Gators cornerback runs maze from Haiti

Left to fend for himself, Wondy Pierre-Louis makes an unlikely journey to college.

Published August 25, 2006

GAINESVILLE - The calls have come frequently since July, and the joy on the other end of the line is unmistakable.

When Naples Lely High football coach Chris Metzger talks to Florida cornerback Wondy Pierre-Louis these days, it's always a good thing.

"He loves it," Metzger said. "He just loves it. He's got a home, he's got a family. He's a part of something that's great, so he feels great."

It's a far cry from what Pierre-Louis, his family, friends and the Florida coaches were feeling two months ago. His story of living the American Dream nearly concluded without a happy ending.

For several months, Pierre-Louis wasn't sure if he would be allowed to attend school and fulfill his goal of playing college football. In a few short weeks, he went from Florida Athletic Coaches Association All-District 16 team member and heralded recruit to a frightened 18-year-old lost in a sea of paperwork and immigration rules.

Earlier this year, Pierre-Louis discovered his student visa had expired. He had one choice: return to his native Haiti to apply for a new one. But the majority of Haitians who return never make it back to the states.

"One out of 10 get out of there," UF coach Urban Meyer said. "He's the one. What an unbelievable story."

Pierre-Louis' story began in 2002 when he, his mother, Dessece, and his older brother, John, left war-torn Haiti and settled in Naples. His mother chose to return to Haiti, but she insisted her sons remain behind, attend school and seek a better life.

John and Wondy lived together for three years until John left for New York. Without a work visa, Pierre-Louis couldn't get a job. So he survived on money he received from Haiti, despite the family's clothing business being burned down in 2004. When Lely assistant coach Buddy Quarles discovered Pierre-Louis' appalling living conditions, he took him into his home and later became his legal guardian.

Pierre-Louis spoke no English when he arrived in the United States and had never seen an American football game. A friend introduced him to the sport, which helped him become conversant in about one year. He was a budding track star (he eventually won two state titles) when his 36 tackles, two fumble recoveries and two interceptions (both returned for scores) his junior season caught the attention of college football scouts. But because English was not his native language, Pierre-Louis struggled in some classes. By the spring of his senior season, he needed to pass seven core classes to be eligible for the scholarships that recruiters were offering. He did it.

With his academic life in order, Pierre-Louis returned to Haiti in June, then spent two weeks languishing in uncertainty.

"One of my cousins did that trying to go to school," he said. "He went to Haiti and he didn't make it back. My mom was kind of scared for me to come home."

His high school counselor helped him fill out mounds of documents. His coaches kept in constant touch, offering encouragement.

"I stayed in the house the whole time because my mom didn't want me to come out because Haiti is not a good country," Pierre-Louis said. "It is that dangerous. You get outside, you never know what will happen. My mom keep me in the house. I just sleep and eat."

Florida cornerbacks coach and recruiting coordinator Chuck Heater spent two days in Haiti trying to help and later admitted, "I had no idea what I was dealing with."

Fifty-three Americans were kidnapped in Haiti last year, and 20 were kidnapped in March within a 1-mile radius of the airport. What Heater witnessed only reinforced what he felt in his gut: Pierre-Louis had to get out.

"I just remember coming out (of Pierre-Louis' house), I was on the second floor and I looked out in the morning," he said. "His house was pretty nice, but on the right was a lady walking with a bucket on her head and taking water out of the well, and on the left was a shack with a lady with three kids in the shack. So all around, like I said, their home was very nice, but all around it was incredible poverty."

Friends in Naples, meanwhile, were seeking divine intervention.

"It was just a lot of prayers," Metzger said. "He was very worried, but he had a great sense about it, just saying it was in God's hands. "FCA (Fellowship of Christian Athletes) has been very big in our program, so we put a lot of stock in faith."

With the paperwork completed, Pierre-Louis went to the U.S. embassy and was told to come back three days later.

"I knew it was going to happen," he said. "They never tell people to come back. They always say come back in six months. They told me to come back in three days."

Three weeks into fall practice, the 6-foot, 176-pound Pierre-Louis is thrilled to be part of the Florida program and, despite a slight back injury, is impressing his new coaches.

"I'll tell you, the guy who appeals to me is Wondy," Meyer said this week. "He hasn't played a lot of football. He looks at me like I have six heads sometimes when I'm explaining stuff to him, but he can run. He's a very good athlete that wants to play, so there's a chance he'll start on kickoffs."

Metzger isn't surprised.

"What makes him so good is that God has blessed him with an uncanny ability to be able to run and jump like normal human beings can't," Metzger said.

"And he's a competitor, that helps him. The kid is a competitor. He wants to be great."

At least now he's free to try.