Beyond Box Scores: Haiti trip gives Nugent new perspective
For audio on UNCG women's soccer coach Steve Nugent's trip to Haiti, click here.
By Rob Daniels
For 20 years, UNCG women’s soccer coach Steve Nugent has waited for the chance that has now come his way to be a Division I head soccer coach. But there’s still a project on which he has gladly deferred, literally doing some heavy lifting while offering praise to the founder and thanks to the others in support.
The endeavor is The Give N Go Project, a tax-exempt foundation created by one of Nugent’s former players that distributes used soccer equipment to orphanages in economically stressed areas home and abroad. Amber Tollefson’s group, in conjunction with other charitable causes, has been to Ecuador and Nicaragua and the Bahamas. And most recently to Haiti on the one-year anniversary of the 7.0 magnitude earthquake that ravaged an already destitute nation.
The organization derives its name from the maneuver in which one player distributes the ball and ultimately receives it back from the initial target. For Nugent, the common soccer phrase has taken on new connotations. In January, he dropped off soccer cleats. He returned with a declaration.
“I made a pact with myself when I came home that I would never forget,” he said last week as movers helped organize the wares in his family’s new home 20 minutes from UNCG’s campus.
This wasn’t Steve Nugent’s idea. He’s just happy to be along for the ride and the association with Tollefson, whom he began coaching when she was 9; and Fidji Haig, the Haitian native who coaches the game at Florida Institute of Technology; and Patrice, whose last name isn’t immediately recalled but whose story is one of many remarkable ones.
“Amber was the driving force behind it, and we’ve come in to help her,” Nugent said. “It’s really her mission. We started to talk about trips and she said, ‘I’d really like to go to Haiti.’”
Under any circumstances, it’s a tall order. Before the quake, Haiti was already the poorest land in the western hemisphere, one in which the natives were accustomed to living on the rough equivalent of $2 a day.
Some had survived the father-son dictator tag team of Francois Duvalier, known as “Papa Doc,” and Jean-Claude Duvalier, a.k.a. “Baby Doc,” who ruled from 1957-86 with the help of a machete-brandishing paramilitary organization called the Tonton Macoute. That cabal got its name from a Creole Haitian myth about a bogeyman who nabs miscreant children and throws them in a sack.
(The foreigners with all the equipment got in and out safely, but they had to cut their trip short by one stop when Baby Doc unexpectedly returned to Haitian soil and rumors of gunfire began to spread.)
The bogeyman became real on Jan. 12, 2010 when the earth shook mercilessly and an estimated 316,000 people died. That’s 3 percent of the populace. In American terms, it’s like New York City, home to more than 10 million, being wiped out.
So Tollefson, who works in television production for the Miami Heat, knows shin guards and uniforms and soccer balls can’t eradicate the misery. But she also suspected the effort would mean more to its beneficiaries than most Americans could grasp.
“These kids cling to the game, and they don’t have the resources at their fingertips like we do,” Tollefson said. “In the States, we have equipment sitting in our garages.
“When we do interactive drills and give out gear, the same excitement is there. But when you go to places like Haiti, where kids are playing on the same gravel for years and they don’t have shoes, they’re ecstatic. It’s like, ‘Who are these people?’ We just start juggling the ball, and that’s our common denominator.”
Nugent had coached Tollefson in youth leagues in Boca Raton, Fla., and knew the project would have a chance as the fall of 2010 approached. He offered assistance with the logistics of fund-raising. His wife provided free legal counsel. And down in Melbourne, Fla., Haig began organizing the specifics, pinpointing a base of operations and getting locals to serve as bodyguards for the Americans, whose possessions like shoes and clean shirts branded them as comparatively wealthy foreigners. Marks, in other words.
In June 2010, the U.S. government started trying to deter the well-intentioned with this missive: “The Department of State strongly urges U.S. citizens to avoid non-essential travel to Haiti. The level of violent crime in Port-au-Prince, including murder and kidnapping, remains high, and Haitian authorities have limited capacity to deter or investigate such acts or prosecute perpetrators. While most kidnappings are financially motivated, some kidnapping victims have been physically abused, sexually assaulted, shot and even killed. No one is immune from kidnapping, regardless of one’s occupation, nationality, race, gender, or age.”
Caution and compassion would be needed in equal measure.
Tollefson organized fund-raisers that generated the $7,000 necessary to foot the bill of housing, protection and transportation on the island, and they were off when American Airlines waived baggage fees, which would have normally run $1,080.
“As soon as you get off the plane, you start to sense you’re about to see things you’ve never experienced before,” Nugent said. “And that was true. We were met by about 30 gentlemen at the airport who wanted to help us with our bags.”
They proceeded to the rented SUVs and started depositing equipment one orphanage at a time. At one, in the village of Tete de l’Eau, the volunteers carried 50-pound bags up 3,000 steps and got a literal look at soccer’s importance to the people.
“We get to the top and we see there’s this amphitheater down below,” Nugent said. “Man-made goals. This one little area of dirt. Grass, not dirt. And the whole village surrounds this field.”
Shortly thereafter, they got the same image in the eyes of the recipients, some of whom had never worn shoes of any sort. On this day, they got soccer shoes.
“You could almost see the look on their faces as the sun was going down and as we were finishing,” Nugent said. “The reality set in that they were going home. Home for you and me? We turn on the lights. We take a little extra time in the shower if we want to. We sit on the couch. We watch TV. Home for them is a tent. No running water. No electricity. And at the end of the day, most people in Haiti eat one meal a day. And that was definitely difficult to grasp. But then I realized that’s why we’re here.”
Another day included a visit with a team of amputees, who worked their way up and down the field with crutches, temporarily oblivious to their misfortune.
“And you had to go full speed against them,” Tollefson said. “Nothing will hold them back from playing the game they love.”
On one of the last outposts, the group met a 4-year-old boy who had taken refuge in a closet when the ground began to rock. Two days later, in between some of the estimated 52 aftershocks, he was found wandering the streets. His parents and siblings had been killed.
That was in Croix-des-Bouquets, in which the census of the orphanage pre-quake was 15. A year later, it stood at 65.
“Multiply whatever you see on TV by 100, and that’s how difficult it is for these people,” Nugent said. “I remember the screams at night. I don’t know what they were. You’d hear it from the kids. It moves you. You know they’re not eating. You know they don’t have the shelter or the medicine they need.”
A couple of days later, Nugent was back on these shores. When he returned to Athens, Ga., where he was an assistant at the University of Georgia, his cell phone’s voice mail told him to call UNCG. He had a few days to collect his thoughts and his notes before an interview for the Spartans’ recently vacated head coaching position.
He realized his professional ambition when he was hired on Feb. 1. After whirlwind recruiting trips that took him to Las Vegas and London, Nugent is stateside again and settling in to new surroundings.
And, yes, he’ll do it again. If not Haiti, then somewhere else that makes its national sporting passion run on makeshift soccer balls, cardboard footwear and dirt.
“I was amazed by what human contact meant to these people,” Nugent said.
- UNCG -