At first Rev. Chuck Whited didn’t understand what was happening. He heard the loud pop of a wall cracking and felt the ground sway.
Then he knew.
The earthquake that struck Haiti in 2010 killed more than 100,000 people and displaced hundreds of thousands more.
Whited is pastor of First Trinity Lutheran Church in the Buffalo suburb of Tonawanda. Some years before the quake, his church had begun doing mission work at the Children of Israel Orphanage in Les Cayes, a seaport 120 miles from Port-au-Prince.
He and his wife, Susan, adopted two children from the orphanage in 2007, but by 2010 they had yet to take them home; miles of bureaucratic red tape kept preventing it. Chuck and Susan dearly wanted these two to join their four biological children. And each year there would be tears all around when travel visas were denied yet again.
Then the earthquake hit. Chuck and his missionary team, in those frantic moments, led children to the safety of the soccer pitch — a refuge of open space away from buildings. That field had long been a different sort of refuge for his adopted son, Wisken, who had spent many happy hours there playing with the other children.
The human toll of the earthquake remains incalculable, but one glimmer of light is this: Haitian authorities said Lovelie, 11, and Wisken, 7, could at last leave for their new home in the United States. They arrived in Buffalo six days after the quake — and could not believe what they saw.
“This being Buffalo, there was a lot of snow on the ground,” Chuck says of that January day. “They would go to the back door, look at the snow, and just giggle. Then they would go back inside to warm up, and then open the door again and giggle some more.”
Lovelie is 22 now and works in child care. Wisken is 18 and a senior at Canisius High School, the defending Catholic state champion in football. He plays wide receiver on offense, and cornerback and safety on defense — and, on special teams, he kicks off, punts, and kicks field goals and extra points.
“He rarely ever leaves the field,” says Bryce Hopkins, assistant head coach and special-teams coach.
Saturday Canisius will play St. Francis High School in the championship game of the local Catholic league; that will end a truncated spring season, there being no state title game this time.
An American sport wins out
How Wisken got from that soccer field in Haiti to a football field in Buffalo is an American story. Soccer was his first love; all the kids at the orphanage played it. And when he got to the U.S., that love stayed with him, until football won him over.
“No matter what kind of ball we gave him at first — basketball, football — he kicked it like a soccer ball,” his father says. “Everything was a soccer ball.”
Then, as the years rolled on, Wisken could see how much Buffalo loved the Bills. He dearly wanted to try American football. So, as an eighth-grader at Christian Central Academy, he told his parents he wanted to go to Canisius and play football there. His parents liked the Canisius part, for an education grounded in faith, but his mother wasn’t so sure about the football part.
“So many kids get hurt playing football,” she says. “That’s what you hear.”
So Wisken played soccer as a freshman, but never stopped pestering his parents about football until they finally let him try out for junior varsity as a sophomore. He struggled at first, trying to learn the rules and the game’s finer points. But he excelled right away at kicking; he had long known how to do that.
As a junior, Wisken kicked for the varsity team — and emerged as the unsung hero of the state championship game in 2019, which is the last time there was one. Canisius beat Cardinal Hayes of the Bronx, 25-24, in storybook fashion. Quarterback Tyler Baker hit receiver Nik McMillan for a 13-yard TD as time ran out, and fullback C.J. Ozolins crashed in for the winning two-point conversion.
Cardinal Hayes had scored four touchdowns but made none of its conversions. Canisius scored three touchdowns — plus Wisken’s 28-yard field goal and both of his extra points.
“It’s simple math,” Hopkins says. “Three touchdowns doesn’t beat four touchdowns without Wisken.”
Think of Canisius as Kicker High, in the sense that Penn State is Linebacker U. All three placekickers who preceded Wisken went on to play for Division I programs: Michael Tarbutt at Connecticut and Minnesota, Blake Haubeil at Ohio State, and Tristian Vandenberg at Ohio University. And the other day Haubeil signed a free-agent contract with the Tennessee Titans.
“There was a ton of pressure on Wisken last year, following in the footsteps of those guys,” Hopkins says. “But it’s like he doesn’t feel pressure.”
A late start in football
Wisken played sparingly, other than kicking, as a junior. But this spring, as a senior, he emerged as a force. He scored 27 points in a 63-0 win against rival St. Joseph’s Collegiate Institute — nine for nine on extra points plus two touchdowns on receptions and one more on an interception. Canisius is ranked No. 1 in The Buffalo News large-schools poll, and Wisken is the team’s leading scorer.
“I don’t know if we have ever had a kid who started playing football so late who has been this successful,” Canisius coach Rich Robbins says. “It speaks to how hard he works.”
And not only in football. Among the instruments he plays, by his mother’s count, are the saxophone, tenor sax, piano, guitar, ukulele — and the drums for Sunday worship at First Trinity. “God has gifted him with many talents,” she says.
Wisken will go to college at Liberty University, in Lynchburg, Va., where he hopes to walk on to a football team that finished No. 18 in the Amway USA TODAY coaches poll last season. And he has his sights set even higher. Ask him about Greg Rousseau, the Bills’ top draft choice, whose mother and father hail from Haiti, and Wisken has a ready answer.
“That’s pretty cool,” he says. “Hopefully one day that will be me.”
That seems unlikely, as Wisken is 5-11, 180 pounds.
Then again, his whole life has been unlikely.
“I am extremely appreciative for what my parents have done for me,” he says. “I am grateful for them.”
And for his adopted hometown of Buffalo, where he learned to love that other kind of football.
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