From island to end zone: Caribbean athletes in the NFL

Unknown to most sports fans at home, Caribbean athletes have exuberantly infiltrated the NFL. Here are four of the top stars

Patrick Chung • Philadelphia Eagles #23 • Born 19 August, 1987 • 5 feet, 11 inches; 210 poundsPierre Garçon • Washington Redskins #88 • Born 8 August, 1986 • 6 feet, 0 inches; 212 poundsRamon Harewood • Currently free agent • Born 3 February, 1987 • 6 feet, 6 inches; 330 poundsTrevardo Williams • Houston Texans #54 • Born 31 December, 1990 • 6 feet, 1 inch; 237 pounds

They are football players with Caribbean roots, but when these players dig their cleats into the artificial turf, they aren’t kicking around the soccer ball that defined their youth. They are playing American football — a misnomer for a game originally derived from rugby, but purposely changed in the nineteenth century when spectators lost interest in watching piles of players painstakingly pushing their way down a field.

As boys, they didn’t know of this North American sport where scoring points depends mainly on a quarterback handing off the ball to a running back, or throwing it to designated receivers who never kick the ball. They never dreamed of playing American football, but — drafted or signed as free agents by a National Football League team — Caribbean players bring to the game the flair and confidence that defines the region.

Puerto Rico’s Victor Cruz (New York Giants)

From the New York Giants’ wide receiver Victor Cruz, who celebrates his goals and his Puerto Rican roots with salsa dances in the end zone, to the New Orleans Saints’ outside linebacker Jonathan Vilma, known for his brutal tackles as well as his Haitian ancestry, the NFL currently lists fifteen players with Caribbean ties. They are colourful and controversial characters both on and off the football field.

These Caribbean players have earned a reputation for being bold, tenacious, loyal, light-hearted, fiercely confident, and competitive. They play with all the pride they have inherited as West Indians, and they take every opportunity they can to claim their heritage. Their numbers are few, but there’s no doubt about it: in American football, Caribbean athletes are making waves.

Haiti’s Pierre Garçon (Washington Redskins)

Last year, wide receiver Pierre Garçon proved to be a key player in the Washington Redskins’ NFC East championship game. Best known for his passion for football and his pride in his Haitian roots, Garçon — formerly of the Indianapolis Colts — stamped an indelible image on the Colts’ 2010 victory over the New York Jets, when he celebrated by displaying the Haitian flag. “That victory was a week after the earthquake in Haiti,” says Garçon, “and I think I had the best game of my life. It was the blessings of everyone praying for me and my family and everyone in Haiti. I had a great hand in helping the team win that game.”

Most people who are unaware of his background assume Garçon is French. He uses that misunderstanding to claim his Haitian roots. “My whole family is from Haiti,” he explains. “My three sisters were born in Haiti. I was born two years after my parents arrived in the US. I grew up speaking Kreyol at home and learned English when I went to school. I still have family in Léogâne, and my family goes there as often as possible. My mom is from Port-au-Prince. My Haitian roots are very important to me. It’s my identity,” says Garçon.

“I tell people Haiti has the most beautiful people and beautiful beaches. It has the best food.” At home, Garçon savours his mother’s red beans and oxtail, creole shrimp and plantains. Being Haitian, Garçon says, serves him well. “It makes me appreciate life. It shows me how to work extremely hard through difficult times, because that’s how we have dealt with life as a people. We came through tough times throughout history, and we survived. “Being from Haiti gives me strength. As a football player, I never give up on anything or any task. I represent Haiti everywhere I go.”

Barbados’ Ramon Harewood (Baltimore Ravens)

The Baltimore Ravens won 2013’s Super Bowl XLVII, the championship game at the end of the football season, with the help of Ramon Harewood, the NFL’s only player from Barbados. In September, Harewood became a free agent in search of another team after the Ravens released him. Still, he is the only Bajan with a Super Bowl ring.

Harewood grew up playing volleyball, cricket, and rugby, and became a football player quite by accident, when an American football scout vacationing in Barbados recruited him to play college football in the US. Harewood transferred from the University of the West Indies at Mona to Morehouse University in Atlanta, Georgia, where he earned a degree in applied physics and engineering. At Morehouse, Harewood had to learn American football from scratch. Drafted in the sixth round by the Ravens, Harewood spent much of his first two years with the team on injured reserve.

Harewood credits his Bajan roots every chance he gets. “I was raised by an aunt after my mother died when I was ten,” he says. “I was raised to never say never — just keep fighting, and that’s all I did.”

Harewood sees his success in the NFL as an anomaly. “The reality is, football is not a Caribbean sport,” Harewood explains. “American football is not a sport you can pick up and play. You have to want to do it. When you put those pads on, you separate the men from the boys. You’re not born with a helmet and shoulder pads, and the deal-breaker for many athletes is the physical contact. As much as I would like to push American football here in the Caribbean, it’s just not the reality here.”

In the freezing Baltimore winters, Harewood often thought of Barbados. “I tell everyone Bajans are good, wholesome, decent people,” he says. “That’s what I miss most — the people, and my childhood friends. The majority of the friends I grew up with still live in Barbados.”

Jamaica’s Patrick Chung (Philadelphia Eagles)

Philadelphia Eagles safety Patrick Chung was born in Jamaica, where his mother Sophia George was famous for singing “Girlie Girlie”, a 1985 reggae hit. Chung migrated to the US with his family when he was ten. Far ahead of American students, Chung finished secondary school and enrolled at the University of Oregon at the age of sixteen.

He describes himself as a Jamaican-American. Chung is often questioned about his Chinese name, and he spends time educating Americans about the ethnic diversity of his home country. “Growing up in Jamaica teaches you about diversity,” he says, “and it teaches you race doesn’t matter. It’s how you live life and how you treat people.”

He still remembers settling into the US. “When I got here, no one could understand me when I talked. I was a young kid speaking a different language, Jamaican Creole.” One day Chung came home from school and broke the news to his mother that he wanted to play American football. “She said, ‘Can’t you be on the swim team?’ She didn’t want me to hit people.”

Chung sports tattoos that remind him of his roots. “Kingston and August, my birthday, are on my right bicep, and Jamaica is on my left bicep,” he says. “I never forget my Jamaican roots.” He tells everyone that Jamaicans are down-to-earth, good people. Chung is a Bob Marley and reggae music fan, and he’d eat jerk chicken every day if he could.

With his wife Celia, Chung recently launched the Chung Changing Lives Foundation, based in Massachusetts, to help children cope with school and life in poor areas. Eventually he hopes to expand his charity work to Jamaica.

He credits his Jamaican roots with shaping him as a hard-working, relentless NFL player. “I realise I come from a small place,” he says, “but so many West Indians have shaped the US. I’m proud of that, and I know I can make a difference on the field. Jamaicans are fast and quick, and that helps us in football.”

He adds, “I’m not just a Jamaican. I’m from the West Indies. That means pride, hard work, and being kind to people. My parents would slap me if they ever found out I wasn’t kind to someone.”

Only one new West Indian player found his way to the NFL this year. At the 2013 NFL draft, the Houston Texans snatched up outside linebacker Trevardo Williams, who was born in Trelawny, Jamaica, just east of Montego Bay. Williams migrated to Connecticut when he was fourteen, to join his mother. He’s twenty-eight now, so he’s spent half his life in the US. But Williams still has a strong Jamaican accent, and at home he speaks Jamaican Patwa.

“It’s cool to know I’m the only person from the West Indies in this year’s draft,” he says, when I inform him during an interview after football practice. Like other Caribbean players in the NFL, Williams says he’s sure his roots shape his morals and his work ethic. “In Jamaica, I was a church guy in the Pentecostal church,” he says. My values are home and family. I come from a tight-knit family.”

Williams, who has a degree in sociology, hasn’t been back to Jamaica since migrating to the US, but he says, “I’m up-to-date with my culture, the food — my favourite is stewed chicken and fresh cabbage — and the music.”

He dreams of returning to Jamaica to research his family tree. He vividly remembers Jamaica: playing cricket, dice, and the game “mama lash she,” and running through the countryside.

“My mother came to America when I was four,” he says, “so I was raised by my maternal grandmother. I’m always going to be a Jamaican at heart. My best memories are in Jamaica.”