Fabrice Noel showed up for high school soccer tryouts wearing a shy, infectious smile and brown loafers -- the only shoes he owned.
He charged down the field in those loafers, easily dancing around the other players, as if he knew his old shoes would put any name-brand cleats to shame.
He had scored countless goals in those loafers, and even his bare feet, on the streets, beaches and dusty ball fields of Haiti. His natural talent made him a young celebrity in his soccer-crazed country.
But the sport that brought him fame also brought heartbreak. His two older brothers were killed, Noel says, because he refused to switch teams in a country where politics spills onto soccer fields.
Now 19 and living on his own in the United States, Noel desperately wants to bring his parents and younger brother here, and he knows he has but one chance: soccer. The gift that brought the death of his older brothers could make him a star here. It could rescue his family from the poverty, the danger and maybe even some of the sadness that erodes their life in Haiti.
"I know soccer can bring good," Noel said. "If I become a big superstar, I'm going to help my family. I'm going to do a lot for Haiti."
Noel grew up playing soccer with anything that was round -- T-shirts wound into knots, grapefruits, balloons wrapped in plastic.
He was always the best player in his neighborhood, any neighborhood. Friends would give him shoes and share their soccer balls for a chance to play with the young phenomenon.
He was 8 when he first touched a real soccer ball. It was different from the homemade balls he had been kicking around for years, but it felt right, like it was made just for him.
"When you're a kid in Haiti, the only big gift they can give you is a soccer ball," Noel said.
He got his own ball a year later -- a reward from his parents for doing well in school. At night, he would tuck it under his arm before he went to sleep. He kicked it to shreds in 12 weeks.
Noel and his brothers would play all day, every day, at every spare moment. Neighborhoods formed teams and set up tournaments.
When the sun went down, he and his famished brothers would return home for his mother's rice and beans. Sometimes, they would have fish -- caught off the side of a boat his father built.
The whole family played the game. His mother was the first to show him a few tricks.
"But that only lasted two weeks," Noel said, admitting that his talent quickly outmatched hers.
He laughs about the story now. His gleaming smile spreads widely, pointing to deep dimples. His eyes glow. Then quickly, sadly, his gaze falls to his lap.
Soccer brought happiness to his life, but it was too brief and far too costly.
Death Threat at 16
Noel was 12 when he started playing on the national team for 15-year-olds. By the time he was 16, he was a national star and the youngest member of the Racing Club Haitien team. He toured the world, playing tournaments in 30 countries, including a match in South Carolina 31 months ago.
Noel called his mother from South Carolina to gleefully recount the trip. He was set to go home in two days.
But she told him he could never come home again, that his brothers, 26-year-old Luckner and 25-year-old Kenson, were shot to death, and that the youngest of four boys, Jackson, was there to see it all. Noel says the men left Jackson with a message to deliver to his only surviving sibling: "We will find you, and we will kill you."
Noel has not seen his mother, father or brother since.
He was granted political asylum to stay in the United States while his family remains in Haiti, living in hiding. They stay off the streets for fear someone will recognize them.
They live modestly in Merger, along the southern peninsula of the Western Hemisphere's poorest country. Most Haitians survive on less than $1 a day. Noel's father works as a carpenter. His mother finds an occasional job selling T-shirts or fish.
Throughout high school, Noel sent home money he made at a part-time job cleaning tables at a barbecue restaurant. He still sends packages with large bags of rice and beans and, sometimes, a soccer ball for his younger brother. Soccer balls can cost $60 in Haiti, enough to feed a family for two months.
Noel insists that 14-year-old Jackson can run circles around him on the field -- even though he has not seen him in more than 21/2 years.
Jackson cannot play on an organized team without risking his family's safety. He practices quietly, with friends. He'll have to wait to show off his talent when he gets to the United States, Noel said.
The thought brings a smile to Noel's face. It makes him want to work hard and play harder. But he doesn't get wrapped up in the dream. He barely discusses it with his parents on their twice-monthly phone calls.
They are all too afraid the truth might get in the way.
Building a New Life
Noel wound up in Florida soon after that terrible phone call in the fall of 2002.
A former Haitian soccer coach invited him into his home, despite it already having twice as many people as bedrooms. The coach signed Noel up for Palm Beach Lakes High and encouraged him to join the school's team.
Noel showed up for tryouts in his loafers. The other players, some from Haiti, knew his name, knew what he could do when the ball touched his feet.
"He ran the field in those brown loafers. He put three or four moves on some of my best players, made two shots, and I said, 'All right, you're on the team,' " said head coach Adam Spangenthal.
But playing soccer in his new home did not come easily.
Noel said little to the other players, even the Haitian students who spoke Creole. His coaches and teammates would often find him sitting alone, hours before a game, with tears streaming down his face. Only a few knew his secret.
"He was always sad at the beginning of games. We just wanted him to get it off his mind because every time he talks about it, he doesn't play good," said Mackenson Beaubrun, a team captain with Noel. "We would joke with him and say, 'Come on, you can't leave me out there by myself.' "
And Noel never did. He quickly and naturally became the star of the team, scoring 35 goals in his first season. He was named a team captain his senior year and scored 58 goals, despite being double- and triple-teamed by his opponents. One rival team put four football players in soccer cleats to try to stop Noel. It didn't work.
Colleges started calling.
But Noel had to impress more than the college scouts. He had to get the attention of the major leagues. A professional contract is his only chance to bring his family here.
So he played more, joining a Haitian team that was playing in a Miami tournament, the Copa Latina.
In February, the coach from the Colorado Rapids was watching.
Fernando Clavijo was impressed enough to invite Noel to the MLS team's training camp two weeks later. Noel was the youngest player on the field.
The team liked his talent but wanted to wait for him to finish high school to make any offer. Graduation was a long two months away.
On May 20, Noel received his diploma. His high school coaches, teammates and teachers were there cheering. He talked to his mom, dad and brother on the phone, the same way he has celebrated birthdays and other milestones for the last 21/2 years.
They did not talk about the Rapids. Noel still did not know if he would join the team.
That news came this past Tuesday. The Rapids sent a contract and a plane ticket for an early Wednesday flight. Noel didn't sleep all night. He called one of his coaches at 3 a.m.
The contract offers a meager stipend and lodging -- not enough to bring his family here. But that day seems closer now than ever before.
Noel has run the numbers through his head a million times. He needs $3,000 for his family's trip, enough to pay for their passports, visas and plane tickets. Once here, they can request political asylum, too, and never live apart again.
"I'm not scared," Noel said before catching his plane. "My life is a short time. This is what I have to do."