LAKE BUENA VISTA — Their voices were loud, their rhythm flowing and their words poignant as the girls of the Haiti under-17 national soccer team sang one of their post-practice chants.
Not long ago, these players, some of the most talented in their nation, believed their soccer careers were over, crumbled like most of their nation following January’s 7.0 magnitude earthquake.
But this week they are playing on a pitch of dreams come true, participating in the Disney Cup International Tournament at ESPN’s Wide World of Sports — all thanks to the compassion of a local high school soccer player.
For Berkeley Prep goalkeeper Bryane Heaberlin, it all began with a hug.
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Heaberlin, a 16-year-old St. Petersburg resident, could end her high school career as the bay area’s best-ever goalkeeper. Following her sophomore season at Berkeley, in which she helped the Bucs to the Class 3A state title game, she was named a Parade magazine All-American.
In March, she traveled to Costa Rica as the starting keeper for the U.S. U17 national team for a World Cup qualifier. In the first game the Americans beat Haiti 9-0. Soon after, Haiti goalkeeper Alexandra Coby collapsed. Heaberlin led her teammates across the field and — in a simple act that made headlines from Tampa to Tokyo — embraced Coby.
But it wasn’t enough.
“The hug in March touched me so much because of the bond that Alexandra and I share both being goalkeepers,” Heaberlin said via e-mail this week. “She has gone through so much to be able to play the game we both love and I have the most respect for her.”
When Heaberlin returned home, she still wanted to help. She created the Many Hearts, One Goal foundation with the intention of bringing the Haitian team to Florida to play in this week’s invitational.
“Most 16-year-olds have no idea what obstacles you face in trying to accomplish something like this,” said Bryane’s father, Bryan Heaberlin said. “I think that was an important thing for Bree, because she didn’t see the obstacles. She just saw the goal. She really overcame a lot, a lot of people saying it couldn’t be done.
“In the end, a 16-year-old girl was able to fill a conference room at Disney with all kinds of executives with one common goal.”
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Heaberlin is unable to see the result of her work, playing in the U20 World Cup in Germany this week. But her fundraising and organization was nothing short of remarkable. Disney is taking care of the Haitian team’s lodging and food. Heaberlin’s club team, the Clearwater Chargers, donated $4,000 to help cover part of the $11,000 airfare. Publix donated $1,000 in gift cards. Rep. Kendrick Meek and Sen. Bill Nelson, who each recognized Heaberlin’s infamous hug on their respective floors of Congress, helped expedite visas for the team.
“From the time she came back, her concentration was on the Haitian team,” said Clearwater Chargers president Rob O’Nan. “She wasn’t going to rest until those 20 girls were on the ground here at Disney.”
Still, new Haitian U17 coach Gaspard Dalexis said his players didn’t believe they were coming to Florida until they arrived at the perfectly-sculpted main stadium field — the same one previously used for Bucs training camp — for their first practice last week.
Many of the players lost their homes, some family members. All of them lost their coach, Jean Yves Labaze, who died when the Haiti Football Federation’s three-story building collapsed. When the earthquake occurred, the players were at practice on a field that now serves as a tent city.
“This makes them kids again,” Dalexis said. “It makes them human again. It makes them, for a while, forget about their trauma.”
Sometimes the escape is just momentary, even at Disney World. Last week, the team visited the Magic Kingdom. When fireworks went off, two scared players grabbed Dalexis.
“It just hit me,” he said. “That’s how it is. A big boom, they’re going to jump because it reminds them of the earthquake.”
The aid from Heaberlin’s foundation doesn’t stop with Disney.
Mercedes Homes, a home builder on the state’s east coast, has committed to building 12x24-foot collapsible homes that can be sent by barge and reassembled in Haiti. Heaberlin hopes to bring the team back to Disney this winter for a college showcase.
“This lets them know what is out there,” Dalexis said. “If you hang on, go to school and train, you can come here and maybe get a college scholarship, and they can better themselves and later on help their family or someone from Haiti.”
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The Haitian team, which began play here Monday, has five games this week in its open bracket, including against Pinellas County clubs Simply Soccer FC on Friday and the Clearwater Chargers on Saturday.
Next week, they return to their devastated homeland with a new outlook.
“It’s going to be tough but when you make friends, when you know people are looking out for you, it’s better,” Dalexis said. “When you go back, you know you have friends here. The only thing worse than misery is having misery alone.
This week, they met U.S. national team star Abby Wambach as well as former Haitian national player and current Tampa Bay Rowdies midfielder Pascal Millien. The only person missing is Heaberlin, who considered skipping the World Cup.
“I have been dying inside,” Heaberlin said in an e-mail. “…I think the hardest thing for me is to get updates from my parents and hear about how happy the girls are and not be able to see them smiling and singing. I wish I could see that.”
Coby said the only thing that could make this week better is being able to return the gesture that started this effort back in March.
“I don’t know really how to express my gratitude with everything that’s happening,” Coby said through a translator. “One thing that would have helped would have been to have Bree here today so I could give here the biggest hug to thank her personally.”
Said Heaberlin: “Hearing that makes me feel so happy inside because I know that I have made some kind of a positive difference in her life just like she has in mine. Hopefully one day soon we can say thank you to each other and exchange hugs.”
Eduardo A. Encina can be reached at email@example.com.
Photos courtesy of Disney, CONCACAF.com and the Many Hearts, One Goal foundation.