He doesn’t know it yet, but Jean-Yves Labaze will die in just a few seconds. Crushed and buried under enormous, shapeless slabs of concrete, the remains of his mangled body will not be found for a couple of days. The time is 4:53 PM. The date – 12 January 2010. Labaze has just come into the building of the National Soccer Federation and has absolutely no idea that only a few moments separate him from a sudden, grizzly fate. The Federation’s three-storey building will literally explode, ripped apart by an unimaginable earthquake, and Jean-Yves will be swallowed alive by a rabid vortex of concrete, bricks, iron and glass. On that same day, another 250,000 people of his fellow-countrymen will also perish becoming victims of one of the greatest natural disasters in human history.
At that exact same moment, 600 miles away, a radiant sixteen-year-old girl named Bryane Heaberlin is just starting her workout routine in a sunny, carefree South Florida community. She has never seen Jean-Yves Labaze and will never come to know him, but their destinies will somehow find a way to intertwine in a peculiar, sad and yet beautiful manner. This unexpected intersection will become responsible for our little story and in the process will hopefully make us believe in the existence of the always mysterious and sometimes lonesome eleventh human being.
A few kilometers away from Jean-Yves, fifteen-year-old Alexandra Cody, one of Haiti’s best young goalkeepers, will miraculously survive the earthquake, but the nightmare of those few seconds will carve gaping wounds into her fragile psyche quite possibly haunting her for the rest of her life. With sudden, gastric gurgle the ground underneath her feet will come alive in violent convulsions. Alexandra has been trained to always keep her balance, to never lose her presence of mind and to trust her catlike reflexes and intuition. But 7.0 on the Richter scale is simply way too much for anyone. The very earth she is standing on will feel as if it’s cracking open and even her strong legs will not be able to sustain her. She will lose her balance and drop helplessly to the ground. Equal doses fear, horror and panic will overwhelm her senses and paralyze her muscles.
On that day, Alexandra and all her teammates from the Haiti’s National soccer team will make it out alive, but they will lose something priceless: a father…a mother…a relative…a friend. Most will lose their homes and their humble belongings. And every single one of them will lose the man they’ve come to respect and love as their own father – Jean-Yves Labaze. Known as Haiti’s best coach, he had been one of the very few reasons for hope in a country devastated by misfortune and poverty. Labaze was not just a trainer, but a philosopher, a dreamer and an excellent educator, who believed that his vocation lay not so much in the number of games won, as in the opportunity to shape of human characters. Maybe that is why the girls on his team loved him so much. Haiti is a country obsessed with football, but the lack of funding and basic infrastructure has limited severely the game’s development. The man’s team hasn’t qualified for the World Cup tournament for more than 40 years now. The country’s greatest achievement is due to Labaze himself, who coached masterfully the young girls’ soccer team and led them to the girl’s U-17 World Cup in South Korea in 2007. Desperately craving even the smallest measure of success, the people of Haiti followed breathlessly each of the girls’ games and inspired by their gutsy play, welcomed them back home as heroes.
Labaze’s death was a crippling loss not only to Haiti’s girls’ soccer team, but to the country’s football structure as a whole. The future of the sport seemed irreversibly ruined. The Federation’s building was reduced to ashes along with all the records, funds and a few thousand newly purchased footballs. Thirty people were buried under the debris – the entire Federation’s leadership. The whole country was eviscerated and plunged into a post-apocalyptic nightmare. The consequences of the disaster were magnified since houses in Haiti were built like pillboxes so they could withstand hurricanes, not earthquakes. In this part of the world, the wind is considered the most dangerous of enemies, therefore all constructions are heavily built – using bricks, rocks and concrete. You most probably saw some of the terrifying images in the CNN broadcast: hundreds of thousands of dead bodies, the blood-splattered streets, the protruding steel rods, tearing through the mangled buildings’ concrete skin like the crooked claws of a vicious predator. Port-au-Prince was transformed into a massive graveyard – all over the place, Death was reaping with its grizzly scythe and crime and disease didn’t wait to follow suit, baring their yellowing teeth, and the air reeked of decaying flesh. Millions of people were left homeless and lived in makeshift tents or under the open sky.
Alexandra was one of those people. She went on living in a state of semi-consciousness, sleeping in a dirty tent and eating not more than a mere piece of bread a day. In fact, all of her teammates shared the exact same fate. In just a matter of seconds, they had lost everything they ever had, and even the thing they haven’t yet possessed – their own future. Naturally, the team fell apart and their playing field was turned into a camp for the homeless.
And then suddenly – a miracle! After two months of agony, starvation and painful swaying on the edge of existence, one by one the girls were picked out and sent to attend the World Cup qualifications in Costa Rica. And thus, against all odds and expectations, 56 days after the earthquake, eleven exhausted kids stood on the pitch to play the extremely powerful United States’ team. In the midst of darkness, death and total destruction, the people of Haiti once again held their breath, nurturing the blind hope for any kind of inspiration, even the smallest one. At that moment, the girls wanted nothing more in the world than to represent their country with honor and give their fellow countrymen at least one little reason to smile.
Let me take you to minute 88 of that game. The USA’s best forward Lindsay Horan is standing on the penalty mark. On the goal line, our friend Alexandra Cody is bouncing nervously on her swift but exhausted feet, trying to read her opponent’s mind, to predict the angle of her penalty kick. She wants it so badly…She wants to make this save, to do something good for her team, for her fellow countrymen, for the departed soul of Jean-Yves, whom she loved so dearly.
I’ll dive to cover the left corner, giving it everything I got! she tells herself, apparently having read something in the American striker’s eyes.
Horan swings her mighty foot back, putting all the power of her five-foot-body into her kick. Alexandra dives like a cat and covers the left corner perfectly… But this is not a fairytale. Lindsay shoots with great velocity and accuracy to the right and scores a peremptory goal.
The American girls keep attacking like angry wasps and in the added time manage to score another goal, ending the game 9:0! Yes, you heard me right – nine to zero! Now I would definitely like to say a few words to the American team’s coach Kazbek Tambi: “What on Earth are you doing man? Don’t you have a heart in that chest or any brains in that head of yours? What are you trying to prove? Are you trying to compensate for something? Do you really need to trample, crush and humiliate those kids, who have just lost their parents and loved ones, their homes and even the man who built their characters? Can’t you see that those girls are trying to play with all their strength drained from their bodies and with their souls still in torment? They haven’t been training. They haven’t eaten or slept properly for weeks and the only thing that moves their tired feet now is their superhuman willpower.
Their mere presence here is an act of bravery in itself and there is certainly a way for you to at least save them some dignity without insulting them. Was it that necessary, for example, for you to send your best striker, who besides that scored four times in this very game, to take that penalty kick? Was it necessary for you to put your whole team aggressively on offence at minute 92? Now, Mr. Tambi, after the score reached 4:0, it was not about competition anymore – after that it was all about feeding your own psychological complexes or trying to achieve your sick ambitions and your unfathomable desire to crush the opponent, who in this case has arrived here from the poorest most unfortunate country in the Western Hemisphere. If you can possibly think you’ve won, well, you’re totally wrong. In this situation, the only losing side is you!”
One of the things that cannot be put into words is the level of soccer that girls or women play here in the US: the mass participation, funding, meticulous logistics and incredible infrastructure make it incomparable to anything in the world. The American girls are so good that the coaches’ biggest problem is how to select a handful out of the thousands who most deserve to play on the national team. No matter how much they might have wanted the win, or how much they fought for every patch of grass on the field, the girls from the small and unraveling island nation stood no chance against such a streamlined, perfectly organized, extremely expensive soccer institution.
When the game ended, the Haitian girls slowly started walking off the field with their heads hung low, but Alexandra just couldn’t force herself to move away from her goal. Even though, she made so many saves and invested every single cell of her being into the game, she simply couldn’t shake off the feeling of personal guilt for the humiliation inflicted on her country. She was crushed and heartbroken… and for a second time in the last two months it felt as if the earth beneath her feet had cracked open in violent convulsions and the girl, who had been taught never to lose her self-control and balance, once again collapsed helplessly onto the ground. Her body started shaking in involuntary sobs. The young goal-keeper was crying but she knew that those tears were not only about the game or out of self-pity, she was crying for all her suffering fellow countrymen, for all the orphaned little children, for Jean-Yves, for their lost future. At that very moment the tectonic plates of her aching soul finally collided and the magnitude of this ferocious heartquake couldn’t possibly be measured even by the Richter scale.
And then at that exact dispiriting moment, something very peculiar, very rare and extremely beautiful happened. Bryane Heaberlin – the bright American goal-keeper, having felt the tremors deep inside in her long before the game had started, was the only person on her team who grasped perfectly the meaning of the situation. Now that I know her well, I am sure that if the Haitian team had managed to make at least one good shot at her goal, they would have somehow scored. Bryane was standing the furthest away from her heart-broken opponent, but walked the hundred meters to the other goal without any hesitation, and lifting her from the ground, took the sobbing girl into her arms, never letting her fall down again. Once her teammates realized what was happening, they didn’t hesitate to follow suit. The group hug went for about two minutes and when it finally broke apart, Bryane herself was in tears.
I was watching in complete amazement this touching episode along with the person whom I respect most in this world, and at the very end he told me: ‘You know, I think there might be an almost statistical relevance in what has just happened. Out of eleven players on that field, just one person felt the situation deep in her heart and led the others into action. Unfortunately, perhaps this might be one of those equations that life gives us whether we like it or not: it is conceivable that only one human being out of eleven in life would have the sensibility, the heart needed for what that girl did.’
One out of eleven! Is this really the approximate algebra of kindness? Possibly. And if that really is the case, at least it’s a good thing that all of us have gotten to know at some point or another such eleventh human beings. Mother Teresa was an eleventh human being… so was Mandela… and Jean-Yves Labaze… and Bryane Heaberlin.
And the girl didn’t stop there. Immediately after the end of the championships, Bri (that’s what all her friends call her), went all by herself straight at the United States Department of State and registered a foundation called ‘Many Hearts One Goal’. Her goal was to raise enough money for the whole Haitian team to come to America for the Championship in Orlando. The idea was to give the impoverished girls a chance to get out of the nightmare they were living in, to go to Disneyland and most of all, so that they could erase the bad feelings from the qualifications and go on playing their favourite sport in decent conditions, if only for a little while. Bri was so dedicated and her enthusiasm was so infectious that she managed to convince thousands of people to make small donations and eventually raised the funds all by herself.
Alexandra and her teammates spent two wonderful weeks in Florida and albeit briefly, the smiles were back on their faces.
I managed to contact the extremely humble Bri after a while, so that I could tell her exactly how I felt about her gracious gesture, about her big heart, about the parents that raised such a wonderful child. It is not very often that we come across a teenage girl who understands life and the world around her better than her own coach, who has already lived on this Earth for 49 years.
I asked her if there is something she would like to tell you, and she simply said: “I would like to thank all those who see the world as I do, and I would like to ask them, to please give strength and hope to those in need of them whenever they can, and do it without any hesitations!”
Compassion. We don’t need it to survive. We won’t find it in biology textbooks either. It won’t come in handy if you want to win a competition or to earn a lot of money. But in a somehow peculiar way we need it, as it makes us human. Compassion doesn’t have contours or weight. It doesn’t come from anywhere in particular, but if we just allow it, it could take us everywhere.
Compassion is an inexplicable, purely human trait, which has helped us develop as a unique, one of a kind species in nature – a concept introduced by Darwin himself.
The game between Haiti and the United States has moved into the past, but not before leaving its mark on the hearts of many, many people. Thanks to this story, if I should find myself someday in a similar situation, I woudn’t look at it as a coincidence, but as a golden opportunity to use the wisdom gifted to me by an extraordinary sixteen-year-old girl.
Ten people started reading this article but for one reason or another decided to quit before getting to the end. But you…? You, my friend are still here. And so, I sincerely hope, that you, Mr. unknown reader feel the same way as me, and that if one day, fate decides to put you in a situation similar to little Bri’s, you will take full advantage of the opportunity, and without thinking only of your own wellbeing, will use this valuable moment to transform from a soccer player, or a businessman, or a president or whatever it is you may be, into something far more valuable – into a human being…The eleventh human being.