Ask a Haitian-American NFL player what’s special about his upbringing, and odds are he’ll recall the childhood revelation that distinguished him from his American peers. As the boys who would be pro football players transitioned from soccer to football in childhood, and grew friendships with Americans of all stripes, they began to understand what set their own experiences apart.
“I just feel like Haitians don’t really complain,” says Bengals running back Gio Bernard.
“My dad never made any excuses,” says Vikings linebacker Emmanuel Lamur.
“Haitians appreciate what they do have instead of dwelling on their problems,” says 49ers wide receiver Pierre Garçon.
So when it was reported this week the U.S. President described Haiti and African nations as “shithole countries” and privately groused about accepting immigrants from those places, several members of the small but tight-knit community of Haitian NFL players reacted with shock.
Why insult a swath of Americans immigrants, who, in the experience of these athletes and their families, have done nothing but respectfully and painstakingly carve out their own slice of the American pie without complaint?
“There are amazing Haitians in America who are assets to this country, who are helping both countries with hard work and charity,” says Garçon, the youngest of four children and the only person in his immediate family born in the United States. One of his three sisters is an accountant, one is an assistant principal at Glade Central High in Belle Glade, Fla., and the third is an elementary school teacher in West Palm Beach, where they grew up.
“Haitians, and really all immigrants, have it harder,” Garçon says. “You’re trying to learn the language and do things the way they do it here, play by the rules and be an asset to your country. And you still have people say that about your country and your people? It infuriates you, but you still have to respect the country you’re in and your president.”
Reached by phone on Friday, four U.S.-born Haitian-American NFL players and one former player shared their feelings on Trump and the island nation they each embrace as a second home. Minnesota linebacker Emmanuel Lamur, whose Vikings take on the Saints in the divisional playoffs on Sunday, said he was saddened by the President’s comments.
“My mom and dad and sister came from Haiti,” Lamur says. “They worked so hard to get where they’re at right now. They just wanted an opportunity to be here and provide the best opportunities to their kids. Isn’t that what we all want?”
During his childhood, Lamur’s mother was a nurse working two jobs and his father was a sanitation worker in West Palm Beach. Lamur remembers his parents going to work every day at 4 a.m. and making a point of never bemoaning their status. Their twin sons both went on to play pro football, with Sammuel playing two seasons in the Arena Football League and Emmanuel, undrafted, spending four years with the Bengals and the last two seasons in Minnesota. Lamur’s foundation works with the Mission of Grace outside the Haitian capital city of Port-au-Prince to care for orphans, many of them victims of Hurricane Matthew in 2016 or the 2010 earthquake that took the lives of more than 100,000 people.
“Staying out of trouble, going to school with my twin brother, we had goals and dreams, and we’re living that,” Lamur says. We’re trying to make everywhere a better place.”
He says he hasn’t spoken to his parents about Trump’s comments but “can’t imagine what they’re feeling.”
“I’m proud to be a Haitian and an American,” Lamur says. “This is who God made me to be. Would you say the same thing about Haiti if one of your grandchildren was Haitian? Why not use your gift to make the world a better place? We have many great people in this world of all races and nationalities who have done great things. Where’s the love?”
Former NFL offensive lineman Gosder Cherilus, who officially retired last March after nine seasons in the NFL with the Lions, Colts and Buccaneers, says he was unsurprised by the President’s comments given the way he has disparaged even American cities in the past.
“If you’ve been paying attention to that man, he’s been saying small-minded things for a while. He thinks it’s a game. When someone tells you, ‘Hey, I’m a fool,’ I have to believe you. I don’t think it should have taken what he said about these countries for people to start jumping up and down about it. He’s American—look how he describes Chicago. That’s sickening.”
Bengals running back Bernard was equally unsurprised by Trump’s comments; he doesn’t believe Trump’s word carries much weight with Haitians or Haitian-Americans. “I don’t think Haitian kids look up to the President,” Bernard says. “They don’t want to be him. They look up to the Haitian-Americans who know what they’ve gone through and had that background and have success, like some of us in the league.”
Bernard’s father, Yven, arrived near Delray Beach, Fla., in 1980 in a boat carrying more than a dozen Haitian immigrants. He met Josette Liberious, another Haitian transplant, who lived next door to an apartment he shared. Gio was 7 when his mother died of thyroid cancer in 1999. The family narrowly avoided another tragedy when the 2010 earthquake hit Haiti just days before they were scheduled to visit the island. Watching the devastation from afar only bolstered his connection to the country and its people.
“The biggest thing is, we’re the first generation that was born in America with family that is still in Haiti,” Bernard says. “We have that unique tie where we feel like we want to help our people, and we know we need to help out.”
Bernard is planning a trip to Haiti in March, his fifth since entering the NFL as a second-round pick of the Bengals in 2013. He contributed to Matthew relief efforts in 2016 and started a foundation that supports education opportunities for children in Haiti.
“In a way, as Haitian-Americans, we know how bad Haiti is, and we are trying to do our best to help how we can,” Bernard says. “It’s not a country that’s stable, so we try to educate people about it. We're not trying to downplay it. We want Haiti to be like America one day.”
It’s that desire to improve the nation of their family’s origin that makes Trump’s comments so hurtful for some players.
“It’s absurd to call it a shithole,” says 49ers defensive lineman Leger Douzable. “If you look at the history of the Haitain people, we are some of the strongest people on earth. To win our independence and help other Caribbean islands get their freedom? Dealing with hurricanes and earthquakes. It shows our grit.”
Douzable, who was born in Tampa, lost his biological father, whom he’d never met in person, in the 2010 earthquake. He joined Haitian-American NFL players Elvis Dumervil and Cliff Avril in an effort to build homes and schools that stand up to the elements in Haiti, taking offseason trips to help build structures and enjoy the beaches.
“It’s actually a very beautiful island,” Douzable says. “You go to beaches that haven’t been altered or diminished by man. I look forward to it every year.”
Garçon, who is among the biggest ambassadors in the NFL for the island of just under a million residents, is taking a handful of 49ers teammates to visit this offseason. He wants people to experience the Haiti he knows—the breathtaking beaches and fabulous cuisine, including fried plantains, vegetable stew, pork shoulder and oxtail.
“I encourage people to go to Haiti and see things for themselves and learn about it rather than rely on what you see on TV,” Garçon says. “That would help us, and it would keep things moving the right direction.
“What the president said… he’s just confirming the fears we had before he became President. For someone who has never been to Haiti, to use his platform to say that, it does damage because all his followers will believe that, and it hurts to be judged by ignorance.”
Says Douzable: “My island ain’t a shithole.”