When I traveled to Africa in June to help coach young players hoping to join the NFL someday, I knew I would have the chance to potentially change the lives of others. I was not expecting my own life to change.
But for me, as an African American, being able to physically experience the sights, sounds, smells, tastes and touch of the Motherland had a profound impact. And one part of the trip, in particular, shook me to my core: a tour of the Cape Coast Castle.
Used most recently by the British to facilitate the transatlantic slave trade, the Cape Coast Castle was “home” to as many as 1,000 men and 500 women at any one time, and it’s estimated that four million West Africans were shipped across the Atlantic from that location alone, according to our tour guide.
The feeling you get walking through the dungeons where these enslaved people were kept for three months — if they were able to live that long — is hard to describe. The living conditions were beyond belief. The horror of their reality — and what awaited them on the other side of the infamous “Door of No Return,” out of which millions of captive human beings took the final steps from their home continent of Africa and onto the slave ships — was unimaginable.
Growing up in the United States of America, I heard and read stories of my community’s ancestors and their journeys in enslavement. Typically, when knowledge is passed down between generations, things can become exaggerated — but in Ghana, I encountered a sobering reminder that the extreme terrors of the transatlantic slave trade were all too real.
The group that I was with included Colts DE Kwity Paye, Texans DL Ogbonnia “Ogbo” Okoronkwo and Seahawks LB Uchenna Nwosu. Paye was born in Guinea and immigrated to the U.S. with his mother and brother when he was a baby. Okoronkwo’s parents were both born in Nigeria, and Nwosu is also of Nigerian descent.
I am not a first- or second-generation American. It’s likely that someone in my bloodline, man or woman, lived through and survived this devastating part of history. Visiting the Cape Coast Castle was an emotional experience.
The moment we arrived at the site, I could feel the energy, the history, the aura in the air and through the walls — and immediate feelings of anger surfaced when learning the realities of what happened at this place.
My anger quickly morphed into sorrow and empathy, for obvious reasons. But near the end of the tour, which lasted at least three hours, I was overcome with gratitude for my ancestors, who endured unthinkable hardship and devastation.
Millions of people died in the transatlantic slave trade, but my ancestor(s), for one reason or another, had something inside that fueled survival — mental, physical and spiritual survival. It’s why I’m here today. Without such resilience, I wouldn’t be living out my dreams centuries later.
This trip changed me. It changed my perspective on how I see the world. It gave me a sense of responsibility to encourage others — initially my kids, family and friends — to learn the unvarnished truth about our community’s devastating past. Hopefully, the experience I’ve chronicled here sparks conversation among people I’ve never met.
I’ve expressed a lot about how this trip to Africa changed me, but I hope it was simultaneously impactful for the 49 young men who attended the NFL Africa Camp. I am so honored and proud to have been part of that event, which resulted in 11 players being invited to the NFL International Player Pathway Combine and four others (ages 16 to 19) earning a bid to the NFL Academy, both of which operate out of London.
I’ll never forget what former NFL star Osi Umenyiora said when he initially addressed the athletes at the camp’s opening meeting:
“We’re here to give you an opportunity to change your life.”
True words spoken. I just didn’t realize at the time that Osi was also talking to me.
Maurice Jones-Drew is NFL.com Analyst