Super Bowl, earthquake relief efforts put spotlight on Haitian American presence in the NFL

By Amy Shipley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 5, 2010; D01

MIAMI GARDENS, FLA. -- Indianapolis Colts wide receiver Pierre Garçon carefully folded the Haitian flag into a bandanna and proudly put it -- instead of a Colts baseball cap -- on his head Tuesday as he held an obligatory meeting with the media in the lead-up to Sunday's Super Bowl. With the flag's emblem displayed across his forehead and television cameras running, Garçon hoped to inspire more help for his country.

Garçon did not hesitate to reach out. The earthquake that devastated Haiti on Jan. 12 has led to an unanticipated aftershock here in the United States: Haitian Americans are standing up to proclaim their heritage, while discovering a sense of unity and community that many had never felt before.

The newfound bonds have been on display most prominently within the NFL, where before the earthquake struck last month, Garçon and nearly two dozen other players with Haitian ties had gone largely unnoticed and unclassified.

"There are a lot of bad aspects with being Haitian," Garçon said. "So I'm just trying to do something positive, and let people -- and especially kids -- know we can make it, and be anybody we want to be."

Though the NFL keeps tabs on its large population of players from Samoa and celebrates its Hispanic players through Hispanic Heritage Month, league officials acknowledge they have never given much thought to the Haitian Americans on their rosters.

But in an emotional and speedy response to the earthquake, Garçon, New Orleans Saints linebacker Jonathan Vilma and several other NFL players with family connections to Haiti strove to raise awareness for the nation's plight and promote fundraising initiatives. As the efforts became public, even the Haitian players themselves said they were surprised to learn they had so many brethren in the league.

"That," Vilma said, "was news to me."

"It really did make us a lot more aware," said David Krichavsky, the NFL's director of community affairs. "This is a real community in the NFL . . . but it's not a community we had our finger on, or the pulse of."

On a deeper level, the football players' quiet infiltration of the NFL seems reflective of the difficult and often overlooked journey of Haitian Americans through U.S. society at large.

It's a trek that, for many, originates in Miami's "Little Haiti," a colorful but largely poor and derelict neighborhood just a few miles southeast of Sun Life Stadium, where the Colts and Saints will play the NFL title game Sunday evening.

'Wasn't really prideful'

Little Haiti and neighboring communities have produced at least seven of the NFL's current or former Haitian American players, with another seven coming from other parts of South Florida and at least three from more distant points in the state. Three players who will be on the field Sunday -- Garçon, Vilma and the Saints' Stanley Arnoux -- grew up in more prosperous areas outside Little Haiti, but each said he had friends or family in the neighborhood and made visits there for Haitian food and culture.

Though many Haitian Americans have moved to points farther north, Little Haiti remains the anchor of the country's Haitian community. It also serves as the entry point for many local boys into football through Miami's Edison Senior High School, which former San Diego Chargers offensive lineman Carlos Joseph, a Haitian American, described as "Haitian High."

The school has in the last decade produced Joseph, who also played for the Jacksonville Jaguars; his brother William Joseph, an Oakland Raider; Marc Dile of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers; the Colts' Chad Simpson, who is not Haitian; and several Canadian Football League players.

People familiar with the area, which seven NFL players visited on a community outreach mission Wednesday, say the school, the neighborhood and many of its residents have been hobbled by an immigrant experience with more than the customary struggles.

Florida state Rep. Ronald A. Brisé, who was born in Port-au-Prince and now represents the district that includes Little Haiti, said the tens of thousands of Haitians who arrived in Miami in the late 1970s and early 1980s lacked a bond with Hispanic immigrants because they spoke Creole rather than Spanish. Many in the African American community viewed them as outsiders. Others assumed they were involved in voodoo or magic. The stereotyping and language barrier held back the community politically and economically, Brisé said.

"That is a direct result of people coming and not being welcomed, to put it bluntly," he said.

Dile's father drove a jitney and worked as a cook; his mother worked at a dry cleaner. The Josephs' father worked as a dishwasher at a hotel; their mother was a housekeeper. The mother of Richard Clebert, who after graduating from Miami Edison played at the University of South Florida and in the CFL, worked at a day-care center. All lived in public housing or apartments filled with other Haitian immigrant families. All recalled streets lined with Creole restaurants and grocery stores, and run-down homes populated by hard-working parents and frustrated teens.

Much like the 13 1/2 -foot bronze statue of Haiti's founding father, Toussaint L'Ouverture, which sits on the corner of a busy intersection across from a boarded-up grocery, the pride of Haiti often was difficult to find, football players said.

"It gets complicated," Clebert said. "It's more than the system. People don't have jobs; people are getting looked down on; you have racism among black Americans who do not like black Haitians. It goes way deeper than [people] just not doing good.

"[Kids] link up and form gangs, and whenever anyone says anything to you, you're going to shoot them. The parents, they're always in church praying for their kids."

Said Dile: "Our apartment complex was nothing but Haitians, and across the street it was nothing but Haitians . . . "[but] it wasn't really prideful for me. . . . It was always Haitians versus Americans coming from middle school. Of course, I felt like they looked down upon us."

'Haitian kids can play'

Though San Francisco 49ers defensive tackle Ricky Jean-Francois said most of his family and friends resided in Little Haiti, he lived with his father in nearby Carol City, a quieter and more affluent neighborhood. Among non-Haitians, he said, he faced taunts.

"A lot of people used to pick on me because of my last name," he said. "They said, 'You eat dogs and cats,' things like that. . . . A lot of people looked at you different."

Carlos Joseph said he and his brother got up each morning in a public housing project in Little Haiti wondering who would want to fight them. If they had problems with neighborhood kids, they would sleep on the floor at night to ensure that they didn't get shot through open windows.

"The only way to get out . . . was football," Joseph said. "It was football, sell drugs or go rob people."

The Josephs chose football, where they met former Edison High coach Corey Bell, now the director of football operations at the University of Miami, who helped build Edison into a football power in Miami after taking over the team in 1997. Players recall Bell as a tough, inspirational coach who kept them at practices into the early evenings, seemingly as much to keep them off the streets as teach them the game. Several players said they knew of no Haitians in the NFL, but football, enormously popular in Florida high schools, allowed them to blend in and be judged for their abilities on the field.

When Bell played for Miami Edison, it was about 5 percent Haitian, he said. When he returned as a coach when he was 25, it was 90 percent Haitian. His teams made five consecutive state playoff appearances and won three straight district titles. His 2003 team was ranked No. 1 in Miami-Dade County.

"In a few years, it started to turn to where everyone said, 'Hey, these Haitian kids can play,' " Bell said. "At first, they wanted to play Edison. In a few years, no one wanted to play Edison. We had evolved into a top-ranked team."

The NFL, meantime, continues its own evolution. On Wednesday, it reached directly into a community it only recently realized it could call its own. Jean-Francois and several other players -- non-Haitians Davone Bess, Akin Ayodele, Kendall Langford and Donald Thomas from the Miami Dolphins; Brandon Frye of the Seattle Seahawks; and Mike Furrey of the Cleveland Browns -- visited the Sant La Haitian Neighborhood Center in Little Haiti, where they met with community leaders and Miami Edison football players.

The players carried donated items and toured the center, while General Motors trucks were packed with relief supplies to be sent to Haiti. The NFL has pledged $2.5 million for rebuilding efforts.

The NFL's Haitian players hope those efforts, along with their own initiatives and flag-waving, will help to lift the people in Haiti -- as well as those struggling to make it in the United States.

"You had people under the radar," Vilma said. "You don't really hear about the Haitian community as much. Now, all of a sudden, it's brought to the forefront, brought into the limelight. . . . You hear of so many successful Haitians, and that really empowers us."

Researcher Julie Tate in Washington contributed to this report.

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