Sports > Benji Michel leads charge as Pilots set sights towards NCAA Tournament

Benji Michel leads charge as Pilots set sights towards NCAA Tournament

A nine-year-old Benji Michel took in the surrounding of his parents’ native Haiti. It was 2006 and for nearly a month, he stayed with relatives in Port-au-Prince, the nation’s capital. He loved how people cared for each other. Food was passed around to the poor even though there wasn’t much to go around in the first place. Everyone was treated like family.

But his trip also opened his eyes to a world of struggle. Michel knows a little something about pain: His own parents have been dirt poor in the past. There were times that they went full days without eating so that Michel and his siblings could be provided for.

But in Haiti, that was magnified. The locals didn’t have access to electricity or regular hospital care. Many kids lived on the streets because their parents couldn’t provide for them. The smell of burning trees and waste constantly permeated the air.

But soccer was a source of hope. A knock on the door early in the morning signaled that it was time to play. So barefooted children would gather in mass for games on a nearby rock and dirt field.

Shy and reserved, Michel never asked to play. He just watched from the sideline.

But as he got older, he thought back to this trip. He realized soccer was in his blood. And living in the U.S., he has the opportunity to live a dream that many in Haiti can’t pursue.

“At that age, I didn’t really recognize it but now, it just hits me,” Michel said. “Don’t take things for granted. Cherish everything you have.”

And Michel has taken full advantage with the Portland Pilots men’s soccer team. The 5-foot-10, 165 pound freshman striker has taken the Bluff by storm. He’s been Portland’s featured offensive force en route to their first West Coast Conference title in 14 years. And he hopes to translate his goal-scoring firepower into the NCAA tournament.

Michel ranks atop the West Coast Conference and is 18th in the nation with 10 goals on the year.

“[Benji’s] confidence drives him to do special things on the field,” sophomore midfielder Jackson Jellah said.

And it’s a confidence that was nurtured by his childhood in Orlando, Fla., where he grew up.

Michel has been a gifted goal scorer since he was a youngster. In recreational soccer one year, he netted 32 goals in just 10 games. He led his league in scoring every year of club soccer from the U9 to U19 age group.

As success poured in on the pitch, his family invested more time in his development. At 12 years old, Michel moved 30 minutes away from his parents — to a different part of Orlando — to live with his older stepbrother, Robert Thelusma. Thelusma wanted to keep Michel out of trouble and maintain a watchful eye over his education.

In his parents' home, Michel was spoiled and a troublemaker who always got his way as the youngest of 10 siblings. Because his parents didn’t speak English, Michel was able to get away with more at school. His teachers couldn’t explain his actions to his Haitian Creole- speaking parents.

So Thelusma disciplined his younger brother like a strict father. Michel didn’t get preferential treatment over his three kids. Thelusma rode him to do well in the classroom. Even if he had finished his homework and was sitting on the couch watching TV, Thelusma told him to find a book to read instead.

Michel struggled to grapple with his brother’s expectations. He often pouted and cursed. But when he crossed the line or his grades slipped too far, Thelusma pulled him from soccer.

“[Our relationship] was somewhat bumpy,” Thelusma told The Beacon. “It wasn’t always easy, but we understand each other.”

Today, Michel is grateful for the standard that Thelusma has held him to throughout his life.

“I have so much respect for my older brother,” Michel said.

And it’s a standard of excellence that he can appreciate in light of his family’s hardship.

Despite the financial struggles, his parents find the funds to send home to Haiti, which is still recovering from a massive 2010 earthquake and Hurricane Mathew’s destruction last month.

Michel looks up as he reflects on the sacrifices his parents have made. He thinks about the lack of opportunity in Haiti and the barefoot kids in Port-au-Prince who loved soccer on that dirt and rock field.

He tells himself: Don’t take things for granted. Cherish everything.

“I take advantage of every little thing I have,” Michel said.

So he’ll lead the offensive charge for the Pilots into the NCAA playoffs. He has more goals to score.