TAMPA — Growing up on the tiny island of La Gonave, just off the coast of mainland Haiti, King High junior defensive end Jean-Eddy Mersier looked bewildered the first time he saw a football.
"I remember my older brother (Elysee) brought home a football, we were like, 'What is that?' " Mersier said. "We didn't know what to do with it."
The two brothers eventually figured out to spin the ball when you throw it and worked up to playing catch with it. After arriving in the United States in 2007, Mersier played football in his physical education class at Jennings Middle School.
This would be Mersier's only exposure to football until Lions coach Alvin Davis made a simple inquiry near the end of his freshman season.
"We were playing basketball and we had just finished as the football team was coming in from the practice fields," Mersier said. "Coach Davis came up to me and asked me if I would like to come out and try out for the football team.
"If he hadn't found me there, who knows where I would be right now."
As he enters tonight's preseason game vs. Middleton (7:30 at King), Mersier still strives to get acclimated to the sport. His coaches, however, have been impressed by the progress he has made after just one year on the varsity level.
"He's developed immensely," defensive line coach David Malone said.
Mersier grew up in the same Haitian town that current New York Giants star Jason Pierre-Paul grew up in. Pierre-Paul also came to the game late before blossoming at the University of South Florida. It's a path Mersier may follow.
To be clear, however, Mersier's football pursuits don't rival his educational pursuits.
Mersier's father, Enouhode (Edward) works for World Vision, a Christian, humanitarian organization. For years, he saved money in the hopes of sending his children to the United States.
"My father wanted the best education possible for us," Mersier said. In Haiti you have to pay to go to school. If you don't have money — you don't go to school."
Finally, in 2000, he was able to send the family's oldest child, Scherline, to the United States. She moved to Tampa in 2002 and attended Bloomingdale High before graduating from Freedom High.
After Scherline established herself, Jean, older brother Elysee (23) and younger sister Esperancia (15) moved out to join her. By then, Scherline had met her husband, Hector, also Haitian, and they started a family.
Mersier currently lives with his sister, his sister's husband, his older brother, younger sister and four nieces and nephews.
Ever since his second semester of middle school, he hasn't received any grade lower than a "B" and has a 3.4 unweighted grade point average. The transition must have been pretty difficult as he spoke Creole at home, learned French in the limited schooling he had in Haiti, and then had to learn English while taking classes in English in the States.
"Ever since my freshman year, my grades just keep going up," Mersier said. "The teachers here (in the States) have a way of explaining the work that I understand better than when I was in school in Haiti.
"It's funny to me, I hear a kid in class ask the teacher why he or she gave them a 'C' and I'm thinking to myself, 'you earned the 'C,' " Mersier said.
Just as Jean started quick with schoolwork, he started quick with football. He was a reserve defensive lineman on last year's team, only making 18 total tackles, but his arc of improvement was getting steep. He even got a few starts late in 2011.
"Last year was the first time I even tried out for a football team," said Mersier. "Now I know how it feels and I am that much more prepared for this year."
The King coaching staff is committed to playing the 6-foot-1, 215-pound Mersier at defensive tackle and defensive end this year, mainly because of his ocean of inexperience. Once he learns more about the game, the coaches would like to move him to outside linebacker.
"Jean has the potential to be a Division 2 defensive end because of his size, but if he can transition into an outside linebacker, he could be a Division 1 prospect," Malone said. "He has the physical side of it, it's the mental side that needs to develop."
Defensive coordinator Bass Dillard concurred, noting that defensive line suits Mersier because he doesn't have to worry about the various assignments a linebacker must handle.
"He's still just a baby," Davis said. "When he first tried out we thought he would be a good defensive player but we were surprised what a good athlete he is."
Mersier made himself known this spring in a game against Freedom. In that game, which only lasted a quarter, he had two sacks, one for a safety, and a tackle for a loss.
"I feel like I've been bitten by the football bug now," he said.