When Carl Pierre-Louis addressed an audience of nearly 1,100 at Friday’s All-Dade Athletic Awards, he moved nearly everyone to tears.
The attendees listened in silence to the remarkable journey Pierre-Louis, an 18-year-old senior from Felix Varela High School, took from earthquake-ravaged Haiti to a high school football field in West Kendall.
He lost his father in the earthquake that devastated his home country in January of 2010.
A year later, his brother was shot to death.
Now, Pierre-Louis hopes his scholarship to play football at Fairmont State in West Virginia will help him get his mother out of Haiti.
“I just want to thank God because I know he put me here today for a reason,” said Pierre-Louis, who received a standing ovation Friday as he walked to the stage at Jungle Island to receive the Leo Suarez/Walter Krietsch Courage Award at The Miami Herald’s annual awards breakfast.
The award is given annually to a member of the local high school sports community who shows extraordinary courage in the face of adversity.
“I just want to thank all the people who helped me to get to this point. When I got here from Haiti, I didn’t even know what football was. Now, I have a chance to have a future.”
Pierre-Louis – who was born in Miramar, but had returned to Haiti - has overcome plenty.
“He’s one of the most unbelievable kids you’ll come across,” said Matt Dixon, Pierre-Louis’ football coach at Varela, who now coaches at Miami Palmetto. “The things he has been through just give me chills. He never once complained or asked for people to tell his story. All he wanted was a chance.”
He joined Dixon on stage and the two shared a tearful hug. They had come a long way.
The day the earthquake struck, Pierre-Louis nearly lost everything.
The tremors began when he and three friends were taking a taxi back home from a basketball practice.
“I remember we were near a hillside when everything started shaking,” Pierre-Louis said. “This big rock landed near the car. All I remember was getting out of the car and there was dust everywhere. The road was backed up with cars, and it was chaos.”
The four friends survived without injury.
But the worst was yet to come.
He said he and his friends decided to walk the rest of the way, a journey that took over two hours and made worse by the horrific sights they witnessed along the way.
“There were people injured, bleeding, some dead,” Pierre-Louis said. “There were people running around trying to help, but there wasn’t much you could do.”
When Carl finally reached his house in Port-au-Prince, he found his mother, Carole Jean Pierre, and a few other family members alive.
“When I saw my mom, it was the best feeling ever,” Pierre-Louis said. “I ran and hugged her.”
But his father, Carlo Pierre-Louis, had not come home.
The family got the bad news a couple of days later.
His father, a bank security guard, was killed when the building’s roof collapsed as he and others tried to get everyone out.
“I remember my cousins sat me down and they told me,” Pierre-Louis said. “I couldn’t believe it. It didn’t seem real.”
Pierre-Louis’ school in Haiti, where he played basketball, was destroyed. His mother was determined for him to finish high school even if it meant they had to separate.
“I didn’t want to leave her because I thought something would happen to her, too,” Pierre-Louis said.
Pierre-Louis came to live with his brother in Miami, leaving behind his mother who didn’t have the financial means to come along.
Pierre-Louis had a good-enough grasp of English to fend for himself and make it in school, both academically and socially.
But football was never a thought until Coach Dixon spotted the 6-foot, 3-inch, 290-pound Pierre-Louis walking in the Varela High School hallways and invited him to try out.
“I played basketball mostly growing up, and I’ve watched sports, like soccer,” Pierre-Louis said. “But I knew nothing about American football. When the coaches first showed me some of the plays, I didn’t understand any of it.”
It didn’t take him long to learn.
By the end of his junior season, he was starting on the team’s offensive line.
But tragedy was not far away. Last summer, his brother, Harold Jean-Pierre, 30, returned to Haiti to visit family. He was shot and killed during an outbreak of violence in the streets of their hometown.
Now, Pierre-Louis had lost the only close family he had in Miami. He found himself with nowhere to go.
Dixon and his teammates made sure he would have shelter. Pierre-Louis spent his senior year staying at teammates’ houses while still managing to go to school and develop his football skills, said Varela athletic director Lisa Spinosa.
“Just the thought that there’s actually people thinking about me, and my story’s not over yet, is what kept me going,” Pierre-Louis said. “I’ve still got a long way to go.”
This past season, Pierre-Louis was chosen to the Miami Dolphins’ Miami-Dade vs. Broward County All-Star game. He also was selected to The Miami Herald’s All-Dade large-school football team, earning third-team honors.
“No matter what happens in my life, I just think it wasn’t to let anything slow me down,” said Pierre-Louis, who signed his scholarship in February. “I had some great people in my life to push me, to be where I am today. I never thought I’d be getting a scholarship for football. I didn’t even know what football was. Here I am today, a football player going to college.
“I don’t think this is where I slow down. I think this is where I keep moving forward to do this for everybody that pushed me and everybody that gave me a chance to succeed, and most importantly, trying to get that college education to get my mom out of Haiti.”