Making a difference
By John Tomase/ Boston Herald
Thursday, February 2, 2006 - Updated: 12:01 AM EST

DETROIT -- Like many college students, Matt Hasselbeck spent spring break of his junior year in Jamaica.
But he didnít go for the girls or the parties. He accompanied a Jesuit priest and 15 other students to a slum built on a mountain of trash. The next eight days altered him irrevocably.
"We went down there thinking we could help poor people that needed it," Hasselbeck said yesterday, "and they helped me more than we ever could have helped them."
Ten years later, Hasselbeck considers his days in Riverton City some of the most important of his life. As he prepares to lead the Seahawks into Super Bowl XL against the Steelers, those experiences resonate.
"It was a life-changing experience for me, it really was," Hasselbeck said. "I think about it a lot, and itís still hard."
Father Ted Dziak remembers Hasselbeck well. The former athletic department chaplain at Boston College had floated the idea of Hasselbeck joining the Ignacio Volunteers, a group that had made 30 volunteer trips to the poorest parts of the world, but never with a football player.
He figured the answer would be no. Coaches feared the risk of sickness and athletes had a hard time justifying the missed practices. Dan Henning, BCís coach at the time, hated the idea, and Hasselbeckís parents werenít too hot on it, either. They may have had a point, since he returned with hepatitis A.
But Hasselbeck persisted, even in the face of skepticism from the other volunteers, traditional Peace Corps types who couldnít fathom a big-time football player committing to such a cause.
Now working with the Mayans in southern Belize, Father Dziak shared his recollections of the 6-foot-4 Hasselbeck this week via e-mail from the Central American town of Punta Gorda.
"When he asked to participate, there were many who were opposed, thinking he wouldnít take it seriously," Dziak said. "There were many wary fellow participants. But he won everyone over, and more."
The group worked at three endeavors: a community center, an elderly home for lepers, and as tutors for students in Riverton City, the shanty town built on the Kingston dump.
"Matt thrived at Riverton City," Dziak said. "He was not put off by the piles of garbage, tin-roof homes, rats and lack of electricity or even water. The small kids loved the towering Matt and I vividly remember him standing there with one on his shoulders and about 10 others hanging onto his legs and arms."
That a world existed beyond prestigious BC and tiny Norfolk hit Hasselbeck like a sledgehammer when a 3-year-old girl slipped in an outhouse and literally drowned in excrement.
"Matt was outside in the front yard when the screaming, grief-stricken mother ran by," Dziak said. "He tried to help, but it was too late. The child was already dead. It was emotional and difficult for everyone, especially Matt. I could see the change in him after that. It literally shook him at his
core."
Hasselbeck continued feeling the impact after he returned. He landed in the hospital with hepatitis and lost 27 pounds. The other 99 players on the team needed immunization shots, since the infection is contagious.
Dziak visited Hasselbeck in the hospital.
"I asked him, now knowing he was sick, if he regretted going," Dziak said. "He said no, heíd do it again.
"On the field, Matt is aggressive and confident. Off the field, he has an amazing heart and deep faith that allows him to share his life and energy with those who have less. He is unique."
When Hasselbeck takes the field Sunday, the world will be watching. He knows how big that world is. And he knows heís just a small part.
"Iíd love to go back to Jamaica some day," he said, brightening at the mention of "Father Ted" and requesting his e-mail address. "It would be hard, but worth it."
First he must focus on the Steelers. And in a remote corner of the globe, a priest who has rearranged his Mass schedule to be near a television will be watching.
"Tell Matt Iíll be rooting for him in a small village in Central America," Dziak said. "Even sending a few prayers his way."