Valdosta Daily Times

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January 18, 2014

A coach with a cause ditches his shoes

Atlanta — Ron Hunter knows he’ll be hurting after Georgia State’s next game.

That’s just the way it is when you stomp around on a hard, wooden floor in your bare feet for the better part of two hours.

“I’m very animated on the sideline, and I’m not about to change how I coach,” says Hunter, in his third year running the men’s basketball program at Georgia State. “But it’s tough. It really is. ... Those 48 hours afterward are very, very taxing.”

Yet he relishes the pain.

You see, in the ever-discouraging world of college athletics, where doing the right thing is generally overruled by whatever it takes to make money and win games, there’s a glimmer of hope coming from this campus in downtown Atlanta.

The 49-year-old Hunter will work the sidelines Saturday sans shoes to draw attention to his real passion — providing footwear to millions of poor children around the world.

He’s already collected some 6 million pairs through the group Samaritan’s Feet, and personally delivered many of them on eye-opening trips to Third World countries, journeys that left him drained emotionally but only inspired him to keep doing more.

“I love coaching. I really do,” Hunter says. “But the fulfillment I get from a child not only receiving hope from a pair of shoes, but knowing that pair of shoes may be passed down to a sibling someday, that’s so much bigger.”

How sad there aren’t more Ron Hunters among the coaching ranks, actually fulfilling their supposed duty to turn boys into men.

While Hunter sends a very visible message when he dumps his stylish footwear for one game each season, an event he calls “Barefoot for Bare Feet,” the more important work is done during the offseason. Since adopting the cause seven years ago, he has taken his players to villages in Africa and South America, places where poverty’s stranglehold on society is beyond comprehension to most Americans, even those who grew up in neighborhoods that are considered poor by this country’s standards.

Rest assured, that has worn off on his players, one of whom happens to be his son R.J., the star of the Georgia State team.

Back when the elder Hunter was still coaching at IUPUI in Indianapolis and his son was just entering high school, the two went on their first humanitarian trip to Peru. There was a moment that still stands out to the father, which made him prouder than anything his son will ever do on a basketball court — even the game-winning shot R.J. hit Thursday night to beat Arkansas State, giving the Panthers’ their eighth straight victory and extending their perfect start in the Sun Belt Conference.

“We ran out of shoes,” Hunter recalls. “Right then, a mother with a child ran up to the bus as we were pulling away. My son felt so bad for them, he took the shoes off his feet and the socks off his feet and gave them to the mother.”

Now a college sophomore, R.J. still carries the lessons of that day. In a sport where the large shoe companies have huge influence and kids line up to pay hundreds of dollars for the latest sneaker hawked by their favorite player, that perspective is especially important.

“As players, we get a new pair of shoes almost every week. It’s easy to feel like you’re owed that,” R.J. says. “But I know what a blessing it is to have shoes.”

The coach can’t stop thinking about all those children he hasn’t been able to help. At every stop, the shoes eventually run out, but the line of barefooted kids never does.

“There’s too many children we can’t help,” he says, the enthusiasm in his voice turning to sadness. “I don’t know if we’re even making a dent in it. But at least we’re doing something.”

While Hunter is more than halfway to his initial goal, to collect 10 million shoes in 10 years, he now knows this project can’t be measured with a calendar.

It’s become his life’s work.

Sure, there are important games to play this season, with Georgia State looking like a contender to reach the NCAA tournament for just the third time in school history. But Hunter’s mind keeps drifting to plans to take his team to Costa Rica this summer on another mission of podiatric mercy.

“Just talking about it,” he says, “I can’t wait to go back.”

If you’re inclined to help with the cause, check out Samaritan’s Feet at http://www.samaritansfeet.org/ . If you’re going to be in Atlanta on Saturday, stop by the GSU Sports Arena — and bring along a pair of shoes or a monetary donation. For a mere $10, the organization can get shoes to a child in need.

As for that guy on the sideline, he’ll be coaching like he always does.

Then he’ll head home to soak his feet.

“It hurts, but I’m glad it hurts,” Hunter says. “If a child can go without shoes for five, six, seven years, I can surely go without shoes for two hours.”

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