PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — The old football coach had a new team. They were young. They were skinny. Many were small. And they had never played the game before.
“All right, first things first, we gotta have a quarterback,” Lloyd Carr said.
For a man who once led Michigan football to a national championship, this wasn’t going back to basics. This was before basics. This was “You see this thing? It’s called a football.”
Last week, Carr came with me to Haiti, where I have operated the Have Faith Haiti Mission & Orphanage since 2010. He’d heard me share stories over the years whenever we’d get together, and I would jokingly say, “You should come down and teach our kids the game. They would love you.”
Then, a few months ago, after I wrote about how gangs had taken control of the capital city and made daily life a terrifying experience for citizens, I got a text from Carr.
“I would like to speak with you about Haiti when you have time.”
He said he wanted to see things for himself.
And suddenly, here we were, in the heat of early summer, and Carr was out on an unlined field trying to teach a few dozen orphans about the forward pass.
“You throw it, your teammate catches it, and you try to run without getting tackled,” he barked. “You get it?”
The kids nodded.
They had no clue.
One kid threw the ball two-handed from behind his head, the way you throw a soccer ball inbounds. No one was sure who was on whose team. Eventually, one group took off their shirts. Many were barefoot. They lined up for a kickoff.
BOOFF! The ball squibbed and hit a kid in the chest. He dropped it, then picked it up like a woman who’d just had her nails done. He tossed it backwards until it reached the fastest kid on the team, a 14-year-old whose name is Danois.
“RUN, DANOIS!” someone screamed.
Making an impact on a new ‘team’
Now before I tell you how the rest of the game went, let me take a moment to salute Carr for making the trip at all. Haiti can be a dangerous place, and the perception of it is even more terrifying than the reality. Yet here was a man who will soon turn 78, who uses a walking stick at times to get around, and he wanted to see the kids for himself.
So he and a friend, Mike Dubin, make the long flights down with us, got in armored cars from the airport with us, bunked together in a single room that had two simple beds, a lamp and a bathroom. For a coach who has stayed at the best hotels in America, it wasn’t exactly a five-star experience.
Not even a half-star experience.
But Carr never complained. He ate with our kids. He sat through a graduation from our school. He clapped and cheered for the graduates. He made a small speech encouraging them on their futures. He threw a nerf football to one of our kids who’d had a leg operation earlier this month.
And he bounced a little boy named Bradley on his knee every day.
Bradley had arrived at our orphanage at 3 years old, weighing just 10 pounds. He was near death from malnourishment. His legs were sticks, his eyes crossed, his mouth contorted.
Yet here he was now smiling at a former coach who is a household name in Michigan, having no idea who Lloyd Carr is other than someone who cared enough to come and hold him.
At one point, I gathered the kids together and showed them a video about Carr’s 1997 Michigan football season, how it ended in a perfect 12-0 record and a shared national championship. In an effort to try and get the kids to appreciate his presence, I yelled out, “How many of you know who Tom Brady is?”
Not a single hand went up.
It didn’t deter Carr.
“Listen, you can’t be a great player if you’re selfish,” he said, addressing them as if it were halftime locker room. “And the beautiful thing about this beautiful place is that you’re a team. You care about each other.”
He’s right about that.
‘This is unbelievable’
But back to the game. The two teams lined up for the first play. There were seven or eight boys on each side, depending on who got tired or distracted. The defensive line — none of whom stood taller than 5-foot-3 — had to count “One Port-au-Prince, two Port-au-Prince, three Port-au-Prince” (hey, they have no idea what ‘Mississippi’ is.) For some reason, each team did a double hike, so the ball went from one kid to another and THEN to the person who was actually the quarterback. I’m not sure who started this. But Carr let it slide.
“Good defense!” he yelled when someone broke up a pass.
“Hey where’s the 25-second rule?” he yelled, when the teams were taking a full minute to think of a play.
“Touchdown!” he yelled when a possession was in question, since we have no lines on the field, just a wall around it.
It was about as much fun as a football game came be when you have no idea what the rules are and your players think it’s perfectly fine to run 10 yards and THEN decide they want to throw the ball to someone else, which often turned out to be a member of the other team.
When the game mercifully ended, all the players got together and did a cheer: “2-4-6-8, who do we appreciate? Coach Carr! Coach Carr!”
I’ve seen Lloyd Carr smile plenty in my life. I’m not sure I ever saw him smile like that.
Or the way he smiled when the kids, Sunday night, for Father’s Day, made a speech thanking him and gave him some cards they drew.
Or the way he choked up when he went outside our gates and saw the ramshackle, tin-roofed shacks that house our neighbors, who live without running water or electricity, as so many Haitians do.
“This is unbelievable,” he muttered many times, sometimes in awe, sometimes in dismay.
Coaches and journalists are supposed to have a wall between them. But Carr is retired and many years have passed, and I’m honored to call him a friend. Even more honored that he braved the perceptions and made a trip that many people half his age wouldn’t have made.
He left a few days before we did, and the kids mobbed him and hugged him farewell. When he got inside the car, I took a last glance at his face. He looked younger.
The old football coach came to teach, but I think he learned a few things, too. Kids will do that to you. Even the ones who double-hike the ball.