Players PromiseOct 19, 2021

Ricardo Pierre-Louis: Hunger for Hope

Hunger is a trait often ascribed to athletes. It speaks to an innate desire that drives a player to perform above and beyond the limits of their natural ability. A hungry player wants the ball more, wants to score more, wants to win more, and Ricardo Pierre-Louis knows all about that kind of hunger. He made his way from poverty to soccer-star, in part, because his desire to succeed was impossible to quench, but his book speaks to hunger much more broadly; both his own and that of his country.

Hunger for Hope is a thin volume, but it is dense with lessons for those of us who have grown up far away from the streets of Haiti. It is a soccer story but also so much more. Ricardo’s biography speaks to the desire for opportunity, the desperate need for education, the gross unfairness of a post-colonial society that still carries the burdens of slavery, and perhaps most jarringly, the actual, physical hunger many suffer in the country he loves.

Surprisingly, Ricardo’s story does not begin with soccer. “Soccer games were our church,” he says, but if so, the services of that church were ones he watched from afar. His primary focus from his earliest days was on education, and even the national obsession wouldn’t be allowed to get in the way of the opportunities school might provide.

“Growing up in a third world country, we were never comfortable. We always strived for one goal - to be educated. For me personally, growing up poor and having parents that couldn't read or write their names, being able to go to school was a success,” he said in a recent conversation about the book, but simply getting into school in Haiti requires a combination of hard work and luck impossible for most of us to imagine. At five years old, Ricardo needed to take a test he had begun to prepare for at the age of three. That test, the same one that has been a requirement since 1801, would determine whether he was one of the sixty children, in a city of ninety thousand, who would be allowed to attend the only decent school in town.

He somehow managed that intense pressure, aced his exam and was accepted to that school, a credit to his determination and intelligence even at such a young age, but that was only the beginning. “In Haiti,” he reminds us, “your life is a constant competition.”

In the early pages of his book, Ricardo describes a “brutal education system… built on centuries of holding the Haitian people down and forcing them to compete with one another for what little there is.” School was a war of attrition with more and more students dropping out as the competition and conditions proved too much, but young Ricardo held on. “I wouldn’t eat until I had completed my homework because I was so afraid that I would fail,” he remembers, and it took that kind of sacrifice and desire just to make it through. Still, even with success in his early school years, the hard limits on hope remained intractable. Real opportunity still seemed far out of reach.

“It is a system with a ceiling,” he writes in Hunger for Hope. “Limitations are purposely built in. You can claw your way through the system, but at some point there is nowhere else to go. Unless you are one of a very lucky few to go on to University, you are stuck under that ceiling.”

Hunger is a motivator. It helps you see opportunity more clearly."

Ricardo felt trapped. He had reached a kind of dead end despite his diligence. Worse, he was still constantly, physically hungry. Food, in short supply throughout his whole life, would be the impetus for his pursuit of another even narrower and more difficult path.

Throughout his book Ricardo lays bare the extent of the poverty in Haiti in matter-of-fact terms. “Nearly every child in Haiti knows that you are not guaranteed to eat each day,” he says, “and it was no different for me.” Despite his parents’ hard work and ingenuity there were days when he only had bread to eat and others when his mother would mix mud and salt to fight off the pain of near starvation. Hunger became a normal part of life and one that would inform many of his choices. “Hunger is a motivator,” Ricardo tells us. “It helps you see opportunity more clearly,” and it was hunger that eventually brought him to soccer.

“My parents never wanted me to play soccer,” Ricardo tells us. “It was out of love. They knew that even if you were good enough it was extremely hard to make the professional team because everybody plays. You would be taking a big chance, and you would miss out on school. I could not afford to not have good grades at my school.”

As a result of this loving prohibition, Ricardo didn’t play soccer until he was twelve years old. Even though he had watched the game and loved it, as everyone around him did, playing was too big a risk. Distraction, or even worse, injury could derail a young life, and the chances of “making it” through the game were probably even worse than through the education system.

Still, in many cases, if you played soccer you could eat, and that ended up being the deciding factor. His first foray into the game was really a response to an offer of food.

“Growing up in Haiti, soccer is everything,” Ricardo tells us. “People are playing in the streets and there's fans there. When you go up a level to the semi-professional league there's 15-20 thousand fans in the stands. If you grow up there, you understand the impact it has on the city. People are poor, they don't eat, but what keeps them going is soccer.”

Over the next several years Ricardo got to experience all of that passion. He kicked a balloon wrapped in a sock around the streets of his city. He played in packed stadiums for the regional team. He had a natural ability and a will to succeed that kept carrying him up the soccer ladder until finally he was representing his country in international play. And through it all he ate, sating both his physical hunger and his hunger for opportunity.

Ricardo tells a soccer story of constantly squeaking by; a story of disappointments and doubts punctuated by moments of unbelievable good fortune and joy. He illustrates just how narrow the path can be for those trying to leave poverty behind. Hope can be derailed by a poor game, a conservative coach, an injury or just bad luck. Even for Ricardo, who had navigated so many of these setbacks and come out the other side, the final break was extremely fortunate and entirely unexpected.

“I had been waiting for an offer to play professionally,” he remembers. “In my hometown people still saw me as a soccer god. They followed me everywhere. But I had seen other acclaimed players end up begging for food in the streets.” Ricardo knew he needed something to happen soon if soccer was going to be his way out, but he never expected an American college to be the door that would finally swing open.

A good performance at a U20 World Cup qualifier led to an opportunity to play at Lee University, a small school in Cleveland, Tennessee. Despite the fact that Ricardo had never considered college soccer and had never entertained the possibility of attending an American school, he eventually decided to take the leap. It was not an easy choice. First, he needed to pass the SAT even though he did not speak a word of English, and he then had to succeed in college in a language he was still learning. It was yet another test of his hunger and drive and yet another he was able to pass.

College success was hard earned but it finally led to the goal he had been pursuing since he kicked a makeshift ball around the streets of Haiti. In 2008, Ricardo was drafted by the Columbus Crew. He was finally a professional soccer player. Despite the fact that his career was destined to be short lived, he had succeeded in walking the narrow path out of hunger and poverty and found his hope rewarded.

Ricardo played just one year for Columbus but in that year he won a Championship, an unlikely but perfectly placed marker on his long journey. When he retired just a year later, ending his professional career at 26, he did so to make the most of the chances that soccer had provided. He had a new wife, a college degree and a home in this country, and he intended to make the most of it. “It might seem like the end of a dream,” he writes, “but I had played soccer for the opportunities it brought me, not just for the career.”

In Haiti life itself is a competition, and its people are some of the world’s fiercest competitors. We're giving these children a chance on that playing field

Just as he has through his whole life, Ricardo has taken the opportunities he’s been given and run with them. He returned to school and became a teacher, bringing his lifelong commitment to education full circle. He founded Magic Soccer FC, a thriving youth soccer club in Bismark, North Dakota an evidence of the entrepreneurial spirit he credits to his mother. “I learned from her problem solving abilities,” he says of his mother. “When she sees a problem, she sees value and opportunity. She started her business to help others, it wasn't just to do something for money. It's not about making money first, it's about helping others and making your community better.”

He’s built a successful, full life in the United States, but the most important of the many opportunities Ricardo was able to fashion from his soccer career was a chance to help children in the country where he began his journey of hunger and hope. With help from friends back home and through his experience as an educator, entrepreneur and soccer coach, he has begun to give something back to his birthplace.

The project in Haiti began as a youth soccer club and has grown into something much more ambitious as Ricardo looks to help widen the path to opportunity for children in his home country. Lespwa Lavi, which means Hope for Life in Haitian Creole, has grown into a vision for education, medicine, nutrition, faith and hope for children living in one of the poorest regions of Haiti. Built with roots in Ricardo’s Christian faith and committed to changing the lives of children through soccer and education, Lespwa Lavi is a project in progress and Ricardo’s commitment to seeing it grow and flourish is a true inspiration.

“In Haiti life itself is a competition,” he writes, “and its people are some of the world’s fiercest competitors. We are giving these children a chance on that playing field.”

Read more about Ricardo’s inspiring story in his book Hunger for Hope and find out how you can chip in to help him bring hope to haiti at