As famous soccer player Robert 'Boby' Duval sat in a jail cell as a political prisoner of Haiti, he knew that his country needed change. At age 22, Boby Duval spent 18 months in prison for being a part of the Democratic Movement to affect change in Haiti. That, and his illustrious soccer career, was the price he would pay for standing up for his beliefs. Despite these circumstances, Boby Duval maintained his dedication to ending the struggle in Haiti and to athletics, creating change for the people of Haiti by way of his lifelong love of soccer. He now empowers positive change in Haiti through providing soccer careers to others.
Growing up in Pétion-Ville, a suburb east of Haiti's capital of Port-au-Prince, Duval spent his youth playing sports. At age 10, he moved to Puerto Rico for a better opportunity in life. Excelling at baseball, basketball and track pushed him to play at the junior varsity and varsity levels. He attended Valley Forge Military Academy in Pennsylvania, earning six varsity letters as a three-sport athlete, and later earned a scholarship to Nichols College. Duval ended his collegiate career at Montreal's Loyola University, where he led his team to two finals appearances and one championship in soccer, and was inducted into the Loyola Soccer Hall of Fame. He returned home to Haiti to play for the number one team in the nation, the Violette Athletic Club. "In 1973 and '74 I played at the highest level of soccer and loved the experience," Duval remembers.
Boby Duval was at the top of the world in his athletic career but saw dismay all around him in Haiti. He wanted better for his people who had been ravaged by crime, violence, sickness and death under the rule of Francois Duvalier and Jean-Claude Duvalier (also known as Papa Doc and Baby Doc). Their usurpation and corruption saw the deaths of 50,000 Haitian citizens. "I witnessed thousands go missing and a country be taken apart by Baby Doc," Duval recalls. For opposing Baby Doc's policies, Boby Duval was imprisoned and whittled away into a 90-pound version of himself, unable to continue his athletic career. He was released when U.S. President Jimmy Carter fought to end the unrest in Haiti. After the fall of Duvalier in 1986, Duval joined the Democratic Movement to help revive the country. He felt the country would begin to move in the right direction -- but he was wrong. Under the rule of President Namphy, who continued all the Baby Doc Duvalier policies, "all hell broke loose," Duval says. After a decade of fighting on behalf of political prisoners, Duval left politics and began directly influencing positive change in Haiti via his lifelong passion: soccer.
As the world's most popular sport, soccer brings billions together despite national, ethnic or socioeconomic differences. Boby Duval is using his sport to ignite the spirit of the people in his struggling country.
In 1995, Duval created L'Athletique D'Haiti, an organization for children ages 7-19 to receive soccer training along with education and food. He currently has six centers around Haiti supporting over 2000 children daily, keeping them off of the streets and providing them the opportunity to have a positive life. "The kids [have] never missed a practice and have enough discipline to keep focus on something positive," Duval said in a CNN interview. Duval was named the 2007 CNN Hero of the Year for his work with L'Athletique D'Haiti.
The most recent issue is what happens to these children once they reach of the age of 19. Many return to poverty or join violent gangs. Duval recognizes this and has created a solution: a stadium to increase the impact of sports in Haiti. The stadium will be called "Phoenix Stadium" to symbolize rising from the ashes that is the current state of Haiti. He is implementing this solution in one of the most poverty-stricken areas of Haiti, Cité Soleil, an area that has even been deemed a "Red-Zone" where the Red Cross and the United Nations refuse to go to provide aid to people in need. Duval passionately explains his choice: "Cité Soleil is impoverished because of the lack of support. It isn't as dangerous as the world thinks but does need a lot of change, and I believe if you can make it in Cité Soleil you can make it anywhere, and that is why I'm building the stadium there." He believes that this area of Haiti needs the most support and that the construction of this stadium will provide aid to not only this area, but also to all of Haiti.
Duval envisions Phoenix Stadium as a haven for athletes throughout Haiti and a start for a professional league that mimics other countries with regional pro teams. "We don't have an NFL, NBA or MLB in Haiti, only a national soccer team where it is only a select group. I want to create a professional league to give several talented Haitians a chance to play professionally," he says. Many children are developing superb soccer skills through Duval's program; a potential professional league will keep them on the fields instead of the streets. The Olympic Committee completed a study of Haiti's landscape and concluded that Haiti would need to create 25 centers to serve the entire country. Duval, through l'Athletique d'Haiti, has made this necessity the objective of his work. Phoenix Stadium, in Duval's words, "can be a tipping point for Haiti." The development of his stadium will provide Haiti with the opportunity to grow culturally and economically through the game of soccer. This project can give people hope and make them self-sustaining, as construction and infrastructural development can have a ripple effect in other areas of commerce in Haiti, ultimately improving the economy.
Duval is hoping that investors will see the opportunity in Haiti. Phoenix Stadium has already received some support: a private businessman has donated the land, and a bank has donated the rubble for the initial construction. A group of real estate developers from New York's "Delos Living" has joined with their efforts with cash support of their own, and organizing with the promotion in fundraising and even brought world-class architect Carlos Zapata and engineer Bill Faschan into the mix as these last two did pro bono the plans that were just rendered this past week in New York. Duval wants the stadium to be built with Haitian resources and few imports. This economic frontier will truly help the people, not from periodic monetary handouts, but via investments in the Haitian people.
Duval also wants for all of the countries of the Caribbean to one day have their own soccer league like Europe's UEFA. For now, the groundbreaking ceremony for Phoenix Stadium is planned for February 2013, a dream that Boby Duval has had since he sat in that prison.
Follow Ronnie Cameron on Twitter: www.twitter.com/RonSCameron