For the past 19 years, the Wheaton Football team has gone on organized missions trips to various international and domestic locations. The campus postmaster, Jeffrey Peltz, is also the defensive line coach for the Wheaton Football team and the organizing head of Wheaton Football Missions Program (WFMP). However, WFMP was not always a part of what makes Wheaton Football special.
Peltz’s close friends at Wheaton Bible Church, even though he attends College Church, urged him to go on a mission trip, but the timing was always wrong. “It was right in the middle of recruiting,” Peltz said. “I had a really hard time trying to figure out how I could do this because it was going to be at least a 10 day trip.”
In 1998, Peltz finally decided to make it work and ended up traveling to Venezuela to serve. “There was even a Wheaton football alum there,” Peltz said. Peltz came back to campus, and a few players started asking questions about the trip. They were interested in teaching somewhere outside of the U.S.
After connecting two of the players with the missionaries, they ended up going to Venezuela to teach. In the spring of 1999, the two Wheaton students asked Peltz to come and visit. “After a week or two, they said let’s make this a mission trip,” Peltz said. “I went straight to the Bible Church’s missions pastor and said, ‘Give me your file. Yes, I have no idea what I’m doing,’ and we went to Rubio, Venezuela for the very first trip, which was where I went the first time. 26 people went, and then it just exploded.”
Just like that, Wheaton Football began organizing mission trips, and now, 20 years later this spring, it has become a large part of what makes Wheaton Football unique. “We have, for the football team and the training staff, four or five trips during spring break that a little over half the team goes on,” junior wide receiver Phillip Nichols said. “Most of the trips are over spring break, but occasionally there are a few during the first week of summer. There’s always one domestic trip.”
According to Peltz, the WFMP did mission trips to the Dominican Republic, Mexico, Uganda and Tennessee over the 2017-18 spring break and this past summer. “When we went to Tennessee, we worked with a place called ‘Wears Valley Ranch,’ which is an at-risk youth children’s school,” Nichols said. “We pretty much did manual labor jobs there for the first half of the day and played with kids for the second half of the day. We also ran a little sports camp.”
Nichols, who is from the Knoxville community, said, “For me, it was like going home almost … I thought that it was really cool for me to go home and serve the community that I grew up in.” Senior tight end Noah Frazier was a part of the missions team that served in Mexico this year. “Tijuana was the first place,” Frazier said. “We went to a different place south of Tijuana and worked at an orphanage there.”
While many of the trips serve the communities to whatever end they’re needed, WFMP served Tijuana and the area nearby in three specific ways, according to Frazier. Frazier also told the Record that they served at a homeless shelter specifically for deportees, built a home for a family in need and then helped out at an orphanage.
Senior offensive lineman Mark Nussbaum went to Santiago, Dominican Republic this past spring break. While the WFMP was there, they helped prepare the ground for the foundation of a new community center in a poor community. “My team partnered with Kyle Bradley, a former Wheaton Football Player and worked with his department in Go ministries in Santiago, Dominican Republic,” senior runningback Jaelin Goldsmith said. “The nutrition center was for kids who didn’t have access to food and water.”
Although lots of work is done, it’s hard to know what work is long-lasting after the missionaries leave or after the football players, in this case, return to McCully. “It’s hard to really know how important the trip was to the community that we served,” Nussbaum said. “In reality, the community did not need us to be there. The work that we did could have been done by other people … in our time there, we were able to be an encouragement to the community and specifically to the church that we served. I think that the church we served was thankful for the work that we did and how we were able to build relationships with them.” “Everyday was a grind physically, but we also found time to meet some of the people who started Go Ministries and some long time employees who told us how we were helping the overall vision God had for that area,” Goldsmith.
The Wheaton Football team also sent players to Uganda, one of whom was senior offensive lineman and team captain Andrew Jones. They worked alongside the Man Up and Go organization that serves children that do not have fathers. “We were specifically working with a man named Jeff Ford (Wheaton Football Alumnus), a few local orphanages and a church in Jinja,” Jones said. “At the orphanages we would spend most hours of the just playing with kids of many different ages. At the church we served in the local community doing various tasks such as extermination in homes, painting, construction, etc.”
Like many of the trips that the WFMP organizes, the connection with a Wheaton Football alum opens the door of opportunity. “ Uganda, we had a unique situation with those guys,” Peltz said. “Their flight got cancelled. They didn’t leave on that Friday; they left on Sunday. One of the guys sent in a form to try and challenge the cost, and they all ended up getting 800 or so dollars back. Which in turn, most of them either sponsored a kid at the orphanage they were at or gave that money to the mission.”
Even though Nichols’s experience stands apart from many others’ experiences on these mission trips, most of the players and staff end up finding themselves in unique situations quite different from their norm.
“It’s an opportunity to serve other people and have experiences with people that are different than you,” Frazier said. “I think that is very important in the global society that we live in today.” A lot of the players’ time on missions trips is spent in service, but the Wheaton football players and training staff also invest in each other.
In general, Wheaton aids the underprivileged in a variety of different ways, but, as some who have gone on mission trips would agree, the community being helped actually ends up helping the people in sent to serve. “The other thing I want my guys to do is become vulnerable with each other,” Peltz said. “We’re living together, working together and, at night, we become vulnerable with each other. Being vulnerable means sharing testimonies.”
Sharing a locker room, field and team mission statement is one aspect of being a cohesive team, but sharing a personal testimony and one’s strengths and weaknesses is another. On a team so large and busy, it can be hard to develop a personal connection with each player individually.
The following quotes are some final thoughts that the players mentioned in this article and Coach Peltz said in a final reflection on WFMP and the impact that the trips have had on their lives. “We felt like if we could be closer as a team, then having other athletes join us would make us closer as an athletic program,” Goldsmith said. “We all want to see each other succeed on the field, but if we combined mission trips we’d be able to see spiritual growth as well.”
“I want stuff to happen,” Peltz said. “Barring injury, we would put a stop to it if I continually brought guys back hurt, I want stuff to happen that they can see that it’s not about us — it’s about God.”
The best summary of the impact that these trips have on the lives of these men the community they served can be exemplified in the specific situation that Jones experienced in Uganda. “I had the opportunity to sponsor a boy who lives in a home with seven other people,” Jones said. “He doesn’t have a bed or a pillow, and he has one outfit. I met him and he immediately clung to me. On the second to last day, I felt the spirit pulling my heart to sponsor him, and I haven’t regretted that decision. Short term missions can have long term effects on not only the people in those countries, but they have an effect on you.”