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January 16, 2010

A Peek Inside Florida Football: WPL

Most of the football players that pass through the University of Florida have taken similar paths. Their parents put them in organized sports from an early age, they developed a knack for football, became a star for their high school, and drew the attention of the Gator Football staff, along with many other college staffs across the country. Wondy Pierre-Louis' story could not be more different.

I know many of you have read articles about Pierre-Louis's incredible journey, but until I sat down with him, I didn't realize how truly amazing it really was.

In 2002, when Wondy was 14, his mother brought him and his older brother John in South Florida. His mother helped them enroll at Lely High School and then returned to Haiti. John and Wondy lived in a tiny apartment alone. Neither knew how to speak the English lanuage.

According to Wondy, he first went out to football practice because he had nothing to do after school and was bored. All of his friends played football, so he figured it would be a way to get to hang out with them.

"I didn't really play my first two years, because I didn't understand the game at all. My teammates would just put the ball in my hands and say 'Run Wondy Run!' and that is what I would do."

Wondy's coaches soon realized how athletic he was and worked hard to teach him the game. They had difficulty because not only was Pierre-Louis trying to learn about a game he had never seen before, he was still learning a new language and a new culture.

At this point, Wondy's brother John had already moved to New York and left the younger Pierre-Louis alone in their tiny apartment. Wondy did not have a work visa, so he could not work. He barely survived on money sent from his relatives. To make ends meet, Wondy would sew his own clothes, a skill he learned from his mother. His designs were unique.

Unlike anything that could find in a store.

Imagine this for a minute. A family in Haiti was sending money to the United States to help. The average worker in Haiti makes two dollars a day.

Eventually, one of Wondy's coaches, Buddy Quarles, gave Wondy a ride home. Quarles was stunned at the living conditions. No air-conditioning. A lamp and a mattress on the floor.

Nothing Else.

Quarles knew what he had to do. He took Pierre-Louis into his home and became his legal guardian. He continued to coach Wondy football on the field, while mentoring him off of it.

Around this same time, letters from colleges interested in Wondy started to pour in.

"I had no idea you could go to college for playing a game. This was such a weird thought for me, but going to college was my parents biggest dream for me, so I wanted to know more."

Pierre-Louis was recruited by several schools and ventually choose the University of Florida. The last obstacle for him to overcome was a new visa. Coach Chuck Heater accompanied Pierre-Louis to Haiti to request the visa. After several 'no's', Pierre was finally granted a visa to attend college in America.

The rest, as they say, is history.

Now flash-forward to Sunday, January 10, 2010. As I sat with Wondy, interviewing him for a Parting Shots story, obviously, neither of us could know the tragedy that was about to strike his home country.

As he told me stories about his family, I got a real sense of his deep devotion to his loved ones, even though he rarely gets to see them. He has a younger brother that is a junior in high school in south Florida.

"He will blow you away. I can't wait until he gets here. He is that good. So much better than me."

He told me about the store his parents own over in Haiti.

"They work all day every day. The store is kind of like a Wal-mart. My mom doesn't care if I play in the NFL or anything. She keeps telling me, 'Wondy just come home and we'll figure it out. I just want to be with you every day.' I told her, 'mom, I want to try to play football for a little longer.'"

Remember when Wondy used to sew his own clothes for school?

Well, he has translated that into his own clothing line, "Pierre-Louis" that he says should be hitting specialty boutiques this fall. It started with designed he sewed by hand in his little apartment in South Florida.

"Everyone would ask me, 'Wondy, were did you buy that?' And I would say, 'I made it man.' Everyone would always tell me my clothes were cool, hopefully people will still think that when they are in stores."

The man that always has a smile on his face was not smiling on Tuesday. Initial reports he received after the earthquake in Haiti were that most of his extended family was dead and his parents were missing.

After the initial communication, Pierre-Louis heard nothing for more than 24 hours.

"It is the most scared I have ever been." says Pierre-Louis.

Finally, on Wednesday night, Wondy received the news he had prayed for. His parents, and many of his relatives had survived.

Both homes the family owned and their store had been destroyed, so the family has no place to go. Currently, they are living in a shelter, like so many others, while they figure out what to do next.

Wondy is currently collecting money to send to his family. He wants to visit, but he knows that isn't possible right now. The last time Wondy has seen his parents was the 2006 SEC Championship game. They were scheduled to see him graduate from UF in May, but those plans are up in the air now.

Wondy says winning two national championships and getting his degree are great, but they pale in comparison when he thinks about what he almost lost.

"I thought my whole family was gone. I don't know what I would have done. I would be lost."

Pierre-Louis is finishing up his last four hours at UF this semester, training for the NFL draft and working on his clothing line.

He says he wants to be successful not just for himself, but so he can repay his family for giving him a shot at a better life by returning the favor.

Pierre-Louis may not have learned about football until much after most of us totally understood the game. But he knows more about the game of life and the value of life, than most people at his age ever could.

For more information on how you can help assist the residents of Hati, please visit the American Red Cross website.




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