There is a plaque on the wall of a newly-built Kenyan school hall that reads: "Donated by friends and family, in loving memory of Jock Hobbs, 7th January 2019".

That day will forever be etched in Michael Hobbs' mind. It was the day he made good on a naïve and heartfelt promise to the people of Kibera, the largest slum in Nairobi. It was the day two-and-a-half years of fundraising US$350,000 ($516,925) finally paid off. And it was the day he made a tribute to his late father, the All Blacks captain and New Zealand Rugby administrator who died in 2012 after his battle with leukemia.

"I told mum I was going to be doing something like that," Hobbs says from Orange County, California, where he lives and works buying and selling apartments in Seattle and Portland after retiring from rugby in 2016 and graduating from Stanford with an MBA in June.

"We'd raised some money through friends and family and people who had known dad to allow us to do that. It was really special to take a photo of that and to send it to the family. I know it means a lot to mum and my sisters as well."


The plaque is but one strand to Hobbs' journey that has pulled together supporters from the United States and New Zealand, and seen his close friend, NFL safety Kenny Vaccaro, embroiled in a standoff with US President Donald Trump after protesting police brutality and racial injustice by sitting with 10 team-mates during the national anthem.

Three years ago, life as Hobbs knew it came to a standstill; his outlook changing in an instant as he walked into the Kibera slum.

Playing rugby in Japan, after previously representing Wellington, North Harbour, the Blues and Highlanders as a first or second five-eighth, Hobbs had shoulder surgery.

Unable to play, and with his contract set to expire, he signed on with International Volunteer HQ, the New Zealand company assigning him to teach in Africa.

At that point, Hobbs' affection for Kenya stemmed from numerous trips to the Wellington sevens. Anyone who attended the event's halcyon days understands that Kenya were adopted local underdogs, their warm-down dance routines adored by packed houses every year.

The reality of life in Kenya is a world away from the Sevens bubble and Hobbs was about to swap a life of comfort and convenience for challenge and controversy. "I didn't really know what I was getting myself into."

Like many athletes, Hobbs' identity was then intrinsically linked to his eight-year professional career. He, therefore, arrived with anxiety about what the future held, only for that initial five-week stint to open his eyes to the privileges so many of us take for granted every day.

"I can vividly remember walking there on the first day and the surroundings were like nothing I had ever encountered before. It blew me away."


Each day, the children arrived with beaming smiles, excited to be learning.

"It helped change my perspective on life. At that point, rugby had been huge since I was a kid with dad and my family and then playing professionally. I was feeling sorry for myself at that point.

"Being there, I realised how extremely lucky we are in New Zealand and that I had so much to be thankful for. It had more of an impact on me than I have been able to have on them."

On completing his placement, Hobbs promised the children and parents he would deliver a better facility than their overcrowded church hall that had dirt floors and no walls between classrooms.

"I was probably slightly naïve. I didn't really know how I was going to do it, I just knew that's what I wanted to do and that's what I felt like those kids deserved."

Hobbs in his playing days at North Harbour ... a visit to Kenya changed his view of the world. Photo / Photosport
Hobbs in his playing days at North Harbour ... a visit to Kenya changed his view of the world. Photo / Photosport

And so the Blessed Hope Project was born.

Hobbs surrounded himself with good people - local principal Elsa Atieno, engineer Walter Ogola and construction manager Jack Ogendi, all of whom proved instrumental in navigating in-country issues not foreseen until he had a crack at buying land and building.

The biggest obstacle, though, came with the Kenny Vaccaro Foundation.

Launched in March 2017, the foundation delivered vital funds, thanks in no small part to Vaccaro's US$100,000 personal contribution.

One Sunday football game in Charlotte, North Carolina, changed everything.

In response to the sitting protest, half the foundation's board resigned and asked that their donations be returned. A fundraising banquet was also cancelled, leaving Hobbs staring at a US$75,000 shortfall.

For his role, Vaccaro, a first-round draft pick in 2013, struggled to find work after becoming a free agent last year.

"That was an extremely unique situation for everyone involved. What happened, none of us could have really foreseen. Fundraising is all about momentum and at that point, we were somewhat dead in the water.

"He has a fiancée and two young kids, so I was watching one of my best friends go through that extremely tough process and at the same time knowing the ramifications it had for our project in Kenya. It was a pretty tough time for everyone. It was definitely a pretty big hole."

The turning point came when Hobbs penned a letter for a Stanford assignment. His professor, Glenn Kramon, identified the value in the message, and under the title "The collateral damage of a petty NFL", Hobbs' piece was published in the New York Times.

"We have both learned a lesson about the collateral damage of pettiness and polarisation," Hobbs wrote. "Kids in a Nairobi slum pay the price."

The piece turned heads, sparking feedback and financial support from the New Zealand and US communities that pushed Hobbs' project over the line.

Vaccaro, who Hobbs first met while studying at the University of Texas, Austin, was also, eventually, signed by the Tennessee Titans.

"He had a great season, so that was huge. I'm proud of the way he stuck at it."

Construction of the school began last August.

Four months on, in the first Monday of 2019, Hobbs' dream of providing a pathway to one of the world's most impoverished areas became a reality.

"Opening the school was extremely emotional for all of us involved and a day I will never forget.

"I took a moment in the hall by myself to sit and reflect on the last two-and-a-half years and all of the people who have helped us get there.

"It was a special moment. I wish people could see the smiles of the kids' faces and how appreciative the parents were.

"I'm extremely proud of what we've achieved and where we are at. I know there's so many people who have helped us along the way. Without them, we wouldn't have been able to achieve this."

Finishing the school, that caters for more than 300 children aged from 2 to 11, is just a start.

Now up and running, there are ongoing operational costs to fund - running water, electricity, food. And with a buffer of around US$20,000, Hobbs' fundraising efforts don't end here.

"I didn't want to build a new school and then raise the price of going there to try cover these expenses," he told the Herald on Sunday.

"It was extremely important to me that it remained a school that was accessible."

Inspired by the values of his late father, who took to philanthropy towards the end of his life, and those that sport seeks to embrace beyond the playing fields, Hobbs' perseverance in the face of powerful pushback demonstrates what is possible when striving to help those who need it most.