Think of Panama and you think of a canal, a hat and a Van Halen song.
When it comes to sports, soccer and baseball come to mind, but not football.
Eight region players were part of a Wabash College contingent that spent eight days in the Latin American country last month, teaching the game while learning about another culture as part of the Global Football organization.
"We realized it the very first practice when our tour guide got off the bus," Crown Point grad Drew Breuckman said. "We threw around the football and he had no clue what he was doing. He didn't know how to grab the football or what the laces were for.
"We just wanted to go down and show our love of the game and help them out."
The group of 35 or so Little Giants conducted camps for children as well as adults from the six-team Panamanian league that Breuckman equated to beer league softball. The kids showed up in soccer cleats, but the reception was nothing short of enthusiastic.
"We put on a lot of camps and probably the coolest thing was how they want to learn," Wabash senior Zach Breuckman said. "There was a guy on their team who was 32 years old with three kids and I'm giving him pointers for his position.
"The kids were really getting into it. They were running around, tackling each other, throwing the football, trying to practice with us. It was cool to see."
Several of the Wabash players have a grasp of basic Spanish. For those who didn't, they were able to demonstrate techniques without a language barrier.
"I'm sure they were making fun of us in Spanish behind our backs, but it was so much fun," Chesterton grad Peter Fouts said. "They really loved to play."
The football activities were capped by a game at Estadio Luis Ernesto Cascarita Tapia in Panama City between the Wabash players and a Panamanian all-star team of sorts.
Wabash won in a mismatch, 56-6. Wabash kicker Glenn Doughty (Gavit) was named MVP, making 8-of-8 extra points.
"We were thinking they were going to be small, but they had some grown men," Fouts said. "It was pretty intimidating at first."
Wabash led 35-0 at halftime, and offered to call the game, but its hosts would have none of it.
"They said they came here to play football and they were going to play," Zach Breuckman said. "They were laughing, having fun. I think they just enjoyed being on the field with an actual American team."
The Panamanian squad threw the ball only a handful of times, running up the middle almost every play. It scored late in the game on a 70-yard interception return by Tomas Altamirano, a 23-year old attorney.
"I was kind of happy they didn't get shut out," Drew Breuckman said. "Their fans went crazy. They were doing it purely out of enjoyment. The whole atmosphere was great."
For the players, the trip was just as memorable for what they did off the field.
They visited the Panama Canal and found out how the locks worked. They took a kayak tour of a jungle and saw the indigenous Panamanians' way of life. They watched cigars being made. They reveled in the sights and sounds.
"It was something not very many of us get to experience," Zach Breuckman said.
It was the first time out of the U.S. for Drew Breuckman and Fouts, who came away with a greater appreciation for what he has back home.
"It was really eye-opening for me," Fouts said. "It's a completely different world down there. Panama City is a pretty grown city, but you go out into the country, you definitely see a different part.
"The poverty was unbelievable. It makes you realize how lucky you are."
This column solely represents the writer's opinion. Reach him at James.Peters@nwi.com