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Chris Long rallies fellow NFL 'Waterboys' to provide clean water in East Africa

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Chris Long's offseason visit to Tanzania spurred him to get involved with bringing clean water to Africa. Clay Cook Photography

EARTH CITY, Mo. -- St. Louis Rams defensive end Chris Long first visited Tanzania in 2013 when he climbed Mount Kilimanjaro with former teammate James Hall.

After the climb, Long spent time down the mountain and found himself struck by what he calls the "beauty of the place and people." But it was a not-so-beautiful image on a second trip there during the summer of 2015 that has Long leading a group that could have him returning to African villages for years to come.

"The way of life that is accepted is that they are drinking out of an utterly unacceptably dirty borehole that animals are defecating in, and it's brown," Long said. "The water is brown and there's all sorts of green stuff in there, and you'd just never drink it. Just the image of seeing a water bottle that we were drinking from and then what they drink every day -- we thought that they would be aware of how bad it was, but we asked them if they drink that regularly and they just downed it. That just struck me."

Long was already pretty far along in the creation of an offshoot of his Chris Long Foundation, now known as the Waterboys Initiative, by the time he visited Tanzania again in the summer of '14, but that image cemented the idea that he'd been kicking around since his initial visit in 2013. Long officially unveiled the Waterboys project a couple of weeks ago after finalizing details and recruiting other NFL players to participate.

The mission is to provide clean water to villages in need in East Africa. According to statistics from WorldServe International, every day 1,000 children younger than 5 die because of unsafe water and poor sanitation.

"They are in a state of being perpetually sick," Long said. "You see kids coughing, and you never know when the last time somebody might have passed away from water-borne illnesses in that village. But it happens all over the world and it's a big problem, and there's no agriculture, there's no economy because of it."

Long's first move was to team up with WorldServe, an organization that he says has been building wells in Africa for more than a decade and has so far provided clean water wells to nearly 2 million people in Tanzania, Kenya and Uganda.

From there, Long worked to enlist the help of players from around the NFL with an eye toward using the league platform to raise money and awareness for the cause. The result was the Waterboys, featuring 23 NFL players, each from a different team. The list includes big names such as Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson, Philadelphia quarterback Sam Bradford, Kansas City defensive end Tamba Hali and Chicago offensive lineman Kyle Long, who is Chris Long's younger brother.

Each player represents a team, and each team represents a well. Through the Waterboys website, donations can be made in the name of each player. And Waterboys uses one of Long's greatest strengths -- his social media game -- to raise awareness by asking people to take pictures of themselves with what they're drinking and use the hashtag #Drink4Water to help spread the word. The idea is for the initiative to catch on virally and help generate attention, much like the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge, which took the country by storm a year ago.

"You saw how that turned out," Long said. "It was unprecedented for them. And clean water is something I have always appreciated, but it's something I think people are under-aware of in the States. I think if you give people the thought to think about, then it makes sense to them. But it's outside the box, so I got over 20 guys on 20 teams involved in Waterboys to leverage their platforms and try to gain support and raise awareness and gain donations."

So far, Long has had no shortage of support. In the running tally on Waterboys.org, Long has garnered the most in donations at nearly $7,000, and the 23 players have each raised at least $1,000 so far.

Long is well-aware that his efforts to help in Africa will draw criticism from those who say there are plenty of people in the United States who also need help. But he's quick to point out that the two are far from mutually exclusive. And after meeting the people in those African villages, Long couldn't help but want to make things better.

"I just think if you have compassion for your fellow human beings, there's no borders to that," Long said. "I know it's not the United States and we have our problems here, and athletes, including myself, are always trying to address those issues to remedy them, but I think it's a really great act of kindness to help somebody halfway across the world that maybe you've never seen. I have been there. I've seen it. A lot of people that have been there have seen it and it stays on their heart. I'm getting these athletes together to leverage their platforms and say, 'Trust me, it's bad and they need help.'"

On Long's trips to Africa, his visits haven't been limited to the places in need of help. He has also visited villages that have had wells installed and says the difference is marked.

"You go to a place where they just drilled a well a year ago when it was just desolate, and now it's thriving and people had possessions, agriculture -- people were happier, they were excited, they were healthier," Long said. "It's just a totally different vibe."

It's a vibe Long and his fellow Waterboys are hoping to bring to villages all over East Africa.