During the Super Bowl, If you took your eyes off Tom Brady, the New England quarterback, you would have probably fixed them instead on the dynamo sharing the backfield with the 41-year-old star. That’s Sony Michel, No. 26. His legs will chop up and down furiously like a needle on a sewing machine as he tears through the middle of the Los Angeles Rams defense. Michel weighs just 215 pounds, but he runs as forcefully as a player 25 pounds heavier. Give him your spotlight for a play, or two. You won’t be disappointed.
Here is another reason to pay attention to the rookie Michel, who has rushed more than 100 yards six times this season. He has an immigrant’s ambition and willpower. The 23-year-old didn’t grow up in a family with football in its blood. Michel’s roots are in Haiti, but his parents moved to the U.S. before he was born. Soccer is king in Haiti, but Michel is among a legion of players of Haitian ancestry who — taught to grind and never relax — are succeeding in the NFL.
Michel is one of at least 35 players of Haitian descent in the NFL, up from no more than a dozen in 2010. They have revived a legacy that was started a century ago by Port-au-Prince-born Henry McDonald, who played for the Rochester Jeffersons from 1911 to 1917 — before the NFL was founded. The current batch of Haitian-American NFL stars includes Los Angeles’ Nickell Robey-Coleman, San Francisco’s Pierre Garçon and Cincinnati’s Gio Bernard. No other country in Latin America produces NFL players like the families of Haitian origin.
"THE NFL GUYS FROM HAITI ARE RESILIENT AND STUBBORN AND FINISH WHAT THEY START, AND THAT COMES FROM THEIR HERITAGE."
EMMANUEL THALERAND, BROTHER OF FORMER SEATTLE DEFENSIVE END CLIFF AVRIL
Their parents and ancestors come from a land that abolished slavery almost 60 years before the U.S., defeated Napoleon in 1804 and became the first country in Latin America to rid itself of colonial rule. Haitians helped turn the outcome of the American Revolution. And the country’s geography means Haitians have steeled themselves over and over against earthquakes and hurricanes, while brutal dictatorships have turned it into the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. The resilience born out of that struggle against the odds is visible in Haitian-American players like Michel. He calls Haiti “my country” even though he has never lived there and was raised in Florida. Just watch him run with purpose, as the heart of a New England rushing attack that will be crucial to his team’s success in the Super Bowl. If Michel is running the ball it means the high-powered Rams offense doesn’t have the ball.
“The NFL guys from Haiti are resilient and stubborn and finish what they start, and that comes from their heritage,” says Emmanuel Thalerand, the brother of former Seattle defensive end Cliff Avril, whose foundation has built a school and 25 houses in Haiti.
Like Michel, all of the current crop of Haitian-origin players in the NFL were raised in the U.S., where soccer — while growing — still lags far behind football in popularity. But picking football over soccer doesn’t mean they’ve forgotten the land their parents came from.
Take Avril, who played professionally between 2008–17. The Cliff Avril Family Foundation is a tribute to Avril’s father, Jean Samuel, who died in 2015. Cliff Avril grew up in Florida, but speaks Creole. His mother would take him back every summer to Haiti’s capital, Port-au-Prince. Avril and Thalerand put on an American football clinic in Haiti every year. In 2018, 250 boys attended. Thalerand is convinced there are other athletes with Sony Michel’s skill set that could feed the Haitian pipeline to the NFL.
Sony Michel (No. 26) of the New England Patriots celebrates a fourth-quarter, one-yard rushing touchdown against the New York Jets.
Michel says that he feels the pull of Haiti because his mother and other relatives have told him the stories — his mother, only more recently. Those stories shook him. “She didn’t want to put too much on me,” Michel says. He takes a deep breath. “My mom is inspiring. It was rough.”
These players share pride in where their families come from, through tragedy and insults such as President Donald Trump’s reported assessment of Haiti, among others, as “shithole countries.” “I don’t do the politics,” Michel replies. When Michel participated in the NFL’s My Cause, My Cleats initiative, he wore cleats painted with the Haitian flag for a Dec. 2 game to raise awareness and money for victims of natural disasters in Haiti.
Back in Haiti, 65-year-old Boby Duval is cultivating the next generation. Through his charity, he runs six athletic-based academies around Haiti and feeds 2,000 children a day with his sports/social program. Soccer is the national sport, but Duval is sure there are Sony Michels kicking a ball who would also do well toting it. “Our history is connected to these NFL players, we have this Haitian pride,” Duval says. “We kicked the French ass big-time, and they have never got over it. We take a little and do a lot. We have not been served well historically speaking.”
So far, no Haitians have gone straight to the NFL. The U.S., Florida in particular, is the gridiron talent incubator. But the steely determination that turns that talent into success — for the players and for those preparing for the future, like Duval — comes from Haiti. In 1976, Haiti’s then-dictator Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier threw Duval in prison for 17 months for charges that were never made clear. Duval weighed 250 pounds when he went to jail, 90 when he was released. “It was an extermination camp,” Duval says. “People died around me every day.” Duval went to college in Boston at Concordia, where his effervescent personality drew former Patriots quarterback Jim Plunkett to him. The two friends would hang out in Kenmore Square, but Duval is not a Patriots fan today. He is a friend of any NFL team that will help his mission.
Duval recognizes the determination of Haitian-American NFL players. “I can understand the rage these athletes play with,” he says. “Their parents have told them when they get an opportunity you have to make your own, there is nobody who is going to make anything for you. They will work their asses off to make things happen because there is no safety net where they come from.”