By Jeff White (

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CHARLOTTESVILLE – It was almost time for Mario Nixon to start packing his suitcase when he got the disappointing news in early June: The shoulder injury that had been bothering him since basketball season would require surgery.

That meant Nixon would not be able to join his Norfolk Christian classmate Kwontie Moore on a mission trip to Nicaragua. But Nixon hasn’t given up on 2013, or beyond.”I would like to go back,” Nixon said.

So would Moore, one of the four Norfolk Christian graduates who joined the University of Virginia football team this summer, along with Nixon, Courtnye Winn and Wil Wahee.Moore has made three trips to Managua, Nicaragua’s capital city, to help residents of La Chureca, Spanish slang for “city dump.” In 2010, about 30 students and alumni of Norfolk Christian traveled to Managua, including Moore and Wahee. In 2011, the group numbered about 35, and it grew to about 50 this year.

“I’m just praying to God that I’ll be able to go again,” Moore said.

Training camp begins today for the Cavaliers. Nixon, a 6-4 wide receiver, is still recovering from the June 11 surgery to repair his torn labrum, and he’ll redshirt this season. Moore, a 6-2 middle linebacker, is among the true freshmen who might see action this fall.

At Norfolk Christian, they played for Heath Gibbs. Their coach at UVa is Mike London, who was thrilled when he learned of their plans to help out some of Managua’s poverty-stricken residents.

“You always encourage that,” London said Friday at John Paul Jones Arena. “Everybody knows I’m big on the community-service part of it, and they’d been doing that prior to coming to Virginia. That was one of the things that also attracted me about them, that they’re conscientious enough to know that it’s not just about them, it’s about serving others. And they’ve gotten a lot out of that. They bring an appreciation for who they are, where they are, and the need for people to extend a helping hand and to reach out.”

The trips to Managua lasted about two weeks. At La Chureca, the Norfolk Christian group helped build houses for people whose homes often consisted of tin sheds.”They have no roof over their house,” Nixon said, “they have no running water, no electricity.”

“They sleep on rocks or dirt,” Moore said.

Nixon said: “We basically come in there just like a team who’s willing to help anybody. Before we go we pack hundreds and hundreds of bags of rice, bags of beans, and we brought water.”

Norfolk Christian held clothing and shoe drives before heading to Nicaragua, where the mission group distributed the items to residents. Moore and Nixon spent some of their time in Managua playing sports – soccer, football, lacrosse, basketball — with local children.

“They just love playing basketball,” Moore said. “Baseball is a big sport [in Nicaragua], but not a lot of kids from La Chureca play baseball.”The mission group also worked. Hard.

“We had to actually build a road last year,” Nixon recalled. “Cutting through rock. We were out there for like six hours in 115-degree weather, with no break.”

Moore said: “This year, we helped this church put concrete on the ground. And that was the worst manual labor I ever felt in my life. Also, we chopped down trees. Like Mario was saying, on the road that we built, we also had to clear out a little area on the top of a hill. What we did was, we chopped down all the trees down there and put them in a big pile and burned it.”

The Norfolk Christian group stayed at a compound owned by Mike and Sue Buzbee, Christian missionairies from Florida. Aware that the start of his college football career was imminent, Moore worked out every morning with Mike Murray, a classmate who’s headed to Hampden-Sydney College to play basketball.

His experience in Nicaragua, Nixon said, was life-changing.

“It makes you appreciate the things you have here in America, how we take advantage of running water, electricity, clothes,” he said. “People there, they don’t have the necessities. But the children, even without those things, they still have a smile on their face. They seem so happy and joyful. So I learned to appreciate what we have over here.”

Moore said: “What I learned was the joy and the gratitude of everyone that was there. We don’t even know how to speak their language — most of us don’t know how to speak Spanish — so the way we actually talked to them, in a way, was through our actions and things.”

In return, Moore said, the residents find ways to express their appreciation, even if they don’t speak English.

“For instance, if we’re picking up little kids, they don’t even know us, but they just run to us with arms wide open,” he said. “We’d have them for the whole day or whole week. And just to see how happy and joyful they are [was amazing].”

Nixon and Moore arrived at UVa in July and were assigned roommates: wideout Adrian Gamble for Nixon and offensive lineman Michael Mooney for Moore.

The transition from high school to college hasn’t been seamless for either Norfolk Christian graduate.

“Just being on your own, having to wake up on your own and waking up early for practices and stuff,” Moore said, “and if you’re not there on time, if you’re not doing the routine that everyone else is doing, then you have a problem.”

Nixon said: “I’m not going to lie: The first week at UVa, it was a big change, coming from a Christian school to here and having so much freedom, and not having people down your back telling you what to do, when to do it and how to do it. It was just a big change, having so much freedom and just trying to get acclimated to the school and adjusting to the workload and adjusting to transportation around here and getting to know people.”

They feel more at home at the University now, and their new coach is happy to have them in his program.

“It’s only going to make our team better,” London said, “because you got two guys that are fired up about helping others.”

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