Thai mission gives Fresno State QB Ryan Colburn a life-changing perspective.

08/24/2009 9:12 AM

08/24/2009 9:22 AM

First, people told him he looked like David Carr. Now, Fresno State quarterback Ryan Colburn draws comparisons to Tim Tebow.

No, Colburn can't flash two national championship rings like the Florida quarterback, and he hasn't won the Heisman Trophy like Tebow either.

In fact, odds are Colburn will win neither this season.

But he does wear No. 15, is left-handed and enjoys running the ball, just like Tebow.

He's also been halfway around the world on a mission trip, and you guessed it -- so has Tebow.

Colburn traveled to Thailand in January through The Well Community Church and the Integrated Tribal Development Program. The goal was to build a dam, filtration system and water tank to provide villagers with accessible drinking water and for the volunteers to proselytize through their actions.

He said he volunteered because he felt compelled to serve through his Christian faith.

"People ask, 'Did it change your life?' It really wasn't that," Colburn said. "In our society we tend to want to be complacent. ... We want people to give us things. We don't realize how blessed we are. ...

"[The trip] gave me so much perspective. These people don't even have running water. We took showers with a bucket in a stream, and I was perfectly content. You realize how much you don't need. You appreciate what you're given, but you realize what you truly need and what you want."

Bulldogs team chaplain Jamal Jones said Colburn wasn't changed as a player by the trip, because he was already hard-working, highly motivated and committed to the football program.

Being a football player, however, did likely help him physically when he arrived in Thailand.

It was no sun-and-sand vacation.

Colburn, along with 13 others, flew from Los Angeles to Bangkok, then to the Thai city of Chiang Mai, which Colburn describes as "a very busy city" with traffic comparable to "controlled chaos."

He called the flight there "miserable."

"It was 18 hours and we never saw the sun," he explained.

On top of that, he forgot to take his malaria medicine the previous night, so he had to take the drugs the morning of the flight, which left him nauseated.

From Chiang Mai they drove deep into the jungle -- all 14 crammed into two pickups with campers on the back.

The clay roads departing the big city were narrow and rocky impromptu thoroughfares molded by machetes.

Upon reaching the hillside village, Colburn saw beautiful dense jungle scenery, with bamboo huts, tropical plants and flowers mingled with trash.

He coped with stares, something he was warned of before arriving, and smiles. He owned a height advantage of at least a foot over his host family's father, something that helped break the ice when the family squatted around the fire.

His advantage of being physically fit kicked in when the work began.

In order to build the dam -- by hand -- and deliver the water to a 10,000-gallon tank -- built by hand -- and also route the water directly to the villagers' homes, the volunteers and 128 villagers had to dig a trench and lay PVC pipe for more than a half-mile.

Colburn, a designated "root buster," scooped up a pickax and swung for hours, breaking the roots of jungle trees and plants as the trench snaked its way through wilderness and spider webs.

The digging, uprooting, and cement mixing left the 22-year-old aching. His hands throbbed with agonizing pain and hurt every time he moved them. His back was also sore, but how his body dragged was nothing compared to how his heart leapt when he saw the fruit of his labor.

"My most satisfaction came [when] ... for the first time in a 65- to 75-year-old woman's life, I got to watch her walk out of her hut, turn a spigot and collect fresh water," Colburn said.

"You're tired, you're sweating, and I lost like 10 pounds, but it was completely worth it."

During his time in Thailand, Colburn inspired and encouraged others, said Joyce Bitter and her husband, Norman, a dentist who along with Fresno State team doctor Eric Hanson provided medical care to villagers. It was Hanson who invited Colburn.

"He was one of the hardest working guys," Norman Bitter said. "He's really a tremendous, young Christian witness. Always cooperative. When someone needed help, he was there."

That included helping Joyce Bitter, who assisted in the dental care, dismount from an elephant.

Colburn said he's never tried to connect his Asian experience to his current toils with practices and a quarterback battle that might carry into the season.

"I don't think it's possible to compare my 'sport,' and the struggles I go through, with everyday issues of health and survival that the Thai people dealt with," Colburn said. "The experience gave me a life-changing perspective on contentment and what poverty truly is."

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