Fifteen years old, standing six feet and nine inches tall, Schnider Herard stepped off his airplane and onto American ground for the first time. The Haitian teenager was wearing dress pants, an old jacket and older shoes. At the luggage pickup in the Dallas airport, he waited for a suitcase holding all the belongings he had left to his name: an extra pair of socks and underwear.
Moments after retrieving the suitcase, two men approached him.
“Schnider?” one of them asked.
Herard nodded his head. He didn’t speak English, but the nervous nod was a sufficient reply. Yes, he was Schnider.
He followed the two men to their car as they tried to talk to him, each attempt as fruitless as the last. Once on the road, they used an iPhone to try some translations, first in French, then in Creole. Again, despite their best efforts, communication seemed impossible. Not sure what else to do, they decided they’d figure something out when they got home and just turned on the radio.
“Justin Bieber?” Herard asked.
Caught by surprise, both men turned to look, and found the beanpole teenager smiling. He didn’t speak the language, but Herard knew American music.
“Those were the first words he said to me,” Derrick Shelby now recalls with a laugh. “’Justin Bieber’ … Music opened him up. I remember that day like it was yesterday.”
Shelby, now Herard’s legal guardian, is the Director of Sales for the IT firm Zigatta in Frisco, Texas. The man once at a loss for how to communicate with the tall kid from Port-au-Prince, Haiti, ended up with a surrogate son because of a passion for basketball and a devotion to his faith.
Shortly after an earthquake of enormous magnitude rocked the island country in 2010, Shelby met a Haitian man named Pierre – a former basketball player at a small college in Tennessee – who was using basketball as a way to reach out and help the less fortunate youth of his home country.
After they met, Shelby began donating shoes, clothes and basketball uniforms he had through his work with youth basketball in the Dallas area so they could be provided to kids in Haiti through the man’s mission service. In 2012, the benefactor was asked to take his kindness a step further. Several steps further.
“Would you like to sponsor a kid?” he was asked.
“That’s what I’m doing, isn’t it?” Shelby replied. “I’m sending all this stuff over, I’m sponsoring all of them.”
No, Pierre told him. This request was a bit more involved. Shelby was being asked to have one of those kids come live with he and his family in Dallas.
“I said, man, are you crazy? My wife will kill me.”
But then Pierre told Shelby about Herard. He told Shelby what a good kid Herard was, and expressed that this could be a chance to very literally save Herard’s life. Living in the worst neighborhood of what was one of the most dangerous cities in the world, if Herard didn’t get out then, he never would. And if he did get out, he had a chance to make something of the opportunity; a chance to change his own life and those of his family’s.
Eventually, Shelby was convinced, and on August 6, 2012, he and his friend George drove to the airport in Dallas to meet Herard and take him to his new home. Much like that first day, the ensuing months and even years were hard, both for Herard and for the Shelby family. But the decision led to the most rewarding experience any involved would ever have.
When Herard started his ninth grade year at McKinney Boyd High School that fall, he was reading English at what equated to roughly a third-to-fourth-grade level. His native tongue was excellent, of course, and he very easily earned the French Award later in high school, but he was up against considerable odds in an English-speaking world. As a sophomore, Herard transferred to Prestonwood Christian Academy, a move that went on to become an important piece of his growth as a student, as a man and in his Christian faith as he found his way in his new home and country.
For three years, in addition to going to school all day, Herard went to tutoring four nights a week where he intensively studied the English language and made attempts to master his courses in school. He studied even more at home. Piece by piece, week by week, improvements came. Before long, he was unrecognizable in appearance, speech and confidence from the fifteen-year-old who first stepped off the plane in 2012.
Shelby has rarely been prouder than the day in 2016 when he watched Herard walk across the stage and get his diploma, graduating high school with a 3.1 GPA just four years after arriving in America with no more knowledge of the English language than a couple Justin Bieber and Chris Brown lyrics.
“I’m still in contact with my ESL teacher from freshman year,” Herard says now. “She was great. She helped me so much.”
“He worked,” Shelby said. “He put the work in. He really did. It’s paid off for him, because he now has a chance to get his education at a phenomenal college and make a difference. A lot of family and friends have poured into Schnider and we are so proud of the young man that he has become.”
The college education Herard is able to receive now comes largely because, in addition to learning math, science and English in Texas, Herard also learned about the game of basketball. As a kid in Haiti, soccer was, like that of most other kids, his athletic event of choice. Herard still calls soccer his love (and he and Shelby’s son have spent hours battling on the TV screen in FIFA), but the environment of his new home in Dallas helped lead him to a new sport.
Filling out the group of five in their house, Shelby’s wife Fannie and their now-13-year-old son Noah were joined by not just one but two adoptive members of the family, as Herard was soon followed by another Haitian also in need of an opportunity – current Vanderbilt redshirt freshman forward Djery Baptiste.
Shelby, who coaches basketball in his spare time with a Nike EYBL program called Pro Skills, was the perfect fit for the two gigantic teenagers in need of an outlet and a way to get involved in the culture and community.
In ninth grade, Herard played his first season of organized basketball. Those first months, Herard confesses, he was pretty bad. But having grown to 6’10” by the following summer, the potential was very clearly there, and in fact, it was in the months after his freshman year that Herard got his first scholarship offer. It was from Mississippi State.
By the time Herard was ready to make a decision a few years later on where to go to school, not only had MSU hired an entirely new coaching staff, but the teenager from Port-au-Prince had become a three-time first-team all-state forward, won three state championships, scored 1,000 points and been on the receiving end of 34 more scholarship offers after being named a four-star recruit and one of the best 100 players in the country. His collegiate options were many, but ultimately, the first school to offer Herard was the last choice he made. He wanted to be a Bulldog.
“Credit to Mississippi State, no college wanted him more or worked harder than Mississippi State,” Shelby said. “Nobody worked harder than [assistant coach] Ernie Ziegler and [head coach] Ben Howland. We’ve been there now half a year, and every single thing that Ben Howland and Ernie Ziegler told me they were going to do for that kid, they have done. And believe me, that doesn’t always happen. Everything they’ve told me has come true.”
Now, Herard is a starting forward in the SEC. This summer, he flew to Italy for two weeks as MSU went on a four-game preseason tour and he walked the streets of Florence and Rome and the Vatican City signing autographs and posing for pictures.
All of this happening for someone who shouldn’t even be here. And Herard isn’t one of those people who “shouldn’t be” somewhere because they once almost dropped out of school, or got caught stealing candy bars, or just weren’t a highly-recruited prospect. No, Herard really shouldn’t be here. Or anywhere, for that matter.
Daily life was hard by the time he was a teenager, but things were a easier for at least a little while when he was a young kid, spending the school year with his dad and then going to live with his mom in the summers. Even now, Herard still considers himself a mama’s boy. But one morning during the school year in 2007, when Herard was 10, he woke up to the news that around midnight his pregnant mother had unexpectedly gone into labor. Her home was a long distance from the nearest hospital, and by the time she had arrived, it was too late. She died giving birth at the age of 34.
“That’s the reason why I chose the number 34 for my jersey,” Herard said. “I was really close to her. I always felt comfortable when I was around her. I always wanted to spend more time with her.”
Left without his mother at such a young age, Herard’s aunt and grandmother stepped in to raise him.
In 2010, not just his life was disrupted, but the earth itself was ripped apart. On January 12, a catastrophic earthquake that the country is still recovering from rocked Haiti, its epicenter located 15 miles west of Port-au-Prince.
As the ground stopped shaking, all Herard saw was smoke. All he heard were screams. When the dust settled and he could survey the damage, he discovered that his neighborhood had been demolished. Herard’s world had very literally crumbled around him as nearly every single building around had collapsed – all except the one he was in.
Dazed, Herard left the building and began the search not for answers to what had happened, but for the location and safety of his family members. Miraculously, they were unharmed and were able to find each other on the upended streets strewn with rubble, injured survivors, and the bodies of those not fortunate enough to survive.
Tragedy and hardship had once again left their marks on Herard’s life.
So, when other freshmen across America grew frustrated in their struggles to find their way onto the court in college this year, Herard – the only member of his family to go to college – didn’t think for a moment about joining them. When he was finally inserted into the starting lineup at MSU two weeks ago, Herard was proud not just of his ability, but of his survival.
“That was awesome to see myself in the lineup. That means so much,” Herard said. “But coming off the bench, I’m cool with that, too. Four or five years before that, I was never thinking I’d be here. Even if I was the 10th man on the team, I’d still be fine. I’m truly blessed to be here.”
Of course, Herard becoming the 10th man any time soon is unlikely. Dropping around 40 pounds since he got to campus in June (his weight in high school grew quickly when he discovered fast food, burritos and pizza), Herard is playing at a trim-for-his-size 240 pounds and has become a breakout player for the Bulldogs.
“He’s really done a good job since his arrival back in June,” Howland said. “It’s such a huge jump. It’s him learning to play … When you don’t grow up playing in fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh, eighth grade, you don’t have those experiences with basketball. It’s tougher. You’ve got a lot to learn, but you’re still working on stuff that other kids already know. But on the flipside, the ceiling for kids like that is sometimes a lot higher because of that fact.”
To reach that ceiling, Herard is once again putting in extra time. Just as his daily tutoring sessions in high school helped him with classes, his extra cardio in the early mornings and unending free throws in the late afternoon have helped him blossom into one of the SEC’s best young forwards.
The breakout moment came last Saturday when Herard’s 16 points, four rebounds, 6-of-8 free throw shooting and disrupting presence in the paint helped lift MSU to one of its biggest wins of the season, upsetting Texas A&M in Starkville.
“Schnider is playing great,” senior point guard I.J. Ready said. “I think the game is slowing down for him. And of course, we’re feeding him and have a lot of confidence in him. When the time came, he responded very well.”
Responding well has been a habit of Herard’s.
If his progress continues, Herard’s career is likely not only to blossom at MSU, but to grow into a professional future with resources and luxuries he could hardly have dreamed of as a kid. But even if that doesn’t happen, even if he never touches a basketball again, Herard has already accomplished the near-impossible, has already survived disaster and has already emerged from the rubble with the strength to succeed and the heart to enjoy and appreciate the life he’s been given.
“Basketball can come and go,” Shelby said, “and no matter what, that’s my son. Basketball is temporary. But he’s going to get an education that can not just change his life, but change his family’s life over in Haiti.”
Very certainly, Schnider Herard’s life has already changed a very great deal in a very short time. His unexpected chance has opened the door to even more unexpected opportunities in his new world.
“So far, so good,” Herard said with a smile.
Pretty good, indeed.