There's something noticeably different about Louisville football player Pedro Sibiea this summer that anyone who's been around the Miami product the past three years at UofL could quickly spot. Sure, the big man's packed on a few pounds as he prepares to compete for a staring spot on the Cardinal offensive line, and yes he's got some fresh gear sporting the new team mottos for the 2015 season, but the biggest difference in Sbiea's appearance has to do with what's around his neck.
Shark's tooth necklaces (or some knock-off attempting to pass itself off as a shark's tooth necklace) can be found just about anywhere, and purchased for relatively cheap. However, when someone as large and as passionate as Sibiea sports one proudly, there has to be a bigger story.
"Before I left Panama, I knew I wanted to have something that would remind me of the experience forever," Sibiea said. "I'd been given this and so I decided to have it blessed by a holy person down there. It was one of the biggest experiences of my life so far, and now I'll always have this to remember it by."
The experience Sibiea described was him becoming the first UofL football player ever to study abroad. It was something that redshirt junior, who is of Haitian descent, had always dreamed of doing, but which he never thought would be possible given his status as a student athlete. With the hard work of multiple parties working together, though, Sibiea was able to apply and be approved for the program as he prepared for the 2014 Belk Bowl with the rest of his teammates.
Sibiea and about 24 other students from UofL spent this past May studying and having, for many of them, their first worldly experience in Panama City. The students visited the Panama Canal, El Casco Viejo and the Presidential Palace, they saw the Causeway in the Canal Zone, and met the the Emberá Indigenous Community in the Gamboa Rainforest.
In spite of all this, what left the greatest impression on Sibiea was the service work.
"We met a lot of people, a lot of kids, over there who don't have it all that good," Sibiea said. "The people were so much different from us, but they still want the same things, and a lot of those things are the ones we have. I think about that all the time."
The necklace serves as a constant reminder for Sibiea, who will enter his fourth fall camp at Louisville looking to carve out a spot for himself as a starter at guard. It's a spot he thought he was in line to earn a year ago, but wound up losing out to John Miller. Miller would go on to earn All-ACC honors in his final collegiate season, and is now competing for a starting spot on the offensive line of the Buffalo Bills.
Sibiea wound up appearing in just two games in a season where he expected himself to be a starter. For most collegiate athletes that would serve as the primary motivation for getting up early on a Saturday morning to be ready for a mid-July workout, or to stay in and spend the night with your playbook instead of a lady friend or teammates at the bar.
For Sibiea, it's more than that. Every time he looks down at what's hanging from his neck, he isn't thinking about being on the field and helping his team beat Auburn on Sept. 5, and he isn't thinking about what he wishes would have happened in his first two seasons about Louisville. He's thinking about an experience that has done more to shape him as a human being than any other, and an experience he hopes more of his teammates pursue.
"I probably say something to them about it every day," Sibiea said. "I tell them, 'just go.' Don't worry about what you have to do or who's going to say what, no, just go. I can't really express how grateful I am to have been given the opportunity to study abroad. It made me a better person."
This column appears in the current edition of The Voice-Tribune