Boca football star survived Haiti earthquake, now he’s heading to Yale

Sebastian Bruno is going to Yale. His mother, the mother with whom he speaks weekly, but last saw three years ago, was proud but didn’t realize how proud until she Googled Yale. Now she’s over the moon.

Not bad for a boy who left his home and his parents in the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake in Haiti and arrived by military transport in Palm Beach County at the age of 9, not knowing a word of English and with a 6-year-old autistic brother in tow.

Now he’s going to one of the nation’s most prestigious universities — to play football.*

Not bad for a boy who arrived in Delray Beach, by his own account, chubby and bookish with no interest in sports and no idea what football -- the American version — was.

Not bad for boy who wanted nothing to do with coming to the United States, though his mother had prepared for his departure from his first breath.

“I didn’t want to go” he said. Not without her.

Eight years later, Sebastian says it took time, but he’s adjusted. By everyone else’s accounts, the Olympic Heights senior headed for graduation this month has thrived.

He credits his aunt and uncle who took in him and brother Stevenson, his older cousins who spent hours after school and on weekends guiding him through English, his teachers who were relentless in their encouragement and his football coaches and teammates who have become another family.

They have filled the future Sebastian couldn’t imagine as he witnessed Haiti’s earthquake tumble homes on the foothills above his own and when friends from church never emerged from the rubble.

Sebastian recalls being home that day in January with his older brother.

“It was scary. You could see houses falling down. The main (quake) felt like two minutes long and others followed,” Sebastian said.

His mom came home shortly after the first jolt. His father fetched Stevenson from school. By day’s end, the family was together. And their house was still standing despite some damage. So was his school, but for weeks he didn’t return. And then his mom said it was time for Sebastian and Stevenson to go live with her brother.

Carole and Jean Claudy Bruno were always thinking to their son’s future.

Carole planned her visits to her brother so that both Sebastian and Stevenson were delivered in a Florida hospital — Bethesda Hospital in Boynton Beach, making them U.S. citizens from the start. And once back in Port Au Prince, she and Jean put a priority on school.

When the quake shook their world, Carole Bruno made her move, despite her youngster’s objections.

“She said it’s way better opportunities, and you are a citizen,” Sebastian recalled.

In Delray Beach, Sebastian attended Crosspointe Elementary and then Congress Middle. His college-aged cousins tutored him through English, but math was where he shined. By high school, he opted to attend Olympic Heights in Boca Raton for its engineering program.

What Carole couldn’t have planned was for Sebastian’s middle school growth spurt and a growing interest in football fanned by a Dolphins-loving cousin.

“I had no intention of playing,” Sebastian concedes. When he was a freshman, the Olympic Heights Lions were 0-10. “No one wanted to play. But coach didn’t give me a choice.”

At a broad-shouldered 6-foot-4, Sebastian looked the part. And one day that spring, coach tapped him on the shoulder and said, “See you at practice.”

As soon as he started to play, he loved it. He spent another year learning the intricacies of the game, and by the time he was a sophomore, Sebastian was starting on the defensive line in some varsity games.

“I thought, ‘I must not be that bad.’” That summer, Sebastian doubled down, hitting the weight room and working out. By junior year, college teams took notice.

“South Florida is really competitive. They say if you can play down here, you can play anywhere,” he said.

Kelly Lawrence, Sebastian’s ninth grade English teacher, noticed too. She was no longer his teacher, but kept tabs on him through the years and intervened in a motherly kind of way when it came to his future.

“I kept bugging him. Where are you applying? Where are you going? Some kids need prodding. He’s quiet and reserved,” said Lawrence, who wrote recommendations on his behalf.

That letter hits on the challenges: “Since leaving, Sebastian has only been reunited with his parents a handful of times, able to see them less than once per year.”

And his academics: He’s maintained a 3.95 weighted grade point average – all As and Bs for semester grades.

And then there’s his way with people: “His teammates admire his abilities, but more importantly, they revere his word and work hard to follow his example.” He’s helped paint the school gym and remodel the locker rooms and volunteered for any school project. Lawrence writes of his “unique brand of dignified leadership.”

The offers poured in from both in and out of state. This time Sebastian was ready to uproot. He ruled out Florida schools and narrowed the field to schools from North Carolina and beyond. When Yale came with a post-season offer, Sebastian didn’t seem to pause. The offer came with a full financial package.

“Yale is one of the top universities in the world. You can get any job if you graduate from there. Why would you pass up that chance?” He visited Connecticut in December and got caught in a snowstorm. “I liked it.”

His father will travel to his high school graduation. His mother can’t – paperwork problems, Sebastian explains. He’ll go to Haiti after graduation instead. But by June, he’ll leave his family once again. This time he says, he’ll be eager to go.

“It’s a team, so I won’t be lonely.”

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