Birmingham takes football to Ukraine
Wednesday, Jan 29, 2003
By Ben Cook
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (BP)--The Lugansk Panthers did not have a very good record during the 2002 season of the Ukraine Federation of American Football League (UFAFL).
The tone for the season was set for Coach Igor Zhukov's team in the opening game when the Panthers lost seven players to various broken bones and damaged knees. Zhukov, who also plays on the team, was one of the injured.
They won only one game in what was their first season of play, but despite the mounting losses, the Panthers looked good when they ran onto the field.
In fact, the Panthers looked like they could be playing on Birmingham's Southside. They wore green and gold jerseys with "UAB" across the front, and shoes donated by UAB's equipment manager Don "Sal" Saldana and senior associate athletics director Bobby Staub.
Their football pants and pads came from Coach Bill Gray and equipment manager John Russell from Samford University. The helmets they wore were donated by the Birmingham regional office of Riddell Co. at the request of Samford University.
The story of how this team in Lugansk became so tied to Birmingham is interesting.
In early 2001, Mick Stockwell, who lives in Kiev, Ukraine, and is regional coordinator for the Southern Baptist International Mission Board, was contacted by Zhukov about starting a football team in Lugansk, a city in far eastern Ukraine. Zhukov thought Stockwell, a former college football player at Liberty University, might know how to go about accomplishing that feat. He needed guidance, and, in particular, he needed equipment.
Stockwell called an old friend, Lyn Scarbrough, marketing director for the Birmingham-based Lindy's Sports Annuals, and asked for help.
Scarbrough, whose son Shannon serves in Ukraine in the IMBís International Service Corps program, traveled to Kharkov and met Stockwell and Zhukov at a McDonald's restaurant.
They mapped out plans to launch the team and Scarbrough pledged to furnish the needed equipment.
And that's where the Birmingham connection picked up full steam.
Scarbrough turned to local schools for their help in donating equipment. He also got Marcus Stephens of UnderArmour, a national clothing apparel manufacturer headquartered in Baltimore, Md., to donate complete sets of under-apparel, which proved to be beneficial in the harsh Ukraine weather.
Next Scarbrough got in contact with former Auburn and Birmingham Thunderbolts media relations director Kent Partridge, who was able to get a large amount of XFL equipment donated, primarily from the New York/New Jersey Hitmen.
This was all gathered and packaged in Birmingham, with the help of K.C. and Luann Caskey of Wildwood MailBoxes, Etc., and shipped to Ukraine for the start of the 2002 season.
But the relationship did not stop with the equipment.
This past summer, representatives from the United States, working through Life International, a non-denominational Christian-based humanitarian aid organization, went to Donetsk, Ukraine, a city of about 1.3 million people, two hours away from the Russian border, and spent a week conducting a football camp for 60 Ukrainians.
In July, Kevin Hancock, junior varsity head football coach and girl's basketball coach at Pelham High School, joined Mike Wallace, head football coach at Division III Wilmington (Ohio) College; former Air Force Academy defensive Devin Knuckles; Curt McCain, athletics director and defensive coordinator from University Christian High School in Jackson, Miss., and Scarbrough and went to Ukraine to conduct the camp.
After flying to Kiev, they met up with Stockwell and Kent McDowell, a Colorado native and former college athlete who works with the IMB and lives in Donetsk.
The group took a 12-hour train ride from Kiev to Donetsk, where they found primitive conditions for a football camp. The days were hot and there was virtually no air conditioning anywhere.
Morning practice sessions were held on a field of sand and gravel. Mid-day sessions consisted of lectures in hot classrooms. The afternoon sessions were conducted on a grass field, but it was located 30 miles from the city and had to be reached by rented buses.
During the week, the International Mission Board and Life International assisted the coaches in visiting Ukrainian children in local orphanages. There the men, all Christians, shared their faith and some gifts with the orphans.
At the end of the week, the Ukraine players scrimmaged to exhibit how much they had learned from the visitors at this camp, which will be conducted again in Ukraine this coming summer.
"Now my guys are starting to feel like they are real players," Zhukov said. "They are excited because they feel like a team. They are very happy to be involved with this camp. It has given them confidence."
The Panthers will need the confidence this spring when the UFAFL begins its 10th season, but only the second for the Lugansk Panthers. The games are played before small crowds in Lugansk and other Ukrainian cities with very little publicity, but the players love playing the game.
And, thanks to some generous people and schools, many from the Birmingham area, at least the Panthers look good when they play.
Cook is a sports writer for the Birmingham Post-Herald. Used by permission.
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