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Thursday, April 10, 2014

Haitian-born Pierre Desir making a difference at Washburn

BY TONY ADAME
The Wichita Eagle

This is the story of the Haitian boy who became an American football hero.

He is born on the island, in Port-au-Prince, just like his parents and his big sister, and when he is 4 they decide to leave that life behind, to come to America and start anew.

He will not remember much from this fateful trip. Waves crashing against the boat. Something sweet his mother told him. His father holding him up to get a glimpse of the ocean.

As time goes by the boy grows tall, strong and fast. He is good at soccer, but one day, right before his freshman year of high school, he tells his family he will no longer play that game, the one they know and love. He will play football, he tells them, a sport they know nothing about. His father, Wilfrid, who played soccer on a Haitian select team, rolls with it. If it makes Pierre happy, it makes him happy.

"And they've been with me every step of the way," Washburn cornerback Pierre Desir said. "My mom, though, she was scared I would get hurt."

* * *

Desir's mother, Marie, eventually stopped worrying about her son getting hurt playing football and watched him develop into a star at Francis Howell Central High School in St. Peters, Mo., outside of St. Louis.

After redshirting at Washburn in 2008, the 6-foot-2, 190-pound Desir exploded onto the MIAA scene last season as a redshirt freshman, leading the league with seven interceptions on his way to all-conference and second-team All-America honors.

The very first time he intercepted a pass in a college game, against Colorado School of Mines, he returned it 38 yards for a touchdown, one of many big plays made by Desir as the Ichabods finished the season 8-3.

This season, the Ichabods are ranked No. 10 in the AFCA NCAA Division II preseason poll with Desir tabbed as a preseason All-American by three publications.

"He's an explosive player, he attacks the football and if he gets his hands on it, there's a good chance he could go to the end zone," Washburn coach Craig Schurig said. "And on top of that, he's a great young man. His parents raised him well."

Desir is the latest in a long line of top-notch defensive backs to come out of Washburn, following fellow All-Americans Fletcher Terrell and Baltimore Ravens cornerback Cary Williams.

Schurig thinks Desir has a chance to join Williams in the NFL someday, thanks to his size and sub-4.5 speed in the 40-yard dash.

"Playing in the NFL is the ultimate goal for me," Desir said. "Fletch and Cary, they've both told me I have what it takes and to just go out and showcase my talents, to show people what I can do and I took that to heart.

"When I'm out there I feel like I'm playing for more than myself... I feel like I'm playing for my family. That's the biggest motivation I could have."

* * *

In January, Haiti was devastated by earthquakes that killed an estimated 220,000 people and displaced another 1 million Haitians.

Among the dead were Desir's grandfather and an 8-month-old cousin.

His parents went back to Haiti a week-and-a-half after the quakes and then again in late May and early June.

"With me being a big family guy, and all of us being so close... it's something I think about a lot," Desir said. "And that's a big reason why I want to succeed, to do good in school and in football, to be able to help them eventually. I feel kind of helpless right now. I want to do more."

But Desir is helping his family, even if he doesn't realize it yet.

Wilfrid and Marie constantly talk about having faith — in God, in each other, in the American Dream — and when they look at Pierre they don't see the struggles of their past. Far from it.

"Things are so bad in Haiti right now, and they keep getting worse, there is no food, there is no hospital, there is no school," said Wilfrid, a cook. "There is so much that needs to be done but is not being done, and it is something we think about constantly. You cannot turn that off.

"But when we see Pierre succeed, and we see the man he is becoming, we have hope in what our future might be, that he could not only help us but help the people of Haiti someday. Because of that, we are happy."

Tony Adame covers small-college sports. Reach him at 316-268-6284 or tadame@wichitaeagle.com.

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