- Mike Reiss, ESPN Staff Writer
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He had never dreamed of playing in the NFL because, growing up in Haiti, he didn't know what it was.
Now he does, and the NFL is certainly aware of him.
Ducasse is a hot-prospect offensive lineman from the University of Massachusetts who will participate in the Senior Bowl later this month, will attend the NFL combine in February, and is primed to become the highest draft pick in school history since 1968, when the Detroit Lions selected quarterback Greg Landry in the first round.
Scouts from all 32 NFL teams visited Ducasse on campus this season, a group including Kansas City Chiefs general manager Scott Pioli and Miami Dolphins GM Jeff Ireland. Meanwhile, ESPN's Scouts Inc. has Ducasse as the 31st-rated prospect in the draft, a projection that means he could be a late first-round selection.
Ducasse, a towering presence at 6-foot-5, 330 pounds, is surprised at the attention, considering he played at a Football Championship Subdivision school. He calls it a blessing.
Given recent events in Haiti -- where his father, Delinois, still lives and some estimate that as many as 200,000 have died after a devastating earthquake -- his words are as powerful as his punch on the football field.
"It makes me want this even more," the 22-year-old said. "Because of my story, it's possible that a lot of people are going to want to interview me. It would be great to raise awareness of what is going on back there instead of me being the center of attention."
Ducasse came to the United States when he was 14 and hasn't returned to Haiti since. His father, a successful, hardworking accountant, wanted a safer environment and a better education for Vladimir and his brother Macarthur, so the boys packed their belongings and moved to Stamford, Conn., to live with their uncle Lezanord and his wife, Virginia. But they never forgot what Delinois had always told them: "Be your own boss. Make your own decisions."
Vladimir, whose mother died when he was 5, said those words have been his guide -- from when he arrived in Stamford speaking little English to the present day, as he's on the cusp of graduating and entering the NFL.
The soft-spoken lineman talks to his father about once a week, and although they haven't connected since the earthquake, he knows that his father is alive and well. In the past eight years, they have shared the son's rise from football beginner to top NFL prospect from across the world map.
Ducasse said that any anxiety he had moving from Haiti was eased because of a significant Haitian community in Stamford. He also believes playing high school football helped him overcome such a big language barrier, even though he was learning on the fly. Before football, Ducasse had mostly played soccer and basketball.
"At first, he was a kid who didn't know which way the thigh pads went in and didn't understand about putting the mouthpiece in boiling water, the stuff you first learn in Pop Warner," recalled Stamford High football coach Kevin Jones, who laughed when recalling the story of when Ducasse initially expressed his desire to play football.
"He walked out to spring practice and said, 'I want to play.' I looked at him -- he had to be 6-3 and 275 pounds as a freshman -- and said 'No problem, you made the team.'"
It was rare to see such a physical presence at the high school level, but Ducasse, even with the natural athleticism he displayed, didn't make the varsity squad until his junior year. Jones thinks the language barrier probably helped because Ducasse wasn't forced onto the field and could learn the game in a lower-pressure environment.
Ducasse showed considerable improvement by his junior year -- he started to spend countless hours watching film -- and was dominant as a senior. Still, major colleges didn't recruit him heavily because he was such a late bloomer and hadn't attended camps like others.
UMass was holding one-day camps across the region, Jones took Ducasse to one of them, and that's where then-Minutemen coach Don Brown first saw his future left tackle. A few weeks later, Ducasse visited UMass and was offered a full scholarship, which he quickly accepted.
After Ducasse had committed to UMass, schools such as Buffalo and Temple offered scholarships, but it was too late.
"The one thing I had told him when he went was to not make any decisions, there would be other visits to take," recalled Jones, who was familiar with the recruiting process from his time as a graduate assistant at Boston College in the '90s. "But he went out in December and, I'll never forget, I was shoveling my driveway and he called me and said, 'Coach, I'm going to UMass.' I thought to myself, 'You have to be kidding me.' But he's one of those kids that once he trusts you, and the fact UMass was first, that's the stuff that matters to him."
Although Ducasse's college career has mirrored his high school career in some ways -- he came along slowly before emerging as a dominant force -- one major difference has been the intensity of interest from the next level. NFL scouts have swarmed through campus throughout the year.
"It wasn't anything I was used to; normally, you have area scouts and regional scouts come through and that's it. But for this year, you saw multiple scouts from the same team coming out to evaluate Vlad -- an area scout, then another scout, then sometimes a personnel director or an assistant general manager," UMass offensive coordinator Brian Picucci said.
As far as what type of player the scouts have studied, Picucci calls Ducasse a throwback. He doesn't tape his wrists or wear eye black. He wears the smallest shoulder pads possible and a pair of gloves, and that's it.
"Vlad plays with a lot of pride and has a quiet inner strength, a quiet confidence about him," Picucci said. "He possesses very, very good feet, very fast hands and powerful, explosive hips. His body is built for power. I think he's surprised a lot of scouts; they initially said he would play guard, but the more they came through, the more they thought his ability, footwork and hand speed could have him at tackle in the NFL."
Ducasse has spent the past four to five weeks training in New Jersey, and he returned to campus this week for classes. He is a few credits short of earning his degree in African-American studies.
On Tuesday, he volunteered time at the Campus Center, often the hub of student activity, to raise money for Haiti and the Red Cross. His agent, Joe Linta, also had 20,000 cases of vitaminwater shipped to Haiti in Ducasse's name.
"I still know the country needs more than that," Ducasse said.
In time, Ducasse might be able to provide much more. For now, he figures that one of the best things he can do is seize his present opportunity -- the chance to make his name in the NFL while spreading awareness about his roots and the current challenges in Haiti.
It seems to be something he is slowly growing comfortable with.
"He had been very private about [his roots]; I don't think he liked to talk about it because he doesn't want people to feel bad for him," said former UMass quarterback Liam Coen, who is helping Ducasse prepare for the Senior Bowl and combine. "What he went through is obviously so different than what most others did. He had to mature a lot faster than the average kid.
"Spending some more time with him off the field, he's not the type of kid to take anything for granted. Throughout this entire process, he's been modest and humble; he told a bunch of guys he's friends with that he doesn't want anybody to treat him differently with the NFL and earthquake situation. He said 'Continue to bust my chops and keep it the way it was.'"
For Jones, his high school coach, this is the "story of a lifetime."
"He started from scratch, and you just watched him grow," he said. "You look at the kind of man he's become, and see how he was anxious to get back to school to help raise awareness for Haiti, it's just really rewarding to see."
There have been many rewards along the way for Ducasse, and he has positioned himself well for yet another one through the flagship campus of the state university. "Coming to this country was worth it," he said.
Now a whole new world is ahead.
It's one he's eager to enter, while never forgetting where his journey started.
UMass OL Vladimir Ducasse is living a dream -- but knows all about nightmares.