ST. PETERS • The ever-swelling pride Wilfrid and Marie Desir have for their son is on display throughout their house, starting in the tiny foyer.
A wall filled with plaques declares Pierre Desir “MVP,” “Team Captain” and “Offensive Player of the Year” when he was a star football player at Francis Howell Central High School. The honors mark what is possible when talent and hard work come together.
But the plaques tell only a small part of Pierre’s story — the unlikely journey from Haitian refugee to NFL player.
“Coming from Haiti, we didn’t know anything about American football,” Wilfrid said. Soccer is his home country’s sport — one that Wilfrid played professionally.
So when Wilfrid and Marie fled Haiti in 1994 during a political coup, and landed in St. Louis with Pierre, then 4, and his sister, Myriam, 5, the assumption was that their young son eventually would be a soccer player.
As a toddler in Port-au-Prince, Pierre was fascinated with boys playing soccer in the street, moving the ball from their feet to their head, one to the next. In turn, he would grab an orange, a mango — anything that he could kick — and mimic the older children.
In St. Louis, his interest in soccer continued, then expanded to other sports. When he moved at age 11 to St. Charles County, he began playing backyard football with his buddies. They watched games on TV and played the Madden NFL video game. But he didn’t take up football formally until he was a freshman at Francis Howell Central, where he also played basketball and was named 2005’s “Best Freshman” in track and field — also represented by a plaque in his parents’ foyer.
Soccer went by the wayside mainly because the season conflicted with football, Pierre said.
“There’s just something about football,” Pierre said. “I fell in love with it.”
And he quickly excelled at it, becoming the team’s MVP the following year, with scouts from colleges around the country taking notice. But a distraction off the field almost sidelined him for good.
His girlfriend had news: “I’m pregnant.”
Suddenly, the star football player was a teen father. It was a setback. But he and his girlfriend, Morgan, stuck it out.
“I basically told him not to give up, to continue to work hard,” said Morgan Desir, a dance instructor. “Don’t worry about us. We’ll be fine in the end.”
Two and a half years ago, Pierre and Morgan were married. They have two daughters, ages 3 and 7.
Pierre, now 23, kept playing football, kept racking up impressive stats, kept his name atop the lists of college recruiters. But in the classroom, it was a different story. The ACT test confounded him; his scores were simply too low to get into a Division I program.
“I was very upset. I felt I’d let everybody down,” Pierre said. He ended up at Washburn University in Topeka, Kan. But after two years playing football there, he left to finish his college play as a cornerback at Lindenwood University in St. Charles, a school that had never had a football player drafted from its program.
“It was hard to balance school, football and family,” Pierre said. “School was suffering because I was tired. I had enough time to attend class, but not enough time to study. I had enough time for practice, but not for working out.”
Moving back to St. Charles County provided more family support. But because Washburn would not officially release him, he had to sit out a year at Lindenwood, delaying his NFL pursuit. Soon, he was racking up more accolades, finishing his college football career as a three-time Division II All-American, with 25 career interceptions. He also won the Cliff Harris Award, given to the small college defensive player of the year.
“I knew I could be good. But I had to make a lot of plays,” Pierre said. “You have to get noticed. Some way. Somehow.”
So during the NFL draft earlier this month, a call was expected. It came from the Cleveland Browns.
“Are you wanting to be a Brown?” general manager Ray Farmer asked Pierre.
“Yes, sir,” he replied.
A few minutes later, the announcement was made on ESPN, and the draft watch party of about 60 people at Pierre’s in-laws erupted.
“Tears were coming from everywhere,” said Wilfrid Desir.
Ten minutes after the announcement, Pierre got a tweet.
“It was from the prime minister of Haiti,” Pierre said. “It was pretty cool. It was awesome, actually.”
It’s difficult for Pierre’s father to talk about his son’s success without getting emotional.
“It’s such an accomplishment, this little guy from Haiti,” Wilfrid said, recalling the once scrawny boy who has grown into 200 pounds of muscle.
Like many refugees who come here, the Desirs started in St. Louis city, but were unhappy with the neighborhood and the school options they could afford.
“I went to Froebel Elementary School. It was very bad. There was a shooting at a gas station nearby, and a fourth-grader brought a gun and pointed it at a teacher. I thought this was the normal,” Pierre said.
When Pierre was a fifth-grader, the Desirs moved to the Francis Howell School District.
Todd Berck, Pierre’s high school football coach, said the talent was obvious right away.
“He showed very quickly he had the physical tools to make it happen. It was just going to be a matter of what he did with those tools,” Berck said. “We all make mistakes, all have spots in our lifetimes where we made decisions that are not typical, or the ones we should have made. But they mold who we are. I don’t know if he’d be where he is today if he did not have those bumps in the road.”
Pierre agrees, and he’s careful to make clear that his rise to professional football could not have happened without others. Those include his parents, who worked so much that Pierre recalls days going by during his childhood when he didn’t see either one of them.
“It’s something they had to do. That’s why I work hard,” Pierre said.
To help raise his family, Pierre worked cleaning clogged sewers, flooded houses and firing ranges where spent shell casings were scattered. He toiled in a sheet metal factory and sold cellphones.
A contract in the NFL could profoundly alter his life, those of his family as well has his parents, who continue working menial jobs.
“They don’t know that their life is about to completely change,” Pierre said.
He left Thursday for rookie minicamp, but not before appearing in a television ad for an auto dealership just down the road from Lindenwood University. It marked his first paid appearance as a Brown.
“Pundmann Ford in St. Charles is building a brand new showroom, and St. Charles’ own Pierre Desir of Lindenwood University is about to build a brand new career in the NFL,” states the announcer as Pierre stands in front of a group of dealership employees, smiling and playing with a football. “Go get ’em, and make St. Charles proud.”
In Cleveland, Pierre will be in the spotlight with Johnny Manziel, a Heisman Trophy winner, as the two men work out alongside other rookies. “I’m very excited to see what he brings,” Pierre said.
Those close to Pierre are saying the same thing about him.