Brandon Kirksey and D.L. Wilhite can't pinpoint the moment the arms-length skepticism of their spring-break peers faded away, but it probably was somewhere between standing chest-deep in a polluted river, dredging shopping carts out of the muck, and sitting quietly in a children's hospital, gently tying swatches of cloth together to make blankets for terminally ill kids.
See, nothing makes you more human than helping.
The Gophers defensive linemen defied the stereotypes of self-absorbed, privileged college football players last month by spending their much-anticipated hiatus from classes not on a beach or at a club but in a river, at a YMCA and on a construction site. They picked up trash, cleaned out stables and hammered nails, all on their own time and expense.
And while they can point to plenty of tangible benefits they provided, here's the secret, the Gophers say: They received far more than they gave.
"It was life-changing," said Wilhite, a junior from Lexington, Ky. "I felt like I was a better person, like I have a better grasp on what I want to do with my life. It taught me how I can affect people, not just through helping others but just by making friends."
Even with those who aren't predisposed to associate with you. The football players weren't certain they were welcome when they first boarded the bus last month. About to embark on a cross-country road trip, the Gophers defensive linemen, each about twice the size of an average college student, understood that the reputation of college athletes, and their sport in particular, preceded them.
College can be a cliquish society, and too many football players make news for bar fights, academic fraud and a culture of narcissistic indulgence.
"That was the image most people had coming onto the bus, you could tell," said Kirksey, a senior from St. Louis.
Added Wilhite: "They were wary of us at first. Regular students and football players don't usually mix at something like that."
But the "something" was a pay-it-forward service tour organized by Students Today, Leaders Forever, a Minneapolis-based nonprofit that has connected more than 11,500 college and high school students with worthy projects in the past eight years. Wilhite heard from a friend about a trip he took the previous year, and Wilhite convinced his teammate to embark with him on STLF's nine-day bus trip to Washington, D.C., with stops along the way each day to offer help where it was needed.
Something about spending hours on a bus and evenings camping on church-basement floors will change opinions.
"We were from all different cultures. If you were walking down the street, you would think, 'Why would that person ever talk to me?''' Wilhite said.
He met members of the Gophers band, for instance, "and by the end of the trip, we were best friends. I think we kind of threw people for a 180."
That's when they weren't throwing hay bales or garbage bags.
The group, 43 in all, stopped first in Rockford, Ill., where the football players learned to make colorful tied quilts for sick children, a hidden talent the 300-pound Kirksey didn't realize he had.
"He's pretty good at arts and crafts," Wilhite said. "I struggled with it, but I got help."
The group cleaned and restored a community hall in Fort Wayne, Ind., that had been host to a fundraiser the previous night. They baled hay, tended horses, repaired cabins and built birdhouses to sell at a YMCA camp in Erie, Pa. They helped gut and haul rubble from an abandoned house in Syracuse, N.Y., where Habitat for Humanity was restoring the property.
"That was a fun day," Kirksey said, his football instincts coming to the fore. "We got to smash old toilets and old sinks, stuff like that, so they could be trucked out."
They put on an impromptu show at that stop, Wilhite and Kirksey demonstrating their steppin' dance talent, before moving on to Philadelphia, where they cleaned a church basement. Another day spent picking up trash and clearing brush in a New Jersey state forest brought them to Washington and the trip's biggest project: Along with six other busloads of STLF students, they waded into the filthy Anacostia River and fished out a junkyard's worth of debris.
"Dirty, dirty, dirty," Kirksey said. "They gave us rubber suits up to [his chest], and we pulled out railroad tracks, a car door, a bumper, a refrigerator, shopping carts, some of everything. We pulled out 43 car tires, and bags and bags of junk."
Along the way, they got to be sightseers, too, visiting Niagara Falls -- the pair's first experience crossing the U.S. border -- and touring the various D.C. monuments, Capitol building and White House. They watched 2,500 miles go by outside the bus windows, took too few showers --"That was the toughest thing," Wilhite joked -- and grew closer to their new friends.
"That was the best part. I met people I wouldn't have, and made friends I'll keep for a long time. We're getting together again," Kirksey said. "I've been to Florida, I've been to South Beach, stuff like that. That's fun, but this was a different type of fun. It was helping people, giving back. Getting to know the people on the trip with us. The only way to explain it is, helping makes you feel good."