“What?” Garcon said, incredulous. “Earthquakes don’t happen in Haiti.”
It must have been a hurricane. Maybe a tornado. Off went ESPN. On came CNN. And there were the images, rubble and dust, untold numbers of bodies underneath. He might have known some of them. He almost certainly knew people who knew them.
“It’s just a shock,” said Garcon, a Haitian American who was in his second year in Indianapolis at the time. “You can’t do nothing. You can’t believe what’s going on. You don’t know what to do.”
Garcon is now a wide receiver for the Washington Redskins, and results show that he has had an inordinate impact on his new team. In the nine games Garcon has played, the Redskins have eight wins. In the six games Garcon missed with a foot injury, the Redskins have one win. He changes games.
“He’s as good as any receiver in this league,” offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan said. “He’s a number one receiver who can get open and wants to score — and tries to score every time he touches the ball.”
Because of those abilities, and his status three years ago as a rising star in the NFL, the moment Garcon received the news, he knew he was in a position to touch lives. He was born in upstate New York. He grew up in South Florida. He went to colleges in Vermont and Ohio. And he says, firmly, “I am Haitian.”
“I know how it is down there,” he said. “I know how much help they need. They’ve had a hard time. They only know hard times.”
An unusual path to stardom
If Garcon is one of the NFL’s best wide receivers, he is the only one who has traveled his route to that role. His parents emigrated from Haiti after Garcon’s three older sisters were born, because work as migrant farmers in the United States seemed better than any work in their impoverished home country. Pierre was born in Carmel, N.Y., but moved to Florida when he was small. By the time he was 6, his father had died.
There are, of course, scores of NFL players raised in single-parent homes, who overcame long odds to star in America’s most popular sport. But Garcon didn’t seem like he would even start on that path. Early in high school, he didn’t earn good grades, so he wasn’t eligible for school-sponsored teams. Then he figured something out: Without decent grades, there was no path to college.
“So I started working hard,” he said.
The hard work got him only so far. He was a tight end at John I. Leonard High in Greenacres, near West Palm Beach, but his team didn’t advance to the playoffs. College pursuit of him amounted to this: Coaches from Norwich University in Northfield, Vt., came to a recruiting fair in Florida. “They showed interest in me,” Garcon said. “So that meant I was interested in them.”
Off he went to New England and a military school where, he said, “I grew up.” But he also wanted to grow more as a football player. A friend had an older brother who went to Mount Union, a Division III powerhouse in Ohio. One day, Larry Kehres, the legendary Mount Union coach, received an e-mail. Garcon was looking for a new place to play.
On the first day of practice, Garcon and his new teammates endured a conditioning test that involved, in part, a series of 100-yard runs. Immediately, Kehres noticed his new player’s power. But he noticed something else, too: humility.
“It appeared to me this young man could win these races,” Kehres said. “But he wanted to just be up near the front and not be a big show off. I liked that.”
Garcon’s career took off immediately. The Purple Raiders won national championships in 2005 and 2006, and Garcon not only excelled on the field, but he impressed off it. “He was so hungry to develop his skills,” Kehres said.
But what, realistically, could be the end game?
“The NFL, it seemed distant,” Garcon said. “But it was always what I was working on. You want to be at the top level of what you want to do. Some dreams are more realistic than others.”
As Garcon racked up receiving yards, often playing just half a game because he and his team were so dominant, the dream was becoming possible, even if he didn’t realize it. NFL teams will make sure they find talent no matter how obscure it might seem. As a senior, Garcon drew some scouts to little Alliance, Ohio.
“The general rule of thumb when you’re thinking about taking a player from a Division III school: He has to be a guy who dominates at that level of competition,” said former Colts general manager Bill Polian. “And Pierre was the definition of that.”
After 3,363 receiving yards and 47 touchdowns in his three seasons, Garcon assembled a group of family and friends not for the first day of the draft, but for rounds three through seven. “I wasn’t expecting,” he said. “I was just hoping.”
Two hundred four players had been selected — 27 of them wide receivers, including Malcolm Kelly and Devin Thomas to Washington — when the Colts’ spot came up in the sixth round. Garcon’s phone rang. It was Indianapolis Coach Tony Dungy. Smiles all around.
“I wouldn’t say I was confident,” Garcon said. “I was just trying to learn.”
A season ago, only one Redskins wide receiver caught a pass, turned upfield and ran into the end zone. It happened in the final game of the season, “and it was one yard,” Coach Mike Shanahan said. According to Stats LLC, the Redskins finished 20th in the league in yards after the catch per reception, a crippling state of affairs for Shanahan’s offense. Without yards after the catch, pass plays must be designed to go into the end zone in order to score. Without yards after the catch, an eight-yard pass is an eight-yard gain – not a 20- or 30-yard gain.
But on the Redskins’ 12th playfrom scrimmage this year, in the season opener at New Orleans, quarterback Robert Griffin III dropped back from his 12-yard line and found Garcon streaking across the middle. He caught the ball 16 yards downfield. The other 72 he covered on his own.
“We thought with the way he ran routes, with his competitiveness, his toughness, his speed, his ability to come out of breaks, his ability to block, that he would be a good fit for us,” Mike Shanahan said. “You never know until a guy comes in.”
After four years with the Colts that showed the NFL Garcon could play, the Redskins signed him to a five-year, $42.5 million contract, their first free agent signing in an offseason intended to transform their team. What they got was apparent on the second possession of that first game.
When the Redskins prepared to draft Griffin, “I said then, ‘RGIII and Pierre Garcon are going to be the perfect combination,’ ” Polian recalled. “If you just look at what Matt Schaub and Andre Johnson are doing in Houston, with a very similar offense, they’ll do that — except RGIII probably has one-and-a-half times the arm that Matt Schaub does.”
On that scoring play, though, Garcon suffered a foot injury. He played just once more in September and once in October. The Redskins learned what they were missing. Since he returned Nov. 18 against Philadelphia, they haven’t lost. They average six yards after each catch, third-best in the league.
After so many of those catches, as Garcon spins the ball on the turf — “Angry,” Kyle Shanahan said — the Redskins are not sure what to make of it.
“He walks to the beat of his own drum, and it’s a different drum,” Griffin said. “It’s not a normal drum.”
There might be a reason for that. Kehres brought his grandson with him to the Redskins’ Dec. 16 game at Cleveland, and noticed Garcon’s unmistakable swagger when he jogged out of the tunnel.
“It’s like he feels like he still has to prove it, that he’s giving it his all,” Kehres said. “I know his toe hurts. I can tell. But there’s no complaining, no whining. Just go. He was like that here, and it seems like that’s what he’s still like.”
Back to real life
In the days after the earthquake, Garcon had to balance preparation for the first postseason game of his career with the silence from Haiti. There was no way to count the cousins, uncles, nieces and nephews who might have died.
That Saturday, four days after the earthquake, the Colts beat the Ravens, a game in which Garcon caught five balls and made a key play, stripping Baltimore safety Ed Reed of an interception with the Colts protecting a third-quarter lead. But when he walked off the field that day, his first thought was: “It’s back to real life.
“You think about: Hopefully, the family’s watching,” he said. “Hopefully, they heard something. Hopefully, they feel a little better because we won. Hopefully things are getting better because I played all right. Hopefully, there’s more good news.
“But you can’t control it. You can’t really get an answer.”
His mother and sisters, he said, were emotional wrecks. The Colts were beginning a drive to the Super Bowl, and Garcon caught 11 passes for 151 yards in the AFC championship game win over the New York Jets. But all that time, even as he found out that his closest relatives had survived, he knew he would have to go to back to Haiti.
“As a football player, you don’t walk around going, ‘Well, I’m an NFL player,’ ” Garcon said. “You only realize that when you’re off the field, and people remind you that you’re a big important person to them.”
That was Garcon’s role in this situation: Big and important. He helped raise more than $125,000 before traveling to Haiti that April. There, he helped rebuild a school. He fed children. He took photos of the ruined presidential palace in Port-au-Prince.
And when it was over, he said: “This is something we plan on coming back to.”
His last visit was in July. There will be another after this year’s playoffs, games that will include the Redskins if they beat Dallas on Sunday night. But each time a game ends, it is still back to real life for Garcon, who has never lived in Haiti but still considers it his home.