Christiano Francois has gone from earthquake-ravaged Haiti to top-ranked Maryland soccer


Christiano Francois has three goals and three assists for the Maryland men’s soccer team. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)
October 18, 2012

The soccer field trembled below Christiano Francois’s feet.

“Lonje ko li!” his coach shouted in Creole.

Lie down.

It was 4:53 p.m., on Jan. 12, 2010. The Notre Dame High School team in Cabaret, Haiti, was going through its practice rhythms when, six miles below the surface, the Caribbean and North American tectonic plates shifted: earthquake.

“Everyone was scared,” Francois, now a freshman forward at the University of Maryland, said softly last week. “We just went home. I was walking and I see all of the buildings down. It was sad.”

In 35 seconds, the 7.0 magnitude temblor pummeled the impoverished nation and reduced Port-au-Prince, the rickety capital, to rubble. Tens of thousands died, hundreds of thousands were injured and a million were left homeless.

“I lost a lot of my friends,” Francois said. “Some died, some were missing legs and arms.”

Francois considers himself lucky: His family and their small house on the north coast of Port-au-Prince Bay survived. As a precaution, they took shelter in a tent on their property. Fruit and rice provided nourishment, but access to water required a long walk.

The quake would also alter the trajectory of Francois’s life, setting him on a path to prep school in New Jersey and college in Maryland.

Among the most coveted recruits in the country, Francois has begun to prosper with the undefeated and top-ranked Terrapins, appearing in all 13 matches (three starts) and posting three goals and three assists.

In consecutive games last week, he scored an equalizer during a comeback victory over Rutgers and had the go-ahead goal late in the first half of a 2-1 triumph at ACC rival Duke.

“In the last few weeks, he has started to understand things,” said Maryland Coach Sasho Cirovski, whose team will face once-beaten and second-ranked North Carolina at 6 p.m. Friday at Ludwig Field. “He is hitting his stride.”

A common bond

If not for another Terrapin with Haitian roots, however, Francois might have picked another program. Reserve defender Widner Saint Cyr is a fourth-year junior who arrived at Maryland in 2009 after finishing high school in Rockland County in New York.

“We would not have gotten Christiano without having Widner here,” Cirovski said. “His world fell apart, and when you consider what he went through, having a mentor and guide to transition to college was absolutely vital.”

Although they’re from different towns near Port-au-Prince and didn’t become teammates until this fall, the pair forged an immediate bond through shared culture and heartache.

“Not a lot of Haitians have the chance we have had,” said Saint Cyr, who represented his country at the 2007 Under-17 World Cup in South Korea.

He was in College Park the day the earthquake struck.

With communication disrupted, “I felt like walking down to Haiti,” Saint Cyr recalled. Four days passed before he was able to make contact with family. His two siblings and their grandmother, who raised them after their parents died many years ago, were safe. Their home withstood the blows and served as shelter for others.

The earthquake’s impact on Haitian soccer was devastating. As a meeting of administrators and coaches concluded, the three-story federation headquarters crumbled.

Yves Jean-Bart, the organization’s president, was one of the few survivors. Jean Yves Labaze, the under-17 national team coach, died. “I considered him a father,” Saint Cyr said. “He shaped my career.”

The Jamaican and Dominican federations aided in the recovery. CONCACAF, the regional governing body, and FIFA, the sport’s global ruler, were among several organizations to provide financial support.

Amid the suffering and turmoil, soccer remained an escape for young Haitians, many of whom could not attend school for months.

“They still play,” Jean-Bart said at the time. “It is the only entertainment reserved for everybody. We distributed the few balls we were able to recover and it was an explosion of joy.”

‘One eye on Haiti’

Francois played with friends and neighbors, hoping to rejoin an organized team again, but his life would soon take a turn. A Haitian-American businessman from New Jersey knew of Francois’s talents and approached Jim Wandling, the head coach of St. Benedict’s Prep in Newark, one of the most successful soccer programs in the country.

“His livelihood has been ravaged,” Wandling said. “We didn’t know him as a person or a player, but we wanted to help.”

Francois had never been to the United States and, at the time, didn’t speak English. “I was very nervous,” he said. Fellow students with international backgrounds helped ease the transition. He lived in Leahy House, the on-campus dormitory, and “used soccer as a platform to integrate,” Wandling said.

As a player, “the skill set was very raw,” Wandling said. “The athleticism was there, but he needed to apply the technical and tactical applications.”

In the fall of 2011, his second season at St. Benedict’s, Francois recorded 43 goals and 22 assists in 24 matches — one of the finest individual performances in a program that has produced U.S. World Cup players Claudio Reyna, Tab Ramos and Gregg Berhalter, as well as several other pros.

The unbeaten Gray Bees won their 23rd consecutive state championship and were declared the best team in the nation by ESPN. Francois had seven hat tricks and a five-goal effort in an 8-0 victory over Whitman High, a traditional Washington area power.

While embracing a new culture and language, Francois retained strong ties to his past. He would bring a Haitian flag to every match and, once play began, entrust it to fellow students, who waved it after each of his goals.

“He was very open about the struggle at home,” Wandling said. “People rallied around him. He always kept one eye on Haiti and he always talked about wanting to give back.”

First, though, Francois wanted to go forward in his career. As an elite NCAA program for 15 years, Maryland was in the running from the start. Saint Cyr strengthened the Terrapins’ pitch.

“Widner is Christiano’s big brother now,” Cirovski said.

Francois is enrolled in the Maryland English Institute, an intensive program designed for students for whom English is a secondary language. In a recent interview, he had Saint Cyr at his side but answered each question on his own.

Some thoughts were easier to articulate than others. One came straight from the heart.

“Every time I play,” he said, “I think about Haiti.”

Steven Goff is The Post’s soccer writer. His beats include D.C. United, MLS and the international game, as well as local college basketball.
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