RICHMOND — When Eastern Kentucky football coach Dean Hood decided to take members of the Colonels football team to Haiti on a service mission in 2013, their trip advisers kept emphasizing one message.
When you fly into Port-au-Prince's Toussaint Louverture International Airport, stay together. After the massive 2010 earthquake ravaged a country where almost 59 percent live below the poverty line, people flying into Haiti were often the targets of robberies near the airport.
"We just kept emphasizing, 'Stay together, go straight to the vans,'" Hood said.
So you'll understand why Hood was beyond irritated when, after the EKU football group arrived in Port-au-Prince, defensive back Stanley Absanon asked if he could go outside the airport by himself.
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"I couldn't believe it," Hood said. "Stanley, he is a real smart kid, real conscientious. I was thinking 'Didn't you listen to anything we were told before we came down here?'"
What Absanon said next hit his coach like a sledgehammer.
"He said, 'Coach, my dad is outside,'" Hood recalled.
Across the years, EKU's Hood would channel surf across TV infomercials for charities ostensibly raising money to help children in impoverished lands and feel called to help.
"I'd get moved emotionally, but then I'd tell myself 'That money wouldn't really go to those kids,'" Hood said. "So I wouldn't do anything."
That inaction ended because Eastern offensive coordinator Dane Damron had a friend on the Board of Directors of the Hands and Feet Project, a Christian ministry whose purpose is to provide residential care and sustainable solutions to help orphaned children in Haiti.
"My tune changed (with Hands and Feet)," Hood said. "I knew that money would help kids who need it."
Eventually, the coach's decision to help orphans in Haiti morphed into a project for the whole EKU football team. Through Hands and Feet, the Colonels sponsor a little boy named Stevenson who lives in an orphanage in Jacmel, Haiti. Financial donations from the EKU players and coaches buy food, school clothes and medicine for Stevenson.
"Once a month, everybody has to give something," Hood said. "I capped it at $5, but everybody has to give at least a penny. That way, nobody is stressed (financially) too much, but everybody gives something."
Over time, Hood says, the Eastern players wanted to do more than just send money. "Some of our guys sort of called me to the carpet," the coach said. "They said 'What about us going to Haiti to see Stevenson?'"
Unbeknownst to his head coach, for one EKU player the trip would mean much more than just meeting the little boy the Eastern football program sponsors.
Stanley Absanon was never supposed to be an Eastern Kentucky football player. Out of Florida's Tenoroc High School, he signed with Arizona State as a wide receiver.
He was grayshirting in 2011 with plans to enroll at ASU for the spring semester of 2012 when the Sun Devils fired the staff of head coach Dennis Erickson. The new Arizona State coaching regime of Todd Graham asked Absanon to go to a junior college.
"I worked hard (academically) not to have to go to a junior college. I just wasn't having that," Absanon said. "I wanted to go to a four-year school, stay there. All this happened, like, a week before I was supposed to leave for school. So I had to find a (new) school in a hurry."
Absanon's high school coach knew EKU's Damron and contacted him. "We looked at (Absanon's) film, and we were like 'Shoot, yeah, we're interested in this guy,'" Hood said.
In Richmond, Absanon switched from offense to defense. By last season, he was emerging as a dynamic cornerback. In EKU's upset over Miami, Ohio, — the Colonels' first victory over an FBS foe since 1985 — Absanon had two interceptions. One he returned 55 yards for a touchdown; the other sealed the Eastern victory.
"When people throw the ball in Stanley's area," Hood says of the senior, "there's a pretty good chance something good is gonna happen for the Colonels."
When Absanon asked Hood in the Port-au-Prince airport to go outside and look for his father, Hood was befuddled. "I don't know if I knew Stanley was Haitian and forgot or if I never knew," Hood said.
Absanon's mother, Viola Christalin, brought Stanley with her when she emigrated from Haiti to the United States in 1994 — Stanley was 1 year old, his mom 22.
In the early 1990s, political instability gripped Haiti. The elected government of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide was overthrown in a military coup in 1991, then Aristide was restored to power in 1994.
"My father was involved in politics," Christalin said, the accent of her native country still strong. "In 1994, I had reason to believe I might be killed if I didn't get out of Haiti. So I was able to come to the United States with Stanley."
That meant leaving the rest of Stanley's relatives behind. "My mom always told me that my grandma, her mom, didn't want me to live in the U.S.," Absanon said. "She wanted me to be with her the whole time. You know, that's a grandmother."
When he first went to Haiti with the EKU contingent in 2013, Absanon had not seen his father, Iuedo, since visiting in middle school. So before their son returned in 2013, Christalin informed Iuedo when Stanley was supposed to arrive.
That's what Absanon explained to Hood in the airport. "I was like 'My dad's supposed to be outside, can I at least go out there and look for him?'" he said.
Hood accompanied his player outside Toussaint Louverture International.
When son and father saw each other, "there were a lot of hugs, and a lot of smiles," Hood said. "It was an emotional time for Stanley."
Before the EKU crew left Haiti, Absanon got to see his father again outside the airport. Iuedo gave his son a popular Haitian sweet treat, tablet cocoye. "Pretty much coconuts, peanuts, sugar, and it's all melted together like a cookie," Absanon said. "I don't really think it's healthy, but it's good."
In May of this year, Absanon was one of 20 Eastern football players who went back to Haiti along with Hood and two assistant coaches. The players' task was to do physical labor to help launch the beginning stages of an aquaponics farm at the Hands and Feet orphanage where Stevenson lives.
On the trip, Absanon again saw his father, and got to meet other family members.
Whether Absanon lives the dream of someday playing football for money or fulfills his goal of owning a sporting goods store, he says traveling back to the country of his birth has given his life an added purpose.
"This time, I pretty much talked to my Dad about coming back (to Haiti again)," Absanon said. "I pretty much want to help my family back in Haiti. I know they are living a rough life."