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UMass’ NFL-bound Ducasse living American dream

04.21.10 at 7:07 pm ET
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The American dream isn’€™t dead yet. At least not the way Kevin Jones sees it.

His former player at Stamford (Conn.) High School, Vladimir Ducasse, a 6-foot-4, 332-pound offensive lineman, will be moving from UMass to the NFL this weekend and is expected to be picked anywhere from the end of the first round to the early third round (in the 20-50 range) of the draft. For someone who traveled to Connecticut without even knowing a word of English, it is an astonishing rise to the precipice of a chance to be playing football for a living.

‘€œIt is the American dream,’€ said Jones, a former defensive assistant at Boston College in the late ’90s. ‘€œYou come to this country for opportunity, and we spend so much time talking about closing the borders up, and then a kid like this comes along and you are like, ‘€˜What would have happened if we said no to the kid, you can’€™t come here.’€™ ‘€

Said Ducasse: ‘€œI feel like I am blessed to be in a situation like that. Not many people from a small school get an opportunity like that, so I am just waiting for the day to get here.’€

In 2002, Delinois Ducasse sent two of his sons, 14-year-old Vladimir and his older brother Macarthur, to the United States. He wanted to get his children out of Port-au-Prince, Haiti, where the regime of Jean-Bertrand Aristide had left the country’€™s capital ravaged by violence.

Flash forward eight years, and Vladimir Ducasse has taken every advantage that his father’€™s decision has given him. His journey from Haiti to Stamford to Amherst and now to the NFL is one of the best stories of the draft. But Ducasse is more than just a great story; he is a great football player and, according to his former coach, a great person as well.

‘€œFor us as his high school coaches and the people here at the school and in the town, everyone is just pulling for him because he made fans out of all of us while he was here,’€ Jones said. ‘€œJust through his work ethic and the amount of time he put into being great. When you are a high school guy, this is what you coach for, a guy like him.’€

When Ducasse went to Connecticut to live with his aunt and uncle, Virginia and Lezanoro, he thought of himself as a basketball player. But Jones had other ideas. He looked at him and immediately thought, ‘€œThere is a scholarship kid right there.’€

‘€œI’€™m looking at him and he was saying to me, ‘€˜Oh, I’€™m a basketball player.’€™ ‘€ Jones said. ‘€œObviously, he showed up too late to basketball, but I said, ‘€˜Oh no. Not anymore son, you are a football player here in America.’€™ ‘€

With members of Jones’€™ team constantly hounding him, Ducasse finally succumbed and joined the football squad. But football wasn’€™t the only thing that Ducasse was trying to learn in his new hometown ‘€” he had to learn a new language and how to fit into a new culture.

Still, he quickly grew to fit his new surroundings, both on and off the football field. From a JV player who could barely put on his pads and took classes with a bilingual teacher, Ducasse was thrust into the role of a starter on varsity in his junior season, at the same time as he was getting ready to move into honors courses at Stamford High.

‘€œHis sophomore year, which was really his first year with us, he was a JV guy,’€ Jones said. ‘€œSo his junior year I looked at him and said, ‘€˜You are playing. You are going to start and you are going to play. And if you’€™re not any good at the beginning of the year you are going to get good by the end of the year because you are too good of an athlete to not contribute to what we are doing here on the varsity level.’€™ ‘€

In that first year playing, Jones and the coaching staff had seen glimpses of the type of player Ducasse could be. There were times when he simply manhandled opposing players with his size and strength, and by the end of his career at Stamford High he would become an all-state player. But more importantly, he made great strides off the field, ingratiating himself into the community with an infectious personality that helped him make adjustments to his new home.

Ducasse was a virtual unknown to college coaches, and ended up going to UMass to play football. Still raw, Ducasse saw action in just four games in his freshman year as a reserve on the offensive line. But by his second year he was the starting left tackle, helping pave the way for tailback Matt Lawrence‘€™s 10 100-yard performances in 12 games and being a part of a line that allowed just 15 sacks on the season. Over the course of his 35-game career as a starter, UMass had a 100-yard rusher in 23 games and allowed just 39 sacks, with Ducasse leading the way. Last year as a senior captain, Ducasse had the weighty expectations of being a preseason All-American and All-Colonial Athletic Association player, but at the end of the season he was rewarded both those honors for his play.

That helped him earn the status as a serious first-round sleeper in the 2010 NFL draft. But the scouts were down on him somewhat after his struggles at the Senior Bowl, where the feeling was he was too raw to play on the outside in the NFL and that he still would need work to become a dominant player at the next level. While that dropped Ducasse’€™s stock down somewhat, it did not break his spirit or his drive.

‘€œI don’€™t care,’€ Ducasse said. ‘€œPeople are going to think what they are going to think. I know from the start I need the improvement.

‘€œI haven’€™t been exposed to enough football. I have been exposed to some but not enough, so I definitely feel like there is room for improvement.’€

NFL teams always are looking for potential, and Ducasse has plenty of that. In a draft where a plethora of offensive linemen are expected to be selected early, with many mock drafts having as many as four tackles taken in the top 10, a team at the end of the first round or somewhere in the second round that misses out on the top-ranked guys could have interest in a player who possesses a ceiling on par with those players.

When Ducasse is drafted, he will become the first player selected from UMass in 10 years, and he could be joined this year by teammate Jeromy Miles, another All-American and first team All-CAA selection at safety who might be a late-round pick. Even more impressive, however, is that Ducasse will almost certainly be the first player drafted from a New England school. When you recall that both Boston College (B.J. Raji) and UConn (Donald Brown) had players chosen in the first round of the 2009 draft, it is a testament to just how special a player Ducasse is.

‘€œI don’€™t think it matters what school you go to; as long as you have good coaching and you are willing to put your effort into it, everything else will work out well,’€ Ducasse said. ‘€œSo, I am grateful for the opportunity I had here [at UMass] and to the coaching staff here and everything they did to get me ready.’€

Wherever he ends up ‘€” Ducasse visited teams that might be looking for O-line help at the end of the first round or early in the second round including the Cowboys, Vikings, Chiefs and Browns ‘€” Ducasse is likely to be a fan favorite. He certainly will have his adopted hometown of Stamford behind him.

‘€œYou know how you are in a town or in a city and you have a superstar athlete, and half the people want to take credit for the kid and the other half of the people hate him because he is so good and they are jealous of him and they want to see him fail?’€ Jones said. ‘€œIn Vladimir’€™s case, everyone wants to see him succeed because he has never made an enemy. Everyone loves Vladimir. So it is a very unique situation for us ‘€” and I have said this to his agent and other people ‘€” that when his name gets called it will be one of the most special moments at least of my professional career. And even if I have a first-round pick next year or the year after it won’€™t be the same because it won’€™t be him ‘€” it won’€™t be Vladimir.’€

Not too bad for a kid who didn’€™t even speak English less than 10 years ago. In fact, it’s a veritable rags-to-riches story. Ducasse came from one of the poorest nations in the world, as everyone saw after the tragedy of the earthquake that hit Haiti in January, and he is about to fulfill a goal that so many American kids have: becoming a pro athlete. He certainly has taken advantage of the opportunity his father hoped for.

‘€œIt is such a great story, it is kind of like what the whole country was built on,’€ Jones said. ‘€œIt kind of shows that it still exists at some level somewhere, and I know it is different than it used to be 100 years ago, but it is still kind of the land of opportunity. And Vladimir has definitely taken advantage of this opportunity.’€

But that opportunity did not come without hard work. And Ducasse will have to continue to put that effort in, both on and off the field, if he wants to have a successful career. That is something that has never been a problem for the Minutemen star.

‘€œI feel like everything ‘€” from where I come from to all the hard work I have put in ‘€” I feel like I am a better person and a better player,’€ Ducasse said. ‘€œI feel like I know what it takes ‘€¦ and after I get adjusted I don’€™t think there will be a difference for me. ‘€œ

Said Jones: ‘€œTo me, it is a great story regardless of where he gets picked simply because it is like starting at zero and ending at infinity. It is a great tribute to how hard he has worked. And he is a weight room junkie, he is a film junkie, and he loves the sport of football.

‘€œThere are kids who have a sense of entitlement because as a high school guy there are plenty of kids who think they should be handed things. And Vladimir has never ever thought he deserved anything. He just went out and worked for it, and when it came to him he was grateful.’€

Ducasse’€™s stop in the NFL will be just the latest in what seems like a surreal story. He might not have been able to imagine this when he came to the United States in 2002, but now he is hours away from fulfilling a dream. For now, it has to wait. But after this weekend, that dream will be a reality.

Read More: 2010 NFL Draft, Vladimir Ducasse,
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