In the frantic seconds before a play, as USF's defense is lined up and awaiting the snap, linebacker Sabbath Joseph will sometimes tap defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul on the shoulder. "I'm cho," he'll say, pronouncing the word like "show." In Haitian Creole, the word means "hot," and it's Joseph's way of telling Pierre-Paul he's blitzing the quarterback. Watch USF on TV and you might hear Pierre-Paul called by the nickname he has picked up this season, "The Haitian Sensation." Truth is, even for a football program that recruits almost exclusively in Florida, USF has an unusually high number of players with at least one parent born in Haiti — 12 proud Bulls who might mix a little Creole into games. "It has to be the biggest (number) in the NCAA. It's a very good thing, being in the locker room with those guys, sharing stories, singing our cultural songs," said Joseph, a junior from Miami who grew up bilingual but has no accent in his English.
"Every year, when new recruits come in, I'll see the last name: Pierre-Paul, he's a Haitian! There goes another Haitian. The Haitians are taking over South Florida!"
USF's coaches say the collection of players with Haitian backgrounds isn't specifically coordinated, but the comfort and familiarity of a player finding such a bond on a recruiting visit can help sway a college decision, just as the absence of such a bond can.
"On my visit, I remember seeing Sabbath Joseph and Brouce Mompremier, and they told me I need to come here and add to the number of Haitians on the team," said redshirt freshman safety Jon Lejiste of Delray Beach. "I took a visit to Wisconsin, and they didn't know what a Haitian was."
USF certainly does. None of USF's players was born in Haiti, but there are several key players of Haitian heritage — senior Moise Plancher is the starting running back, and three others have started on defense — Joseph, Pierre-Paul and safety Mistral Raymond.
Sophomore offensive lineman Danous Estenor is from Palm Beach County, where an estimated 60,000 Haitians call home, but he never had so many Haitian teammates until he came to USF.
"In high school, in Little League, we never had that many Haitians on my teams," said Estenor, whose parents came to Florida in the late 1970s. "It surprised me."
One reason Estenor came to USF was that a high school teammate, tight end Quincy Okolie, had walked on with the Bulls. Okolie's mother is from Haiti, and again, familiarity provided a comfort level.
It's not unusual to hear a conversation in Haitian Creole in USF's locker room or on the sideline.
"Touchdown is touchdown," explains Estenor, who, watching his teammates during a game, will see an open receiver and say voye balon — throw the ball!
"They bring it out frequently," Raymond said. "I'm not as fluent as some of those guys, but I'll hear it on the field. It's how they communicate sometimes."
Raymond said the fraternity of Haitian players at USF is close enough that he went through a faux knighting ceremony in the locker room last season, with Mompremier formally bringing him into the family.
And just as there is a generation of Haitian players at USF, there's a generation of parents coming to embrace a sport they barely knew growing up.
"They like it because I play it and I'm in college because of it; they're still trying to understand it," Estenor said.
USF coach Jim Leavitt said he hadn't stopped to think of the large number of players with Haitian backgrounds on the team, but running through the names in recent years, he said the character stands out to him as well as the playing ability.
"Every young man we've had, I can't think of a guy that's not been great," Leavitt said.