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Marcell Dareus meets with students at the Ste Anne de Boisrond Parish School in Haiti. Hope for Haiti/411 Media

Part of Bills’ Marcell Dareus will always be in Haiti

The defensive tackle’s humanitarian effort honored the memory of his late parents

The rush of anticipation moved the 6-foot-3, 331-pound Marcell Dareus to the edge of his first-class aisle seat on a plane bound for the Caribbean.

“No headphones, no music, no talking, nothing but silence,” the Buffalo Bills defensive tackle recalled. “I didn’t know what to say. After all of these years, I was finally on my way to Haiti.”

During Haitian Heritage Month, Dareus can’t help but think about the humanitarian trip he made in February. Those images have stayed with him since he returned.

Motivated by a deathbed promise to his mother, and the ability to provide financial support to a country still recovering from a devastating earthquake in 2010 and Hurricane Matthew in 2016, Dareus traveled to Haiti, the land of his father’s birth, for reflection and a sense of purpose.

Dareus had much to reflect on. The deaths of his parents and his grandmother who helped raise him, all before his 21st birthday. The loss of his high school assistant coach and mentor. The murder of his younger brother.

“After all of the things I went through, all I could think about while on that plane was my father and my promise to my mom that I would visit Haiti,” Dareus said.

The trip developed after Dareus researched various foundations dedicated to helping the Haitians recover from the earthquake that killed more than 300,000 people and the subsequent outbreak of cholera. Dareus donated money to several organizations, including $25,000 to Hope for Haiti. According to its mission statement, Hope for Haiti works to improve the quality of life for the Haitian people, particularly children, through education, nutrition and health care.

Marcell Dareus poses with students at the Ste Anne de Boisrond Parish School in Haiti.

Hope for Haiti/411 Media

Dareus learned how Hope for Haiti, shortly after the earthquake, responded with relief that included distribution of medical supplies. The organization also provided support after Hurricane Matthew, a Category 4 hurricane, left widespread damage in southwestern Haiti. Hope for Haiti remains an integral part of Haiti’s recovery with regards to clean water, agriculture and education.

“Hope for Haiti was closer to my heart because of what all they do,” Dareus said. “It was more than just about my money. I wanted to see firsthand what they were doing, and they welcomed me on board.”

Dareus landed in the capital city of Port-au-Prince, still in a daze that he achieved his goal of finally making it to Haiti. Stares from the locals greeted Dareus, mostly because of his behemoth stature, designer sunglasses and expensive necklace. And Dareus found himself staring right back.

“I saw people that looked like my brothers, uncles and what I remember about my father,” Dareus said. “The Haitians I saw had similar facial features and body structure like members of my family. My Uncle Henry was a rock-solid dude. I thought it was because he worked out all the time, but it was because, like most Haitians, he worked long hours of manual labor.”

After making it through customs, Dareus began his four-day tour. He saw the earthquake’s devastation. Many buildings remained as rubble, and thousands of residents were displaced and homeless.

“People were so poor that they lived in graveyards among the tombs,” Dareus said. “There was open defecation, and people would just clean themselves out in the open in the streets. I saw a lot of beggars. People wanted my shoes, my shirt, just anything.”

But this visit was also a time for assistance and self-education. Dareus got the chance to see Hope for Haiti’s educational efforts as teachers continued to teach and children continued to learn despite the conditions. Dareus’ donation to the education efforts secured the teachers’ salaries for a year. He also toured a facility for senior citizens that is also supported by Hope for Haiti.

Marcell Dareus is introduced to a class of students at the Ste Anne de Boisrond Parish School in Haiti.

Hope for Haiti/411 Media

Meg Orazio, Hope for Haiti’s director of program communications, said Dareus was immediately engaged with the residents.

“Marcell asked a lot of questions and very quickly became attached to the schools he visited,” Orazio said. “He was particularly inspired by the children, as he realized this was how his father’s family most likely grew up. Marcell shared his own story with the students and was really able to connect and inspire all those who he met.”

Dareus’ story began in Birmingham, Alabama, where he was born to Detroit native Michelle Luckey and Haitian immigrant Jules Dareus. Luckey had seven children, and she raised Dareus and his siblings without Jules Dareus, who died from prostate cancer when Dareus was 8 years old.

Before Jules Dareus’ death, the family spent time with his family near Ybor City in Florida, an area populated by many Haitian immigrants, including Dareus’ father and uncles.

“We’d make trips back and forth from Alabama to Florida to see my father’s family,” Dareus said. “I went there so much that I became fluent in Creole, but that changed when I started going to school.”

Dareus’ grandmother, Ella Alexander, died of natural causes three years after Jules. She helped raise Dareus because Luckey spent years in a wheelchair with congestive heart problems. In high school, Dareus mourned the death of his mentor and assistant football coach, Scott Livingston, who died in a single-car accident. Dareus’ brother, Simeon Gilmore, died in a triple homicide in 2012, shot to death over a $40 debt.

But the biggest tragedy for Dareus came in 2010, four months after his greatest performance and reward as a member of the Alabama Crimson Tide. While he was still in the glow of winning the national championship over Texas and being named the game’s defensive MVP, his mother died of heart failure nine days after Mother’s Day.

Weeks before his mother’s death, Dareus spent time at her bedside.

“She always said to know where you’re from,” the 27-year-old Dareus said. “Know your family and know your culture. She loved the Haitian culture so much that she adopted it and raised us in that way. To this day, people call me [Dare-e-us], and she used to get mad because it’s actually pronounced [Dar-e-us]. On her deathbed she said make your name known for what it sounds like and what it actually is: French.”

Marcell Dareus hugs a woman while touring Haiti.

Hope for Haiti/411 Media

Dareus considers his mother his first coach. She taught life lessons. She disciplined the family. She was the motivator. One inspiring moment took place during Dareus’ final high school game. At the time, Luckey’s health rendered her bedridden, but to Dareus’ surprise she willed herself to watch him in person for the first time. Her presence near the end zone created a buzz in the stadium that ignited her son.

“God put her on earth to guide me,” Dareus said. “She shouldn’t have been there because of the state she was in, and it wasn’t healthy for her to be there, but she didn’t care. It was important for her to support us. Seeing her there motivated me to no end. It was so crazy that many people were crying because she was there, even some of the referees. That was a special moment.”

The Bills drafted Dareus third overall in 2011. He registered 28.5 sacks in his first four seasons but had only two in 2015, his first season in former coach Rex Ryan’s 3-4 defense. Dareus improved to 3.5 sacks last season, but it was well off his career high of 10 in 2014.

The Bills fired Ryan and replaced him with Sean McDermott, who will return the Bills to a 4-3 defense. The change could breathe life not only into the Bills’ defense but also into Dareus, who felt restrained in the previous scheme.

“The new defense will put me in a better position to help the team instead of just sitting stagnant in the center of the defense not doing anything but getting double-teamed on every play,” Dareus said. “This defense will free me up. We’ll be able to tie our ears back and go play ball. We’ll get a chance to use our natural abilities and do the best we can with it.”

Dareus has had troubles off the field as well. He was suspended for the first four games of the 2016 season after his second violation of the league’s substance abuse policy. His first violation, which resulted in a suspension for the 2015 opener, came after he was arrested in May 2014 in Alabama on charges of possession of a controlled substance and possession of drug paraphernalia. The following month, Dareus was charged with misdemeanors including reckless endangerment when he crashed his car into a tree during an alleged street race. The charges were dropped in a plea deal.

“The trip turned my life around,” Dareus said. “Me being suspended, worrying about people judging me or what the league may have said about me, means nothing. The poorest country in the Western Hemisphere has life-surviving issues, and I hope I can help bring about change in a country where my father was born.”

If Dareus was not motivated enough in his efforts to help the homeland of his father and uncles, he was especially inspired by the rich history of Haiti.

Bordered by the Caribbean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean, Haiti is on the island of Hispaniola, which it shares with the Dominican Republic. Christopher Columbus “discovered” the area when he landed on the island in 1492. Once the natives died off from European diseases brought on by Columbus’ occupation, Africans were imported and were enslaved. With the island under French rule, a slave revolt developed in 1791, but Napoleon Bonaparte sent troops and regained control for France in 1802. But another revolution erupted, and Haiti claimed its independence on Jan. 1, 1804.

The tour led Dareus to the center of the city where the statue “Neg Maron” or “Brown Man” stands. It depicts a slave blowing a conch shell. He also holds a machete with a broken chain and handcuff. It is a symbol of slavery and freedom. The conch was used to call escaped slaves to gather while in hiding.

“Learning the history made things become so clear to me,” Dareus said. “It cleared up so much on why so many people fear Haitians and why Haitians are so strong and have become the people who we are. We’re loving, kindhearted people, but don’t mess with us.”

Hope for Haiti/411 Media

Dareus crammed in as much information about Haiti’s needs and history as he could during his trip. Orazio said efforts like Dareus’ will help improve the future of Haiti because his contribution went beyond writing a check.

“By investing his time in just one trip, Marcell inspired hundreds of Haitian children,” Orazio said. “By investing his financial support in Hope for Haiti’s education program, he and others like him can guarantee that hundreds of children have access to education, clean water and health care. Marcell shared positive pictures, stories and experiences with his friends, family and through his influential social media presence. This made a difference for us and the people who we work to serve in Haiti.”

The pride and rich history of Haiti is celebrated in May as Haitian Heritage Month. The celebration is an expansion of Haitian Flag Day on May 18, a patriotic day celebrated on the island and by the Haitian diaspora with various events that include parades, cultural activities and ceremonial flag-raising. Haitian Heritage Month was first celebrated in 1998 in Boston. It is popular in Florida, which has the highest percentage of Haitian natives.

Dareus’ visit and participation was life-changing enough that another trip to Haiti is in the works, which will include some of his Bills teammates and his four children, who live in Alabama and range in age from 3 to 6.

“I want my children to learn about their roots and how our blood runs through the veins of the Haitians,” Dareus said. “And making the trip will help them appreciate what they have in the States. For me, I took a lot for granted when it came to the material things we have in this country.”

Bills teammate Jerry Hughes, the other driver in that alleged street race, saw the effect the trip had on Dareus.

“He carries himself differently, with more of a purpose,” Hughes said. “The way he comes in meetings and how he interacts with the other guys and how he passes on his wisdom to the younger players is the type of person you want on your team. He often tells the younger guys to not only be like him but strive to be better. This attitude all transpired after his trip to Haiti.”

Marcell Dareus hugs a man while touring Haiti.

Hope for Haiti/411 Media

Dareus, who signed a six-year, $108 million contract extension in 2015, lives with his bulldog, Diva, just outside of Buffalo, New York. The neighborhood children are comfortable enough to knock on his door to prove that a professional athlete resides on their block. Dareus often can be found cruising the streets of his neighborhood in a Mini Cooper, into which he somehow crams his hulking frame.

“Because of the trip, I don’t talk to people the same and I don’t look at people the same because now I’m more sensitive to everyone’s circumstances,” Dareus said. “Seeing how many of the Haitians live and how many are trying to survive daily makes you appreciate the opportunities you have here, and I try to remember that in everything I do each day.”

Branson Wright is a filmmaker and freelance multimedia sports reporter.