TAMPA — Two months ago, they smiled and posed together on the practice field for a newspaper story, 12 proud USF football players brought together by the common bond of their parents' backgrounds growing up in Haiti.
Today, that bond is a stronger one as they have watched a tragedy unfold from the Jan. 12 earthquake that devastated their parents' homeland. They learned the terrible news from each other in text messages and phone calls, and they shared the same frantic, desperate search for relatives.
"Just the support, having the guys ask you if you're all right, that goes a long way," said Mo Plancher, a senior running back from Naples.
"It's been very scary, because it's very close relatives," said Mistral Raymond, a rising senior safety from Palmetto. "My grandmother, aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews, they're all in that general area right around Port au Prince."
Some players have the solace of knowing their families are safe, that for all the national losses, the people closest to them are okay.
"We've gotten in touch with all of them. … My mom told me everybody was fine," Plancher said. "They lost their houses, they're on the street, but they're all right."
At first, they watched CNN as much as they could, then in recent days the colossal damage became too much.
"I try not to watch now," said Jon Lejiste, a safety from Delray Beach. "I've seen the pictures and video. The reality is tragic, with a lot of homeless people. It's chaotic. It's crazy."
The common heritage isn't limited to football players. Melissa Dalembert, a senior center on the basketball team, will play tonight for the first time since she learned of the earthquake. She finished a game at Notre Dame on Jan. 12 and found her cell phone full of text messages. She had no idea why all her friends said they were praying for her.
"I didn't know what people are talking about," she said. "No, it's on TV. It's on CNN and everything. I looked and it says, 'Haiti Earthquake.' I was like, 'Whoa.' Haiti hasn't had an earthquake in 200 years, so it was weird to me."
Initially, Dalembert could learn little about her relatives in Haiti; she was born in Montreal but her brother, Philadelphia 76ers star Samuel Dalembert, was born in Haiti, and her father still lived there. By Wednesday, her father had texted that his family was okay, though a week later they still hadn't heard from all of her mother's relatives.
"I just used my phone. I didn't care how much it cost," she said. "I just kept dialing and dialing and dialing."
Most of USF's football players with family in Haiti haven't been there since they were young, but Dalembert has been many times, most recently in May.
"I took a picture by the White House (presidential palace), and now I look at the White House now, and it's nothing like it," she said. "It hurts, because to me, Haiti is the most amazing place to go. I've traveled a lot of places, and every time I go to Haiti, I never want to come back (home). Even though people say they're struggling, that it's a poor life, even though they're struggling, they're always happy."
USF has held donation drives, with baseball players standing at the entrances to the Sun Dome during Saturday's basketball doubleheader, collecting nonperishable food, clothes, anything to help in the recovery.
Dalembert understands that college students don't have a lot of money to donate, so she has asked her friends to search their closets, to find clothes that can be donated. She said her brother, who has personally been to Haiti to help, has raised more than $2 million through his foundation, offering to match donations made during 76ers games.
"Any small donation, even if it's $5," she said. "You wouldn't think, but $5 can help four or five people."
USF's players knew the sacrifices their parents made to come to a better life in the United States, and now, together, they're helping each other.
"We understand the struggle, and we share each other's pain," said Sabbath Joseph, a linebacker from Miami. "We try to represent every day, and we keep each other going."
For more information on how to help the relief efforts in Haiti, visit Dalembertfoundation.org.