Hard times followed Haitian orphan to America

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistOctober 17, 2010 

DANVILLE — His beloved grandfather was dead. His autistic uncle was now alone in the world. Jonathan Pinque kept coming back to the same thought:

There's no one else. I have to step up.

It is not supposed to fall to college students to plan funerals and make life-altering decisions about their relatives.

By the time Centre College's star running back left Danville two summers ago to go home to Alabama to do just that, he had survived more adversity than most face if they live to be 100.

He was a toddler in an orphanage in his native Haiti when an American woman, a single mom, saw a picture of the little boy. She couldn't get his smile out of her heart.

Jonathan was 21/2 when the adoption went through and he came to the United States to live.

On the night of Jonathan's 13th birthday, his adoptive family — mother, grandfather, uncle and brother — piled into a car to go out for a celebratory dinner.

Another vehicle roared down a hill at a high rate of speed, flew into an intersection and T-boned the car carrying Jonathan's family.

The woman who had brought him to America died in the crash.

Then there was the night when Jonathan was 16 and he watched a car that held his best friend and four others from his high school whip around a curve too fast and wind up sinking in a neighbor's pond.

After subduing his panic, what Jonathan did next earned a teen-ager a national Carnegie Hero Award.

With his grandfather dead, Jonathan was up against it again.

Should he drop out of Centre two years short of a degree — giving up a potentially life-changing opportunity at the prestigious private college — to move home, get a job and look after his uncle?

Or was there some way he could stay in school, continue to play college football, yet still make sure his Uncle Blair would be OK?

Wrestling with all that, a 20-year-old college student kept coming back to the same thought.

There's no one else. I have to step up.

Meet the twins

Jonathan has no recollection of his life before America. "Nothing. I don't remember anything about Haiti," he says.

When he first came to the United States, his new family lived in California. They moved to Mexico for a time, then ended up near Athens, Ala., when Jonathan was in sixth grade.

The family that adopted Jonathan Pinque was white. Jonathan is black. He is some six months older than his adoptive brother, Antony.

At Alabama's East Limestone High School, the brothers had a running gag when new students enrolled.

"They'd always introduce Jonathan and then Antony and say, 'this is my twin brother,'" school principal Dennis Black says.

By his senior year of high school, Jonathan was both a standout running back and a smallish, hard-hitting linebacker.

"Our biggest problem with Jonathan as an athlete was to get him to stop preparing," says Black. "He worked so hard every day, we worried that he was overdoing it to his own detriment."

'I'm about to watchmy best friend die'

The night of Sunday, March 20, 2005, started as a routine one. Jonathan and some friends were hanging out at his grandfather's house.

Three girls showed up. One had a new car, a black Pontiac Grand Am, to show off.

Two of Jonathan's guests, his best friend, Jacob Green, and Ricky Jaramillo, went with the girls to give the new car a test drive. The girls let Jacob drive.

Another friend, Mitch Lamb, and Jonathan stayed behind.

Jonathan had just gotten off the phone with his girlfriend when "I see the car flying — we had this sharp curve in our neighborhood — and I see the car flying, coming down," he said.

There was a loud BOOOOOOOMMM!

By the time Jonathan got outside the house, the car was sinking in the pond.

Jonathan and Lamb sprinted to the water and jumped in. "We were trying to get the doors open and we couldn't," Jonathan says.

Inside the car, the three girls were in the back seat. They got a window open and were able to crawl out.

As the car sank beneath the waterline, the two boys were still in front. "I could see Jacob, my friend, gurgling as it went under," Jonathan said.

Climbing out of the pond, Jonathan felt panic rise. "All I could think was 'I'm about to watch my best friend die,'" he says. "Thank God, I snapped out of that."

He ran to his home's garage, looking for a wrench that could be used to knock out a car window. All he could find was a bar bell from his weigh-lifting set.

His pants were so wet and heavy, he couldn't run. Jonathan ripped them off and raced back to the pond. He went underwater. From on top of the fully submerged car, he smashed open the sun roof with the bar bell.

Reaching inside, "I found Ricky pretty easy," Jonathan said, "and pulled him out."

Jonathan could not find his friend Jacob.

"I was just about to give up, then our fingers touched," Jonathan says. "I grabbed his middle finger and pulled as hard as I could."

When they were hauled ashore, the two boys who had been inside the car were unconscious. In Jacob's case, Jonathan feared the worst.

"Ricky was breathing," Jonathan said. "But, Jake, he had the death grip. I didn't know about him."

At the hospital, Jonathan had to get stitches for three different cuts on his left arm he'd gotten while trying to break open the car windows.

He was told there that all five people who had been in the car were going to be OK.

Only then did Jonathan let himself think about what he'd done.

He threw up.

Today, Green is a member of the United States Marine Corps. He recently became a father for the first time. None of that, obviously, would have been possible if Jonathan Pinque hadn't hauled him out of that pond.

Green does not like to talk about the accident. "Jon Pinque is my brother," is all he will say about it.

Fight to stay in school

A 5-foot-9, 195-pound running back aspiring to play major-college football needs Derrick Locke-style breakaway speed.

Jonathan lacks that.

When it came time to pick a college, the schools wooing him were an eclectic mixture — Yale, Centre, Alabama A&M, Union College.

Before recruiting, Jonathan had never heard of Centre. On a visit to Danville, he felt comfortable with the college's football players and was impressed by the school's academic reputation.

An NCAA Division III football program, Centre does not give athletic scholarships.

Part of the Carnegie Hero Award Jonathan received for his actions at the pond was "a lifetime scholarship of $10,000 a year as long as I continue my education after high school," he said. "That came in handy."

When Jonathan first left Alabama to come to Centre, he called his grandfather, Ralph Pinque, on the phone every night. It helped with the homesickness.

At Jonathan's first game as a college player, Ralph made the long trip north. "It was a big deal to him to get up to my first one and at least see one of them," Jonathan said.

On the field, Jonathan was an immediate hit at Centre. He ran for 620 yards as a freshman and was named to the 2008 Southern Collegiate Athletic Conference first team.

He fully expected his sophomore season to be better.

Then Jonathan got the phone call that his grandfather, 76, had died.

At the time, Jonathan's brother was undergoing specialized training in the U.S. Air Force in Washington state. He wasn't in a position to come home to help.

It meant his autistic uncle, Blair, was all alone in Alabama.

Jonathan felt he had no choice but to leave school, move home to Alabama and try to get a job.

"I went home and planned the funeral," Jonathan says. "I didn't think I'd be back."

Adult concerns

Centre football coach Andy Frye had a different plan. He suggested that, to stay in school, Jonathan bring his uncle to live in Danville.

"We didn't want to lose him off our team," Frye said. "But this was a kid's life. We didn't want Jon to lose this chance."

Autism is a disorder that affects the brain's normal development of social and communication skills. Some who suffer from it never develop the ability to talk. Others learn to speak but have an aversion to social interaction.

Blair, now 46, is among the latter.

"I knew I wanted to stay in school," Jonathan says. "After we talked, my uncle didn't want to be in Alabama by himself."

Frye introduced Jonathan to a prominent Danville couple, Tom and Alane Mills, who agreed to help out where they could. The Millses lent the football player a truck to help Jonathan move his uncle to Kentucky.

A college kid suddenly found his life filled with the most adult of concerns.

Blair's money comes mostly from a monthly Supplemental Security Income check from the federal government. Jonathan set up a budget to allow his uncle to pay rent, buy food and other necessities.

He found his uncle a place to live. During the week, Jonathan stays on the Centre campus. On Sundays, he visits his uncle.

Blair is "not a social person," Jonathan says. "He had lived with my grandfather, his father, his whole life. I know he gets lonely."

In that first fall after he brought Blair to Danville, Jonathan did not exactly wither under his new-found responsibilities. He led the SCAC in rushing (866 yards) as a sophomore.

This season as a junior, he's been hampered by a hip injury that caused him to miss one full game. Yet Jonathan was again Centre's leading rusher through the first six contests.

What he is doing is not easy. On top of football and looking out for his uncle, he carries a double major in Spanish and international studies at Centre.

"I know there are other kids that have faced challenges at the level Jonathan has," says Frye. "But usually that involves bad decisions by the kid or by adults responsible for a kid. Well, that hasn't happened here. Jonathan's had all this thrust upon him, and it's through no fault of his. He's stepped up and done what's needed to be done."

A brother in Haiti?

For most of his life, Jonathan had no interest in tracing his roots in Haiti.

Lately that has changed. In part, it is due to the example of Centre tight end Brian Saulino, Jonathan's roommate in his first two years in college.

Like Jonathan, Saulino is a black child who was adopted into a white family.

"I told him that I saw my (birth) mom, drove out to California and saw her," Saulino said. "It was a good experience for me. I know he wants to find his mom. He knows that will be hard."

In searching for possible blood relatives in Haiti, Jonathan asked the Millses for help.

"We felt like we were getting really close to tracking down his birth mother," Tom Mills says.

The January earthquake that devastated Haiti may have made that impossible.

"A lot of the (adoption) records, they're just gone," Mills said.

Jonathan hasn't given up. He's contacted some people via the Internet asking for help.

"I'd like for my (real) mother to see me and let her know that her sacrifice in giving me up paid off," he said.

Yet there's another reason Jonathan can't let go of the search. Before the earthquake, he had some indication that he might have a younger brother in Haiti.

"I'd love to show him how to play football — as long as he's not faster than me," Jonathan says.

Mostly, when he thinks he might have a little brother who could be rescued from the hunger and squalor of post-quake Haiti, Jonathan Pinque keeps coming back to the same thought:

There's no one else. I have to step up.

Reach Mark Story at (859) 231-3230 or 1-800-950-6397, Ext. 3230, or mstory@herald-leader.com. Your e-mail could appear on the blog Read Mark Story's E-mail at Kentucky.com.

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