2008 Football: Former Davie star a man on two missions
By Bret Strelow
BOONE ó Billy Riddle, his head pounding and stomach churning as he suffered through a second bout with malaria, exited the Sudanese village of Wadupe as a miserable motorbike passenger.
Riddle braced himself for a 3-mile ride and then climbed into the back of a crowded van that was traveling toward his base. That 15-mile trip lasted more than an hour because of poor road conditions.
Riddle, enduring the worst pain of his young life, lay in bed receiving medical care for two days. His outlook improved when pastor Rufus Anyibu showed up unexpectedly.
“Pastor Rufus” had left Wadupe on a rickety bike 31/2 hours earlier and pedaled nearly 18 miles in 100-degree heat to make sure Riddle wasn’t dying.
“When he came into my little hut there, I was really surprised to see him,” Riddle recalled. “I said, ‘Pastor, why did you come all this way?’ He looked surprised when I asked that. He said, ‘Because you’re family. That’s what we do with family.’
“To be considered part of the Sudanese family, it was just really great.”
Riddle, a star safety in his days at Davie County High School, has rejoined Appalachian State’s football team for his final season of eligibility. As the Mountaineers were progressing toward a third straight national championship last year, Riddle was helping rebuild churches in a war-torn African republic.
Riddle worked within range of violent rebel forces and twice contracted malaria during his seven-month mission with Samaritan’s Purse, a Christian relief organization based in Boone.
“You can’t get a better example than Billy Riddle,” Appalachian head coach Jerry Moore said. “We’ve had some great guys of great faith here in the past, but to go to Africa and do what he did for a year and walk away from potentially a great football team, which it turned out to be, to go over there and be a servant to God, that’s his call in life, just like his mom and dad.”
Riddle, whose father built Camp Manna Ministries in Cooleemee, is in the process of starting a non-profit organization called “WhyTheWoods.” He plans to head back to Sudan in May with the primary goal of digging a well in Wadupe, then moving on to needs such as school reconstruction and teacher training.
Riddle first visited Sudan last summer and felt compelled to return to a region where racial and cultural inequalities have fueled a long-running civil war.
He began to seriously question the injustice as he prepared for a peaceful night of sleep in Boone.
“I had been hearing about the children in Africa who get picked up by the rebel soldiers and turned into soldiers themselves and the girls who get kidnapped and turned into slaves,” Riddle said.
“I just asked why I get to lay in my nice bed tonight when there are children in Africa sleeping on the dirt, hiding out in the woods, hiding out in a bush. Why do I get to lay here when there are homeless people around Boone that have to sleep on the street?”
Riddle provided depth in the defensive backfield during Appalachian’s run to the 2006 national title, making 23 tackles and starting one playoff game as a junior. Months later, he declared his intention to spend an extended period of time in Africa.
Moore offered his blessing and made one request: He asked Riddle to address his teammates at the first summer meeting and inform them of his plan.
“You could have heard a pin drop in that room,” Moore said. “He turned and walked out that door, and it had to be a very emotional moment for him. It certainly was for me.”
At that moment, Riddle thought his football career was over.
Riddle was still in Boone when the Mountaineers traveled to Michigan for their season opener and upset the Wolverines. He said he celebrated like many of his classmates: He sprinted across campus streets and screamed at the top of his lungs.
Riddle stood among the large gathering of supporters that greeted the team bus as it rolled back into Boone, and he entered the locker room with the players who had orchestrated the stunning victory.
“It was neat to experience it from the fan’s perspective,” Riddle said.
Riddle left home a month later and said he felt safe because he was staying in a town occupied by soldiers from the Sudan People’s Liberation Army. Nearby areas didn’t offer the same protection.
Riddle remembered sitting on his porch one day and seeing hundreds of people pass by. Women and children, carrying all of their belongings atop their heads, were fleeing their village and relocating to a less dangerous one.
“Sudan is a harsh place,” Riddle said. “It’s hot; it’s dirty. The reason I went was the people. Amongst all the destruction, all the poverty, all the hunger, you saw smiles on their faces. You saw them sitting around, talking to their family, loving their neighbors. It was just amazing to see people who had absolutely nothing be so happy.
“That’s what sticks out. That’s what I’m coming back to America and trying to tell people. If we can love our brothers, if we can hang out with our friends, if we can have our family around us, that’s all we need.”
A third bout with malaria ó which is transmitted through the bite of a mosquito ó sent Riddle to a Winston-Salem hospital shortly after he returned to North Carolina in April. He had to cancel speaking engagements at local schools and churches.
“WhyTheWoods” is currently an incorporated business, but it can operate as a non-profit organization as Riddle goes through the application process.
The demands of football have given Riddle even more to juggle. He said he couldn’t come to grips with the idea of sitting in the Kidd Brewer Stadium stands, watching games rather than playing in them.
The transition has challenged Riddle, who last appeared in a live contest 21 months ago.
“Taking a year and a half off, it’s kind of taken a toll,” Riddle said. “I feel like I’ve lost a step of speed, lost a little strength.
“It’s coming back. I’m working hard, it’s just taking a little extra. It’s not coming like it used to come.”
Riddle’s on-field role remains unclear.
Corey Lynch, Titus Howard, Justin Woazeah and Jerome Touchstone were senior starters in the secondary a year ago. Appalachian returns experienced contributors such as junior cornerback Cortez Gilbert and senior safety/corner Leonard Love.
Riddle arrived at ASU in 2004, when Lynch made two starts as a sophomore before suffering a season-ending elbow injury. Riddle replaced an injured Lynch for two games late in 2006.
“When they were freshmen, I’m not sure that (Riddle) wasn’t the better tackler while Corey had that ability to break on the ball and could feel things happening,” Moore said. “As far as toughness, (Riddle’s) right up there with the best of them. I’ll take every player I can get from Davie County.”
Riddle, who is majoring in creative writing, hopes to complete work toward a degree in the fall of 2009.
He plans to attend classes for the next two semesters before returning to Sudan, where he will stay for two months.
“We have to look around and see that we are blessed to be in this country, but why cannot the children in Sudan not experience the same kind of life?” Riddle asked. “It’s a challenge.
“We have to go out to the woods, go out to the rugged places of the world, go out into the streets, go out to the Sudans and show these people, show the children, show the men and women that somebody cares about them, somebody hears their cries, somebody knows they’re hungry and wants to help.”