visitors actually knew his sponsor, than by the T-shirts they gave him.
Those poignant incidents helped prompt Russell and Ali, married less than a year, to sponsor Natalia, who was identified as "Natalie" in some reports, but who prefers to be called "Pamela."
At a time when the lockout and courtroom mechanics permeate the NFL news, and the several offseason arrests make headlines, the trip to El Salvador provided a respite for the Allens. It also motivated them to want to visit again, and hopefully see their "adopted" daughter.
Yeah, it's a feel-good story, for sure. But one, Allen noted, with a bit of a twist.
"It doesn't matter to the people that you're an NFL player," Allen said. "They don't know who you are; the NFL doesn't register with most of them. What they know is that you're there for them, that's all, and that you want to help.
"But the most gratifying thing is that you go there intending to make people's lives a little better, and you're the one who ends up feeling the best."