A Deadly Talent

October 16, 2005

In this country, a star athlete might get some hate mail, a few boos, maybe a battery chucked at him if he turns down an offer from another team.

In Haiti, Fabrice Noel's two brothers got killed for it.

That was almost three years ago now. Three years since Noel has seen his family. Three years since he's seen his friends or slept in his own bed.

God gave me ... soccer, Noel wrote in his application for political asylum in the U.S., but it has caused the death of my two brothers and probably will cause the death of my mom and dad, my younger brother and possibly me.

And yet he knows the trap: Soccer is the only way he can save his family.

"You can see he's suffering," says Fernando Clavijo, Noel's coach on the Colorado Rapids of Major League Soccer, who signed him this year for $1,500 a month, most of which Noel sends to his family. "Everything he does is to try to save his family."

It's one of those stories that hurts just to tell.

Fabrice Noel was a young legend in Haiti, a professional at 14, the leading scorer in his league, the star of Racing Club Ha√Øtien, one of the two most popular teams in the country. He was so popular that then Haitian president René Préval asked to meet him.

According to Noel, the president asked him, "What do you want?"

"A job for my brothers," Noel answered.

Next thing he knew, Noel's two older brothers--Luckner, 26, and Kenson, 25--were working at city hall in his hometown of Gressier.

But that made Fabrice enemies. In Haiti, every goal can be a political statement, and frequently players must choose one political party over another. In Haiti, a player can get his home burned down before a big game.

I was a star, Noel wrote in his application in 2003. I scored the most goals. Each party wanted me to be its own for its own political gain.

Noel says a supporter of a rival club asked him to come play for his team. Noel refused. He promised to have me killed, Noel wrote.

For his safety, his team hid its star far from town. His mother, Marie Myrlene, missed him terribly but thanked God he was safe. She didn't realize that her family was not.

On Nov. 16, 2002, three armed men came to the Noels' door and shot both Luckner and Kenson in the head and the heart. They left little brother Jackson, who was 12, alive and with a message: Tell Fabrice he is a dead man.

But Fabrice, who was only 16 at the time, was in North Carolina on an international soccer trip. He called home that night to tell his mom he'd be home in two days.

"No!" she wept. "You can't come home!"

In that instant there were no more home games. Threatened with death if Fabrice didn't return, the family has gone into hiding.

Fabrice got a ride to South Florida, where a cousin lived, and vowed to give up soccer forever.

Months went by. Finally, his cousin took him to a high school soccer practice. Palm Beach Lakes coach Adam Spangenthal took a look at Fabrice's tattered brown loafers and asked if Fabrice had ever played before. Fabrice grinned.

"I've been around soccer for 30 years," Spangenthal recalls. "I've never seen a kid like this. He was as fast with the ball on his foot as he is without it. Faster than Freddy Adu. He has so many moves, I'm not sure he has a spine."

Last year, in his second season at Palm Beach Lakes High, Fabrice scored 58 goals in 19 games. And that's after crying before nearly every game.

As a developmental player for the Rapids now, he's used as a late-game sub. He lives with two teammates and has no car. He speaks to his parents only once every two weeks--they take the calls at hidden locations set up by a cousin in Haiti--and only for 10 or 15 minutes.

"Never give up, Fabrice," they say. As if he had a choice.

His carpenter father, Calo, can't work, so Fabrice pays for everything--housing, food, cars, their passports. He will even pay for their visas, if they're ever granted. He waits each day for a fax, a call, word, but nothing ever comes.

A church in Tallahassee heard about his plight and has vowed to raise the money for the family to come. Former Florida senator Bob Graham has offered to help. But so far it hasn't been enough.

If and when they come, "I won't sleep," Fabrice says. "I'll stay up all night talking to them. And hugging them."

And then?

"And then, if they give me the chance, I will lead the whole [MLS] in scoring. You will see. I am going to be better."

• If you have a comment for Rick Reilly, send it to reilly@siletters.com.

When a supporter of a rival club in Haiti asked Noel to come play for his team and Noel refused, "he promised to have me killed," Noel wrote.

PHOTOPETER READ MILLER

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