To my children, Keeli, Kamryn, and PJ
Every day you see me live my dream but I want you to know there were so many instances where I could have given up.
The bigger the dream, the more challenges that try to get in your way. To get through obstacles throughout my journey, I had a “why”- a purpose that motivated me to fight through those moments that were demoralizing, frustrating, exhausting, and seemingly hopeless.
Our family is from Haiti, which is where I was born. In the 1990s, there was a lot of political unrest and violence. Your grandparents wanted to get us out. So, when I was four years old, they connected with a church group, who helped us find a home in St. Louis, Missouri.
Your grandparents moved to the states without knowing the language, so getting work wasn’t easy. We didn’t have a lot of money – constantly moving from place to place. Also, the neighborhood where we lived wasn’t safe. There was a lot of violence, which I witnessed firsthand.
In third grade, there was a convenience story about 200 feet away from my elementary school. One of the men who worked there was a very nice guy. He would always look out for us kids, throwing us an extra piece of candy here and there. One day, I went to school, and shortly after I arrived, it felt as though the whole school had come to a stop. We overheard that someone went into the store and murdered him. Another time, I was in gym class when a student came to school with his older brothers and pointed a gun right in our teacher’s face in front of all of us.
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At that age, I didn’t have a dream yet, but I could have given up on the chance of one if I had chosen to go along with the violence and crime surrounding me.
Instead,I kept pushing forward.
One summer, when I was 11 years old, I visited my pastor’s house in St. Charles, a suburb of St. Louis. For the first time, I saw people of different races: Caucasian and Hispanic. It was a culture shock.
I told the kids in St. Charles the types of situations I witnessed, and they told me, “It is not like that out here.”
At 11 years old, I went to my parents and said, “Listen, we’ve got friends getting arrested and committing crimes. We need to get out of this situation. St. Charles feels much safer.”
My parents, who both worked several jobs, found a way to move me and my four siblings to St. Charles. And that’s where I started to discover my dream and “my why.”
Growing up, I played soccer, among other sports, but all of my friends played football during my first year of high school. My parents and I barely knew anything about football, but I wanted to play with my friends. So, I quit soccer to play football. In my first game, I played safety and had an interception and ran it back for about 95 yards for a touchdown. I just kept running and running. I ran through the end zone to the track because I didn’t know what to do.
After the game, a teammate came up to me and said, “Man, if you keep this up, you will be a great player.”
In my sophomore year, I made varsity. I was the backup slot receiver. Our starter got injured in a televised game against Fort Zumwalt West, and they threw me in his spot. I caught a 56-yard pass on my first play and earned a permanent role as a starter. Before that year, I had never thought about college. I was focused on helping my parents with bills, so we had a place to live. School wasn’t a priority. But people began telling me I could get a scholarship, which I knew would ultimately help my parents.
That’s when I started to dream big, really big. That’s when I began to dream of getting a football scholarship and making it to the NFL.
By my junior year, everything was going as planned. But then, one day, your mom called me and told me she was pregnant with you, Keeli. While you were a blessing in my life, I was scared because I was still a kid myself. I didn’t have the resources to support a child.
At that moment, I could have quit. I could have given up on my dreams, but I became even more determined.
I told myself, I have to go to school now. I have no choice. I got to go to school and go to the NFL.”
As a teen father, I knew I’d have to work harder than everyone else.
In my senior year, some of the biggest football programs in the country recruited me for their schools, including Florida State, University of Missouri, Kansas University, and Michigan State. Unfortunately, I didn’t have the test scores or GPA to attend. So, I chose a Division II school, Washburn University in Topeka, Kansas, four hours away from everyone. Every Saturday, after football games, I would drive four hours home, stay two nights before returning to school. It became too much, and then you, Kamryn, our second child, came along, and we decided that the four of us would live in Topeka. But without our support system nearby, it was very hard. We needed more money for living expenses. Despite being an All-American on the football field during my freshman and sophomore seasons, I decided to transfer to a school closer to home, Lindenwood University.
Both Washburn University and the NCAA denied the transfer, which meant I could not play football for a year or receive a scholarship.
At that moment, I could have given up on my dream to play football. I could’ve said, “This path is too hard.”
But I didn’t give up. I thought of “my why,” and I kept fighting.
That year off from football was very difficult. I wasn’t allowed to play or practice with the team and I had to take out loans and get a job to pay my tuition. All while still being a father and training for football every day. At first, I worked at a temp agency. Every morning around 6:00 am, I would go to the agency and hopefully get assigned to a random job. Some of the jobs included working at a gun range, cleaning their shell casings while wearing a hazmat suit, and picking up garbage on the side of the road. There was one assignment that made me question everything.
This basement got flooded. I had boots on, and at 6’2, the water rose to my hips. We had to get out all of the furniture and the valuables, but the water was disgusting, filled with trash, among other unpleasant things. I was only getting paid $7.25 an hour.
While sitting in my 1997 Toyota, I said to myself, “If I have to keep doing this, I don’t know if I’ll be able to play football. I have to find another way to support my family.”
That was another moment where I could have given up. I could have quit. But I didn’t.
Shortly after, we were on the verge of getting evicted. I was able to get another job and an advance on my salary to pay rent.
As I got closer to getting reinstated for football, I remember telling co-workers, “I’m going to play in the NFL.”
No matter how many people doubted me, I kept saying, “I am going to play in the NFL.”
While no one in the history of Lindenwood University had ever been drafted by an NFL team, I put it in my head that I had no choice but to put in the work and make it happen. My mindset was different from the average college student. No parties. No fraternities. No hanging out. I was focused on achieving my goals.
When I got reinstated, I showed up ready to play. In my junior year, I finished second among all levels of the NCAA in interceptions with nine. Once again, I was named an All-American.
Ten NFL scouts showed up to the first day of camp my senior year. Even with all the attention, I continued to work. After games, I would ask our coaches for tape to learn from past games and study who we were playing next. My senior year, I recorded 33 tackles, 12 pass deflections, and four interceptions, and I was named an All-American for the fourth time.
On May 9th, 2014 – day two of the NFL draft – we watched the draft with family and friends. Kamryn, around pick number 123, you had to go to the bathroom. Everyone was locked into the draft, so I decided to take you. Then, you asked if I could take you on the swing outside, and I agreed. While outside, just being a dad, I got a call from Cleveland Browns coaches Mike Pettine and Jeff Hafley. They told me they were about to draft me with the 127th overall pick. Then, it was announced on TV, and I heard our family screaming in the next room.
All I could think about was everything I had been through, and I broke down crying. It was one of the best moments of my life, and I thought it was poetic that the moment happened while I was pushing you, Kamryn, my daughter, on a swing. It was a testament to the work I put in to make sure I could be a present father while also pursuing my dream to be a professional football player.
You three are now 15, 11, and 6. You are still so young, but I want you to know now that life is too short for you not to do what you want to do because you fear that you may fail. You have to be brave enough to break through fear. Figure out what drives you. Surround yourself with good people who will encourage you and push you. Don’t be afraid to ask questions and have fun. Understand that you will need to make sacrifices in pursuit of a goal. If there are moments that you struggle, know that it is OK. Struggle makes you stronger.
Through the years, there were a lot of guys who were bigger than me, faster than me, stronger than me, and who certainly had it a lot easier than me, but I am now in my ninth year in the NFL. I am still playing because I love the game, but I didn’t give up on my journey because I love all of you.
You were my why – my motivation, my strength, and my perseverance. Now, it’s your turn. Start dreaming big and don’t stop until you get what you want. You got this.
And no matter what, I love you, and I am proud of you.