Kevin Dugan

Sport and service combine to produce hit program in Africa

It’s been a whirlwind year for Kevin Dugan.

Hired in January 2010 as the University of Notre Dame’s director of men’s lacrosse operations, 

the New Jersey native—less than six months later—found himself joining the Irish team in a Memorial Day berth in the NCAA lacrosse title game in Baltimore. Two days later, the Irish squad left for a 10-day tour of Japan.

You might argue that Notre Dame’s 2010 NCAA success arguably ranked at the head of the list of his professional accomplishments. But, it was yet another trip, this one later that same summer to Uganda, that really jumps out for the 2001 Notre Dame graduate. 

Founder of Fields of Growth International, the 31-year-old Dugan has spent a significant portion of his adult life traveling to third-world countries, using lacrosse and football as teaching tools to foster friendships and deliver life skills education to children all over the world. 

As the conversation shifts to his humanitarian work, the soft-spoken Dugan starts to light up, speaking passionately about service in a way that could get even the most mild-mannered individual fired up about improving lives and inciting change. 

For Dugan, who begins scrolling through photos from his journeys, each image conjures up a unique anecdote or a special memory. A photo of one of his favorite children puts a grin on Dugan’s face, while another picture of a large group leads to a somber story about a family ridden with disease. 

No matter the tale, however, it is evident that Dugan’s best memories come from the trip he took last summer — a two-week journey with a fellow Notre Dame graduate — that made an incredible impact on his life. It was a mission of sorts, undertaken in a way that embodied what it means to be a Notre Dame graduate.  

United under a common message of action and a common mission of athletic ministry, Dugan and his partner, former Notre Dame and NFL Arizona Cardinals tight end Oscar McBride, took an unforgettable journey to the African country of Uganda this past August.

Armed with a projector and a PowerPoint presentation, Dugan and McBride (he’s a 1994 Notre Dame graduate) developed a lecture centered around Notre Dame’s popular “Play Like A Champion Today” message that they would share with children at all the stops on their trip. At the conclusion of each presentation, they would then apply the core values in the lecture to sports and use flag football as the primary method of teaching the concept of athletics ministry to the youth of Uganda.

“It was just a ton of fun — and it was really encouraging to see how much the churches, parishes and communities appreciated it, because it’s ministry in a way that’s exciting for kids,” Dugan said. “It’s delivering the Catholic ministry and values through athletics and that became a really powerful platform that we were able to use.”

With such an organized and persuasive teaching initiative, it may come as a shock to some that Dugan recruited McBride only a month or so before embarking on the trip to Africa.

The two Monogram winners returned to Notre Dame in June to attend a conference sponsored by Notre Dame’s Alliance for Catholic Education. The organization sponsors the “Play Like A Champion Today” Educational Series, which aims to help youth and high school sports programs reflect gospel values and promote the moral and character development of young athletes. 

Dugan spoke about Fields of Growth International at the conference and McBride, like most who listen to Dugan describe his missions, was moved to volunteer immediately. 

The two individuals met up a few days later, and developed a curriculum that adapted the basic teachings of the “Play Like A Champion Today” message to reflect the unique dangers and societal concerns that children in Uganda face. 

“The ‘Play Like A Champion Today’ program is not just about winning and being a champion, but also about being a champion in life,” McBride said. “So what we did, given the fact that Uganda is so stricken with HIV, AIDS and poverty, was to use the message to minister in the cardinal virtues—good decision-making, abstinence and the value of continuing your education.”

A month later, Dugan and McBride landed in Uganda and set off on their mission. They spent most of their time speaking with children in the Masaka district of the country, in the village of Kkindu — but they also traveled to a Holy Cross parish in Bugembe, Jinja, where they ministered to youth at three primary schools supported by Holy Cross Missions. 

The children were extremely attentive and receptive to the lessons, but what they and their American mentors enjoyed most about their interactions were the flag football games. 

The children learned the rules of American football easily enough, as rugby is very popular throughout East Africa. However, Dugan quickly found out that Ugandan football developed into a much different game than its American counterpart.

“It was like lining up with 10 Rocket Ismails out on the field,” Dugan joked. “Every game was a total offensive shootout, and we had a really tough time playing defense. Oscar and I were just airing it out to these kids because they were super fast and had really good hands. Everyone wanted to be a wide receiver.”

The children would often return re-energized after the football games, eager to learn more from the two Monogram winners.

One of the most important concepts Dugan hoped to develop with the Ugandan youth was the need to respect women in all aspects of life.

McBride and Dugan would often gather the boys and girls in the classroom or church hall and tell the boys to look around the room at their female counterparts, helping them realize that one day, many of them would become their wives in the village.

“Women are always the most marginalized people in third-world communities,” Dugan said. 

“So trying to create something as a platform to build self-esteem and self-confidence in the young women is critical.”

Dugan’s organization sent two women over this summer to work with young girls in the villages of Uganda. Kerry Hamill, a junior on the Yale University women’s lacrosse team, and Mara Trionfero, a drug and alcohol counselor at Notre Dame, spent their entire summers working with young girls through sport, music and education. 

“Seeing bright and confident women that are educated and independent was an incredible source of hope and encouragement to the young girls in the village,” Dugan said.

Dugan has also empowered several women’s groups in the country to begin weaving mats with the “Play Like A Champion Today” message on them. These mats are being sold in the United States, with the proceeds being sent back to Uganda to help support the women. 

Whether Dugan and McBride were playing quarterback with a group of Ugandan youth or spending time with the women of each village, the Notre Dame alumni were always grateful of the support they received from Church officials and priests living in the area. 

While in Jinja, Dugan and McBride lived in the Holy Cross community home, eating meals and partaking in Masses with priests and deacons of the faith. In addition, Holy Cross seminarians would help translate their lectures into the local language, and many of the schools they visited were of the Holy Cross affiliation. For two Notre Dame graduates, this direct affiliation with their faith and their alma mater was a truly fulfilling experience. 

Now, looking back on the trip, Dugan is eager to return to Uganda with McBride to continue raising awareness in youth about abstinence, disease and the need to become respectful, motivated adults. 

Dugan continues to work in the country because the poverty and suffering affecting such optimistic and special children remains fresh in his mind. Dugan has developed a phrase that he and McBride stand by: “Once you know, you can’t not know.”

Through his work with Fields of Growth International, Dugan already has helped build eight homes and two athletic fields to positively influence the people he’s met in southwest Uganda. Ground has been broken on a new athletic field in the Masaka region as well, so the children that he and McBride mentored on the trip will be able to play flag football, lacrosse and soccer, and practice the lessons learned from the two Notre Dame alumni for the foreseeable future.

Dugan will always be thankful to Notre Dame for giving him an education and strengthening his faith. Continuing to work in Uganda provides him with a way to share his knowledge and experiences with those in need, a direct affirmation of his Christian values and spirituality. He knows the importance of bringing those lessons learned back to his day job, to teach the concept of faith-based service to the next generation of Notre Dame student-athletes. 

And, with the way his message of hope and equality resonates soundly with all those around him, you can bet that Dugan won’t have a problem getting that concept to sink in. 

“When you’re sharing the things that bring you the most joy, you’re doing exactly what God created you to do,” Dugan tells his student-athletes. “And there’s no better feeling in the world than that.”

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