By MARC RAMIREZ / The Dallas Morning News
FRISCO – The players sprawled on practice-field grass near Pizza Hut Park, heeding the words of Haitian soccer coach Andre Pacombe.
“You are not here just to play,” he said animatedly, in the team’s native French. “You are here to show the world what you can do. You are here to give hope.”
As the players rose and sprang back into action, the meaning of Pacombe’s words became clear: The team materialized in incomplete form, abbreviated legs and arms protruding from the players’ red uniforms. One man had no arms at all.
These 15 men are a sign not only of Haiti’s rebirth in the wake of the January earthquake that killed 230,000 people but also of its progress. As members of Haiti’s first entry in World Amputee Football’s World Cup, they represent an inspiring advance for a nation that has historically shunned its citizens who have disabilities.
“In Haiti, amputees are often badly treated,” said Patrick Peronel, 31, who lost his leg when he was hit by a car at age 12. Demonstrating that amputees can play soccer on a competitive level, he said, could bring fellow amputees the respect they deserve.
After his accident, he said, he felt worthless, as if life were over. What had God done to him, and why?
Playing amputee soccer, he said, helped change his mind-set. “I’m somebody,” he said. “I’m an athlete.”
That, said Fred Sorrells, is reason enough to field a team.
“We’re working to lift up all the disabled of Haiti,” said Sorrells, president and founder of the Arlington-based International Institute of SPORT, sponsor of the Haitian team effort.
“They’re bringing honor to their country.”
The team was in Frisco for almost a week of training. On Friday, the squad will fly to Argentina, where it will be one of 14 teams competing for the World Cup title.
The rules of amputee soccer roughly resemble those of traditional play, with some variations: Eligible players are those whose arms or legs end before their wrist or ankle. Goalies can have two legs but only one hand; outfielders can have two hands but only one foot.
Moving around on their standard-play metal forearm crutches, the players launched into a tight circle of kicking and high-step drills as Pacombe barked out orders, a whistle and stopwatch dangling from his neck. “Allez! Allez! Go! Go!”
Three of the team’s 15 players were among the estimated 300,000 injured in this year’s earthquake. Francois Mackendy, 23, had to saw his leg off after being trapped in rubble.
Ariel Valembrun, 28, and Emmanuel Ladouceur, 24, both lost hands in the quake. Afterward, they had surgery to remove infected arms.
For other players, the lost limbs are the result of many factors – from congenital birth defects to auto or electrical accidents. But it was January’s earthquake that set the effort in motion.
Sorrells, whose organization works to improve conditions for disabled people worldwide, had traveled to Haiti earlier this year to see what he could do. Needing a French translator, he came to rely on Giscard Ciney, whose mother was an amputee quake victim.
Through Ciney, Sorrells met other amputees, and as he researched the possibilities for amputee athletics, he discovered World Amputee Football, a 30-year-old organization founded by Don Bennett of Coeur d’Alene, Idaho. Why not bring the sport to Haiti, he thought?
More than a hundred players tried out for the team, feeding hopes for an amputee soccer league in the future. FC Dallas donated accommodations, uniforms and practice fields for the team’s pre-tournament preparation.
The effort inspired Houston security guard Foday Dumbuya to take three weeks off work to help out. A refugee from Sierra Leone and a lifelong soccer player, Dumbuya lost his leg to civil-war strife; he came to the U.S. about four years ago.
He understands what the men have gone through – the feelings of despair that cloud one’s mind after such tragedy, the feeling that life is over.
“At first,” he said, “I was thinking everything is gone in my life. But one day I got up and kicked the ball, and it went the direction I wanted it to go. So I kept playing.”
He now moves adroitly on his crutches, perched above the ball while spinning circles around it with his leg before kicking it 30 feet.
There’s no use dwelling on the past. “What has been done has been done,” he said.
The team has no illusions about returning as amputee World Cup champs – for now, that honor belongs to Uzbekistan – but the players hope their effort will inspire others like them to action.
The team plans to return to Dallas to visit military and other amputees.
“Before long,” Sorrells said, “people will say, ‘Look what Haiti did. They recognized their disabled as a resource.’
“These guys are a testimony.”