Long way from Haiti

  • JOHN SLEEPER / Herald Writer
  • Thursday, October 12, 2000 9:00pm
  • Sports

Huskies’ Alexis dreams of playing in NFL so he can pay back parents

By JOHN SLEEPER

Herald Writer

SEATTLE — Rich Alexis has a maturity that misrepresents his 19 years.

After the Washington Huskies’ reserve tailback’s 107 rushing yards and two touchdowns Saturday night against Oregon State, Alexis wouldn’t be the first freshman to struggle trying to squeeze his head through a doorway. Yet, he is polite almost to a fault. Humble. Soft-spoken.

The reason is that he knows none of it would be possible were it not for a circumstance that happened before he was even born.

Had his parents, Numa and Alicia, not decided to leave their native Haiti for Coral Springs, Fla., neither football nor higher education would have been an option for Rich. And he knows it.

Though only a freshman, Alexis’ goal to play in the NFL is real. His 6-foot-3, 215-pound frame screams it. So do his quick feet and explosive speed.

"That’s my whole goal," Alexis said. "I’m not going to be shy about it. I don’t play it just to play it and after four years are up, forget about it. I’m playing this to pay the bills at home for Mom and Dad, to give them everything they ever wanted. They deserve it."

Numa works at a bagel shop. Alicia cleans hotel rooms. They have six kids. It’s a hard life, one without anything approaching luxury. But could have been much worse in Haiti, a nation of unconscionable poverty. A nation whose 8 million inhabitants toil under a government so isolated from the international community that it risks the loss of millions of dollars in desperately needed aid.

Haiti endured 29 years of dictatorship under Francois Duvalier and his son, Jean-Claude. It may be fast approaching a similar situation under Jean-Bertrand Aristide, a former president now seeking reelection. In addition, Jean-Claude Duvalier is making statements that he, too, wants to end his exile in France and return to power.

The Alexis family saw firsthand the way Francois Duvalier, "Papa Doc," governed by terror, spreading fear across the nation with his armed henchmen, the Tontons Macoutes. When he died in 1971, Jean-Claude, then 19, inherited the presidency and continued his father’s brutal policies. "Baby Doc" left Haiti in February 1986 amid growing protests against his rule.

These were the conditions that Numa Alexis deemed unacceptable. He brought his family, including Rich, his unborn son, to Florida. With little money. Little knowledge of English. And little prospect for gainful employment.

"Anything I do for my kids, that’s my job to do," Numa said in broken English. "I have to protect my family. Me and my wife, we work very hard, you know? We don’t have good money. We don’t have good job. But we keep in mind that one day, everything be OK."

The Alexises stressed education to their children. Money prohibited them to foot the bill for college themselves, so scholarships were a necessity. Numa Alexis forbade Rich to play football for fear of injury. For a while, it appeared that the younger Alexis’ future lay in basketball. He averaged 21 points a game as a junior, but then the coach left, and Alexis began to have doubts about his future in basketball.

Terry Gough, the football coach at Pope John Paul II High School in Coral Springs, heard about Alexis’ doubts and knew from the player’s previous short foray in the game as a freshman that he had astonishing talent.

"We sat down and talked," Gough said. "I told him that he was a football player. And he could be great. That was obvious. But I left it up to him. I could see that he wanted to try again."

Without telling his father, Rich went out for spring football (a staple in Florida high schools) and concluded it with a 298-yard, five-TD performance in a game.

Alexis stood up to his father. Told him he wanted to play football. Then he handed his father a tape of the game.

"It was kind of a hard sell, but I had to do it," Alexis said. "We didn’t have any money. There was no way my parents could pay for me to get into college. When basketball started not going right, I decided I was going to do football. It was the only way I was going to get into college. I told my dad, ‘I’m going to do it whether you like it or not.’"

"I say OK," Numa said.

UW kicker John Anderson, who graduated from Pope John Paul II a year ahead of Alexis, brought a videotape of Alexis to UW coach Rick Neuheisel. Soon, Neuheisel was on planes to Florida to recruit Alexis himself.

"It was pretty evident off the tape that this was a talented kid," Neuheisel said.

So here Alexis is. He electrified Husky fans with a 50-yard TD run against Miami, yet has been brought into the offense slowly to learn.

He’s learning. And maybe the only challenge Neuheisel will have now is to keep Alexis in purple for four years.

Family may do that. Although football may bring unspeakable amounts of cash in the short term, Alexis was raised with a great appreciation for education.

But whatever Alexis decides, it’s looking as though his father’s vision that "everything be OK" may well come true.

"They sacrificed for me and my brothers and sisters," Rich Alexis said. "I’m doing the same thing now. I want to give them everything they ever wanted."

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