Haitian athletes help their island home
The island’s American-born descendants are taking over professional sports and helping their country of origin — especially during Hurricane Matthew
UPDATE — Even before Hurricane Matthew devastated Haiti last weekend, Washington Redskinswide receiver Pierre Garcon and Baltimore Ravens linebacker Elvis Dumervil were thinking of home.
Both players are first-generation Haitian-Americans, representing just a small part of an ever-expanding pipeline of athletic talent. Their attachment to Haiti remains strong, so Sunday after Washington beat Baltimore, Redskins owner Dan Snyder offered Garcon a chance to be part of a group that delivered medical supplies to the island.
Garcon traveled there Monday along with teammate Ricky Jean Francois, also of Haitian descent, and senior vice president of communications Tony Wyllie to help drop off and unload the supplies.
While the game was pivotal to the regular-season fortunes of both teams, their thoughts had to be on the destruction and aftermath of Hurricane Matthew, which killed at least 600 people as it lashed the island nation with 145 mph winds, torrential rains and floods.
One Haitian community that was struck by the storm is Bercy, a community of 10,000 some 18 miles north of Port-au-Prince. That’s where Dumervil spent nearly $400,000 this past offseason building concrete homes in a project designed to transform slums. While many other buildings across the nation were heavily damaged or destroyed, the 24 finished homes built by Dumervil survived.
“They withstood the hurricane,” said Dumervil, who leads 58 Homes For Haiti, through the nongovernmental organization Mission of Hope. The number of new homes matches his jersey number. “Our homes help shelter more than 1,000 people. People who are not from Haiti don’t understand that most homes are not built to withstand a hurricane or an earthquake. That’s the difference between here and Miami. Concrete homes hold up.”
And so has Dumervil. Now in his 10th season, the edge linebacker is the dean of Haitian-American players in the NFL. He and Garcon represent the beginning of a new wave of athletic talent that continues to flow into the NFL, the NBA, as well as other professional sports, and college and prep athletics.
Matchups pitting one Haitian-American player against another – something that was unheard of a decade ago – have now become commonplace in the NFL.
“The culture of sports and football is growing among Haitians,” said Garcon, who was born in Carmel, New York, the son of a Haitian immigrant father born in Port-au-Prince and whose mother was born in the nearby town of Leogane.
“A lot of them moved down to Florida, where football is the No. 1 sport,” added Garcon, who was a high school star in the athletic hotbed of South Florida. Garcon has two fellow Haitian-American teammates, defensive end Ricky Jean-Francois and veteran linebacker Junior Galette, who is on injured reserve.
It’s hard to find an NFL team without a Haitian player on either the active roster or the practice squad. There are nearly three-dozen Haitian-Americans playing in the league. These include Cincinnati Bengals running back Giovanni Bernard, perennial New York Giants Pro Bowl defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul, Seattle Seahawks defensive end Cliff Avril, Arizona cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, defensive lineman Whitney Mercilus, and cornerback Johnathon Joseph of the Houston Texans.
“It doesn’t surprise me,” added Garcon. “It’s just a matter of time before we take over and start playing every position. We’re playing wide receiver, running back and defensive lineman. There are more and more Haitians in the pipeline. It’s gonna happen soon.”
Garcon sees a day soon when Haitian receivers will catch NFL passes from Haitian quarterbacks. To underscore the point, Deondre Francois, a first-generation Haitian-American, grew up in Miami’s Little Haiti. A highly recruited high school football phenom, Francois is the starting quarterback for the nationally ranked Florida State Seminoles.
Actually, Haiti’s involvement in the development of professional football goes back more than a century.
A history in sports
Henry McDonald, who was born in Port-au-Prince, played halfback for the Rochester Jeffersons from 1911-17. He was one of a handful of prominent black professional football players in the years immediately before the formation of the NFL.
But Haitian athletic talent is not restricted to the gridiron.
Haitian-born and first-generation Haitians are also playing in the NBA. They include the 2013 draft’s sixth overall pick Nerlens Noel, who plays center for the Philadelphia 76ers, as well as Sacramento Kings power forward Skal Labissierre. (Labissierre and his family were briefly trapped inside their home when it collapsed in the 2012 earthquake that devastated much of Haiti.) Perhaps the most prominent current NBA player with Haitian roots is Los Angeles Clippers star forward Blake Griffin, whose father is of Haitian descent.
Also, there is Marie Ferdinand-Harris, one of the original stars of the WNBA, who played with four teams in a 10-year career.
In the NHL, Arizona Coyotes forward Anthony Duclair is the latest in a succession of Haitians to take the ice. Jozy Altidore is a star with Toronto FC of Major League Soccer and a longtime member of the U.S. men’s national soccer team.
Dozens of Haitians have played in the elite European soccer leagues for decades.
Haitians have also found recent success in professional boxing. Adonis Stevenson, who was born in Haiti and raised in Canada, is the reigning World Boxing Council light-heavyweight champion. The same for Jean Pascal, a fellow Haitian-Canadian, who held the WBC and International Boxing Organization light-heavyweight crowns; Bermane Stiverne was the WBC heavyweight champion and Andre Berto is a two-time welterweight champion.
Altogether, these athletes represent a collective triumph of more than 500 years of political turmoil and economic hardship.
When most Americans think of Haiti, they probably think of the massive earthquake that struck the Caribbean nation on the afternoon of Jan. 12, 2010. As many as 300,000 people perished and nearly a million survivors were left homeless by the quake, which measured 7.0 on the Richter scale.
Already the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere, Haiti has yet to fully recover, despite an inflow of nearly $15 billion in emergency humanitarian and economic assistance.
But why is there the sudden explosion in world-class athletes originating from such an impoverished nation, especially one without much of an athletic infrastructure?
“Haiti has always produced athletes, but they played soccer and ran track and field,” said Regine O. Jackson, a second-generation Haitian-American and professor of Africana studies at Agnes Scott College in Atlanta.
“The overarching theme is that these sports that we’ve always thought of as American, like baseball, basketball and football, have always been global,” she added. “And those playing it have always been from outside America, including people from the Spanish-speaking Caribbean and the English-speaking Caribbean.”
The roots of Haiti’s current athletic renaissance date back more than 500 years to the tormented inception of the New World.
Christopher Columbus landed in what is now Haiti in December 1492. The explorer quickly began enslaving the native Arawaks. Within a decade, the Spanish conquistadors had decimated the Arawaks of Hispaniola through disease and overwork. By 1505, the explorer’s son, Diego, began importing African slaves to the island.
By 1682, there were 2,000 African slaves working on the island, planting and working the island’s sugar cane plantations. In about 100 years, the French colony of Saint Dominique produced 60 percent of the world’s coffee and 40 percent of the world’s sugar.
Overall, about 1.5 million Africans were taken to Haiti – nearly five times the number who were brought to what became the continental United States. Just before the start of the 1791 revolution that led to Haiti’s independence, there were an estimated half-million African slaves on the island, outnumbering whites by more than 10-to-1.
Most of the Africans originated from Dahomey (current-day Benin) and what is today the Democratic Republic of the Congo and northern Angola.
Independence from France was declared in 1804, but Haiti was ostracized politically, economically and culturally – a black, French- and Creole-speaking anomaly in a largely white and brown, Spanish-speaking hemisphere in a world then dominated by the United States and the European colonial powers.
The United States did not recognize Haiti until after the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863. This was partly because Haitian governments had supported independence movements in the region and also because of fears it would send the wrong message to white plantation owners facing chronic slave rebellions.
Successive Haitian governments were saddled with paying off a crippling $40 billion debt to indemnify France for its independence; corrupt and ineffectual government; imperial economic designs on the country by several European nations, as well as the 1915-34 bloody occupation of Haiti by the U.S. Marines.
By the turn of the 20th century, tens of thousands of Haitian immigrants had settled in several major North American cities, such as New York, Boston, Montreal and Chicago (which, incidentally, was founded by John Baptiste Pointe Du Sable, a Haitian fur trader).
“The poorest country in the Western Hemisphere is also a nation of 10 million people,” said Joel Dreyfuss, a longtime Haitian-American journalist. “For Haitians, the country has been in such a political and economic mess for most of its history. But when they’ve been given the opportunity to leave it, they have become successful in the United States and Canada, although less so in France.
“The success is more than just in sports,” Dreyfuss stressed, “it’s also in the professional world as doctors, lawyers, economists, academics and writers. Haitians are embedded in American life.”
The first major influx of Haitians came in the years immediately following the election of Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier as Haiti’s president in 1957, when he steadily purged the nation’s lighter-skinned elite, many of them professionals. Escaping Duvalier’s paramilitary force, the dreaded Tonton Macoutes, many educated Haitians fled overseas to the United States, Canada, and France and emerging countries of Francophone Africa.
“You had two groups of immigrants coming from Haiti,” said Jackson, a second-generation Haitian born in New York. “You had a big group in the ’50s and ’60s with Francois Duvalier, who left in the ’50s, including many who came to the States in the immediate post-World War II years.”
In 1971, Duvalier died and was succeeded by his son, Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier. Haiti’s economic and political turmoil continued apace, compelling tens of thousands to flee the island, while scores took to the high seas in makeshift boats, bound for the United States. In 1979, President Jimmy Carter stipulated that Haitian refugees were economic, not political refugees, denying them asylum and ordering the Coast Guard to return them to their troubled homeland.
“There was a major difference between those who made it into the U.S. in the ’70s and those who came in the ’50s,” added Jackson. “The big difference between the two sets of immigrants was that those who came in the ’50s were mostly from the intellectual elite, professionals, like educators and doctors, some of whom had previously studied at universities in the States. They were coming north mostly to pursue economic opportunities.
“In the ’70s, it was members of the Haitian working class who were starting to leave. Before, everyone had some level of education and either lived or worked in the capital, Port-au-Prince. In the ’70s, you still had professionals leaving Haiti, but their numbers started to decline and the greater numbers of immigrants were blue-collar workers.”
Today’s second generation
Starting in the 1940s and ’50s, immigrants from other countries in the Western Hemisphere, such as Puerto Rico, Mexico, Cuba, the Dominican Republic and other countries were making their mark on the American sports landscape in baseball, boxing and horse racing.
Currently, nearly about a third of the rosters of Major League Baseball are Latinos, either those born in the United States or in a host of other traditional baseball hotbeds, such as Mexico, the Dominican Republic, Cuba, Venezuela and elsewhere.
From 1969 to 1990, Rawlings and McGregor produced millions of baseballs for MLB at its factories in Haiti, employing 1,100 employees. Yet, America’s pastime never caught on in Haiti. One Haitian, Felix Pie, a former outfielder for the Chicago Cubs, Baltimore Orioles and Baltimore Orioles, made it to the major leagues. Another, Touki Toussaint, a top pick in the 2012 Major League amateur draft, is a minor league pitcher for the Atlanta Braves. Miguel Sanó, designated hitter and right fielder for the Minnesota Twins, is Dominican-born and his family has Haitian origins. He chose to begin to play baseball with the name Sanó, his mother’s family name, over using his official surname of his father, which is Jean, out of respect to the Dominican Republic.
However, by the late 1970s, when the influx of Haitians coincided with the emergence of New York-New Jersey and South Florida as prep athletic powerhouses, Haitian-American athletes became forces to be reckoned with.
One of the first Haitian-Americans to make it to the big time was Mario Elie. The son of Haitian immigrants, he grew up on New York’s Upper West Side, playing high school basketball at the city’s old Power Memorial Academy, where he was a teammate with future NBA star Chris Mullin.
A star at American International Academy in Massachusetts, Elie was drafted in the seventh round of the 1985 college draft by Milwaukee. He played overseas for four years before finally making it into the NBA. Elie, who played for 11 years, starred as a 3-point shooter for the Houston Rockets NBA championship teams in 1993-94 and 1994-95 and won a third title with the San Antonio Spurs four years later. He has been an assistant coach with several NBA teams.
Elie credits his parents for teaching him a strong work ethic that he said has served him well. He said his parents always stressed their Haitian roots.
“I’m very proud to be Haitian,” added Elie. “I’m proud to be one of the first guys to make it into the NBA, along with Yvon Joseph, Olden Polynice. But now I look at all the Haitians making it into the NFL, like Jason Pierre-Paul, Giovani Bernard, Whitney Mercilus and so many others. It’s good to see Haitian people being successful and getting a good name, instead a bad things, like poverty, AIDS or the earthquake.”
Haitians bound by strong work ethic
Haiti’s economic infrastructure is lacking, with crumbling roads and bridges. With an annual gross domestic product of less than $800 per person, most Haitians struggle to afford the bare necessities. Although sports are popular, affording them is considered a luxury.
Robert “Boby” Duval is the founder and director of L’Athletique d’Haiti in Port-au-Prince. His foundation provides training for 2,000 Haitian youngsters annually in soccer, basketball, table tennis, karate, track, basketball and boxing.
“I know, if you give a Haitian kid a chance, he has it in him to succeed,” said Duval, a former athlete and one-time political prisoner under “Baby Doc” Duvalier. “A Haitian person feels he has to prove something, first to himself, then to his country and then the world. If you give us a chance, we can succeed.”
Duval concedes that his nongovernmental organization can only do so much, though.
“There is a lot of interest in basketball, but the No. 1 sport in Haiti is still soccer. But it doesn’t gravitate to everyone in the country. There are more and more athletes who are picking up other sports. Haiti does not suffer from a lack of athletes or athletic skill, but there isn’t the infrastructure here. In Haiti, there is no such thing as a basketball court or a football field on every corner. There is a lot of poverty, so we have to improvise. We have to improve our sports infrastructure. If you give us a chance, we can succeed.”
Duval is constantly appealing to Haiti’s far-flung diaspora for financial support, especially among its increasing number of sports stars.
Said Duval: “My wish is that for those who have made it in the States to come back here and help build in the sports infrastructure, the training facilities, the equipment, and provide the training.”
Even though many of the current Haitian-American professional athletes grew up with first-rate sporting facilities in the States, most say their Haitian-born parents taught them a strong work ethic.
“We were taught to take advantage of the opportunities we were given,” said Dumervil, who grew up in Miami’s Little Haiti. “We wanted to make our parents proud. Many were like my mother, who worked in a hotel for minimum wage for 21 years. So, we understood the work ethic.”
Prodigal sons return home
Several first-generation Haitian-American athletes regularly return to Haiti on missions to help deliver badly needed supplies of medicine, clothes and food.
Perhaps none have contributed more than Dumervil. Working with the U.S.-based non-governmental organization New Story, Dumervil has spent nearly $400,000 building 58 sturdy homes in Bercy.
Dumervil wants the NFL to build a community in Haiti and is actively recruiting his fellow Haitian-American athletes, as well as others, to contribute.
“We’re just trying to get more guys involved,” said Dumervil. “They don’t have to be Haitian, they just have to have a heart. The challenge is: How can we make it fun, but still help others out? Haiti is always going to be in a position [geographically] where it’s always going to need help.”
Housing is essential, added Dumervil.
“The more homes we can build, the more families we can help,” he said. “If we can create a community, then we can get more jobs. If we get more jobs, we can help build the economy.”
There’s work to be done
Although relatives know of their notoriety in the States, many average Haitians don’t recognize the athletes upon their arrival.
“Most people don’t know who they are,” said Duval, who has helped organize many of the missions. “Many people don’t have access to television, radio or newspapers. The information doesn’t trickle down. When some of them have come to visit, I have to spend money to publicize their visits and organize events.”
“There’s an aversion toward Haitians in the diaspora, in Haiti,” said Joel Dreyfuss. “It’s a certain term that’s used against us, a very derogatory term – it means we’re carpetbaggers and arrogant. There’s a lot of hostility toward them. And there’s been an effort by Haitians to bury the news about the success of Haitians in the diaspora, to keep them at arm’s length and to deflect talk about the success of Haitians elsewhere.”
Despite a sometimes indifferent reception back home, many athletes continue to return in order to give back. But some, like Elie, say their efforts are being undermined on the ground by ineffective and corrupt Haitian governments.
“The government is so corrupt,” said Elie. “Our problem is: How are we gonna get the money to the people who need it? When we see the people, they don’t want to hear any more promises about what we’re going to do for them. They’re angry. They say, ‘We don’t want to hear it. We want action.’ If we have a proper government, we can make a difference.”
Elie admits he is often disheartened, but not discouraged.
“Seeing what my people are going through is frustrating,” added Elie, who led a group of retired players with Olden Polynice and La Rue Martin to Haiti two years ago. “I’ve been going back for years and nothing has changed. People are poor, the roads are crumbling, there’s not enough clean water or electricity. It’s awful. Our country needs a lot of help. Every time I leave there, I’m emotionally distressed; I don’t want to leave.”
Elie has taken his 13-year-old triplets, two sons and a daughter, with him on his missions. He said the visits have deeply affected them.
Roots and pride run deep
Even with Haiti’s enormous economic and political problems, national pride runs deep, especially given the recent accomplishments by Haitian athletes.
Two-time welterweight champion Andre Berto proudly waves the Haitian flag in the ring after his bouts. Born and raised in Miami, Berto’s father was born in Gonaives and his mother in St. Marc.
“I try to go back there as many as five or six times a year,” Berto said. “There’s an orphanage that I’m taking care of.”
The boxer said he has donated more than $100,000 for the construction of a road near the orphanage he’s supporting. Berto added that he’s also spent twice that amount drilling 10 to 15 fresh water wells.
“We were the first to revolt, the first nation known for fighting back,” said Berto, the last man to fight now-retired undefeated welterweight champion Floyd Mayweather Jr. “When I grew up, [General Jean-Jacques] Dessalines was my guy. Toussaint [L’Overture] was my man, too. We’re fighters, we grew up aggressive. Dessalines fought for his people, he didn’t play no games at all.”
Berto said that despite the many problems they face, Haitians are indomitable, on and off the athletic arena.
“We’ve always been around, but now there are just more of us coming to the scene,” he said. “We’re here because of our resilience and intestinal fortitude when it comes to sports and life in general. It’s just a natural part of our culture.”
ESPN’s John Keim contributed to this report.