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

Ricky Jean-Francois, a Haitian American member of the San Francisco 49ers from Carol City, Fla., talks with several players from Miami Edison Senior High.
Ricky Jean-Francois, a Haitian American member of the San Francisco 49ers from Carol City, Fla., talks with several players from Miami Edison Senior High. (Joshua Prezant For The Washington Post)
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Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 5, 2010

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.

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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."

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