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New set of Wildcats preparing for 'eye-opening' trip to Ethiopia

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Joker Phillips was one of seven people on a UK-sponsored trip to Ethiopia last summer. (photo courtesy of Jason Schlafer, UK Athletics) Joker Phillips was one of seven people on a UK-sponsored trip to Ethiopia last summer. (photo courtesy of Jason Schlafer, UK Athletics)
Last summer, when they took a service trip to Ethiopia with head coach Joker Phillips, Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart and others, Danny Trevathan and Stuart Hines weren't entirely sure what was in store for them. The experience ended up being a life-changing one, with the two rising seniors witnessing a culture and a lifestyle unimaginably far removed from their own.

On Friday, a new group of rising seniors will follow in the footsteps of Hines and Trevathan and make the same trip with Phillips at their side. For a year now, Mikie Benton, Matt Smith and Larry Warford have listened to stories and seen photographs from the weeklong trip and, even though the trio has an idea what lies ahead, that doesn't mean they expect it to have any less of an impact on them.

"I am just going to try to get a new perspective on how I see the world," Warford said. "Mr. Barnhart, who's been there a couple times, he said it's an eye-opening experience. He said it just changes your perspective on life completely. You'll never look at things the same way when you come back to the States."

For Warford, there was a fleeting moment of hesitation when he was first approached about doing it, but based on the way his former counterpart at offensive guard talked about the trip, he couldn't pass up the chance.

"I had never been out of the country and they were talking about going to Africa," Warford said. "I was just like, 'Uh, I'm not sure if I want to do that.' But then I talked to 'Stu,' who went last year and he said it was a great experience. After I found out who else was going, I said, 'I think I'll go on this one.' "

Smith, on the other hand, has been thinking about the possibility since last summer when he first mentioned his interest in taking part in the next trip to Phillips upon hearing his teammates talk about it.

"I guess he remembered that because he asked me and there was no hesitation at all," Smith said. "I jumped at the chance to do that because that only comes around once in a lifetime."

What most struck Smith about the stories of those who went last year was the happiness of the children they worked with in the face of dire surroundings. Particularly with the career path he expects to pursue, working with those kids is something he looks forward to.

"Teaching's something I kind of want to do after football is over with so I think it will be really interesting for me just to see how the kids are in different cultures," Smith said. "I know we're going to be a doing a sports clinic with fifth graders at one of the schools over there so I'm just really excited about that and working with those kids."

Benton, Smith and Warford all recognize that being selected to participate in the trip is both an honor and a responsibility. Like Hines and Trevathan before them, they were tabbed because they are expected to lead next year's football team and get the most out of this unique experience.

"I know that the coaches are expecting a lot out of myself and Larry and Mikie this year with all of us being seniors," Smith said. "It's definitely an experience that I'll remember and I'm glad that the coaches trust in me enough to take me on a trip like this and that they're really looking for me to be a leader on the team. I'm excited to embrace that opportunity."

Benton, having started his career as a walk-on, is the unlikeliest of the three to be selected. But with the way he emerged first as a reliable contributor at safety and now as a leader, he is a deserving choice.

"If somebody would have told me my redshirt year that I'd be taking a trip to Africa through football, I probably would have thought they were crazy," Benton said. "It's a blessing and I'm extremely grateful for it."

Smith expects what he sees over the next seven days to give him a newfound appreciation for his life at home, but a conversation he had with his parents upon finding out he had been selected has already sent him down that path.

"My dad said, 'It's such an opportunity,' and it reminded me that not everybody gets the chance to go on trips like this and do all the things that we get to do as student-athletes," Smith said. "It's something I'll look back on and cherish."

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