Tigers Return From Croatia As Ambassadors For Their Country, Faith

We expect to see a football team making big plays and big tackles out on the football field. We do not expect to see them singing as they lead a worship service.

But just three weeks ago Croatians saw that side of American football players.

Nine ETBU Tigers  and two coaches traveled to Pozega, Croatia on a mission trip. They lent their muscles to rebuilding a church damaged by war.

"Overall, I believe that God's will was done," free safety Joe Parker said. "We had a good mission. Not just with helping them, but we found out a lot more about ourselves individually."

It was back-breaking labor. The team had no power tools. However, what was a shell left from war looked more like a place of worship by the time the Tigers left the country.

While the group hoped to change the lives of Croatians, they found the transformation in themselves.

"They changed my life completely," kicker Shea Harborth said. "You could not have asked for a more grateful people."

"You look at what we have here in America through a different set of eyes," head coach Mark Sartain said of their return to East Texas.

"We have so many things that we take for granted," Joe Parker said. "We have TV and we have gas stations that we can go and get all the things we need. We have XBOX's and Playstations. On our good day over there we had to walk two miles just to go throw a football in a field."

It has been 13 years since the horrors in Croatia unfolded on our televisions. The Christian- Muslim violence between Serbia, Croatia and Bosnia was one of the bloodiest exchanges in this world's history.

As American Christians on a mission in the area, there was some understandable nervousness when the team arrived. But that quickly went away.

"The people there didn't really care to talk about the war," Coach Sartain said. "I'm certain, it's almost like a combatant trying to put those things out of their minds."

"We learned more from our faith with the people in those churches that we did the worship services, than they did from us," fullback Tyler Simmons said.

The Americans were stunned to see the number of bullet-riddled buildings that remain. Factories and water towers bare the evidence of rocket attacks. It was a tough sight for Joe Parker. Joe spent two years in Iraq with the 101st Airborne Division.

"Some of the guys asked me if I was okay," he explained I wasn't sulking or hanging back or anything, but when I started to see a bunch of the war destruction, I kind of had some mixed emotions."

"But, I realized why I was there," Joe said, "and on the inside I was talking to the Lord and he cleared my mind and gave us good vision and got us back on track."

Joe and the group led some unplanned worship services with local youth, and taught the young Croatians about the American game of football.

"They didn't catch on too quickly," Tyler laughed. "But with a little bit of prodding, they got it. They actually taught us a lot about soccer. We actually challenged them to a soccer game between us and them and we barely won and they're only 10-years-old."

On their final night, the Croatian teens presented the Tigers with a signed Croatian soccer jersey. Some of the children cried.

"They were just so sad to see us go," Tyler explained. "It was hard to believe we had made such an impact in such a short time."

The Tigers may have made an instant impact in Croatia, but it was the experience in the country that made a lifetime impact on the Tigers.

"It's re-attached me to my core faith and the way that I was raised ," Joe said, "and the things that  I believe in."

"When I got over there, " Coach Sartain said, "I found and realized that the things that we have that they don't, are the very things that stand in the way of us having what they do."