By Jenn Menendez / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
The life-altering trip began when a small airplane touched down on a dirt runway on the northern coast of Haiti. A ride to an orphanage in the flatbed of a cow truck followed.
Pitt linebacker Mike Caprara surveyed the shocking scene splayed out before him, the huts made of scrap metal, the garbage, tedhe piled cinder blocks forming the walls of someone’s home.
It was 2013, the spring of Caprara’s freshman year at Pitt, and less than three years removed from the devastating earthquake that rocked the already impoverished country to its knees.
“That’s when it first hit us, as we drove down that road,” Caprara said. “You’re looking left and right, and you could get a real feel for how bad things were for them. That’s when it hit me: This is only an hour flight from the United States? It really just hurt my heart.”
What followed was a kind of awakening for Caprara, a lifelong Catholic from Woodland Hills High School, whose depth expands far beyond the football field.
A senior now, and veteran of four missions to Haiti, Caprara is also a regular participant in various local community outreach programs and last week was named one of 30 finalists for the nationally prestigious Lowes Senior CLASS award. It’s an honor bestowed on the player who most stands out in the community and classroom, and displays character in competition.
A month earlier Caprara was named to the Allstate American Football Coaches Association (AFCA) Good Works Team, one of 24 players nationwide who dedicate their time to bettering the community around them.
“I think one of the main things [the missions have] allowed Mike to do is to use his gifts other than football,” said Mark Steffey, a campus minister with the Coalition for Christian Outreach and football team chaplain. “Mike is a leader. It’s let him use his leadership gifts, to lead those other student athletes. Mike is a person with a lot of strengths, and I think it kind of relates to the football field, honestly. On the football field he makes up for his perceived lack of outstanding athleticism because of his intellect and his commitment to learn the game. I’d say the same thing is true about Haiti. He’s not just going to here to have a good time, but to learn.”
Caprara first heard about missions to Haiti from former teammate Andrew Taglianetti. He instantly was intrigued.
“Right away he said I’m a guy who’s not a one-dimensional person,” recalled Steffey, who led the missions. “He was in his high school musical at Woodland Hills, played baseball. It’s who he was … I also think there’s more of a culture of service among young people than there used to be, probably. Maybe it’s because the world’s gotten smaller in their eyes?”
At an orphanage in Haiti, his days began early by helping the kids get ready for school, then going downstairs to teach. They worked on booklets in either small groups or one-on-one.
Caprara worked mostly with 10-12-year-old boys, who spoke in English and Creole. The women on his mission, also Pitt athletes, worked with some of the younger girls. They would start the day by singing a traditional song every morning.
It moved him every time.
“I was crying like a baby,” Caprara said. “Just watching them sing together, in unison, and be a family within the orphanage. From how much they didn’t have? I realized this is a strong group of kids. I was so amazed with their drive, how much they wanted to learn, make their country better.”
The trip was so enriching, he felt compelled to sign up again and again, eventually leading a mission on his own, to share his faith and grow as a person.
When he thinks of those trips, it’s the smallest gestures that have stuck with him.
“I remember one day a couple of us had extra jolly ranchers in our packs and we gave it to one kid,” Caprara said. “He’d suck on it for a little bit and give it to his friend to let his buddy suck on it a little bit.”
It was a shocking departure from the bounty of food he was used to having access to by just opening the refrigerator door at home.
Some of the orphans never knew their parents, others lost them in the earthquake. Some were born HIV-positive and abandoned.
“Despite how much those kids don’t have, their faith is so strong. They thank God every day they’re alive and they’re his son or daughter,” Caprara said. “That was something that blew me away.”
Back at Pitt, his career on the football field finally took a positive turn when coach Pat Narduzzi and defensive coordinator Josh Conklin arrived before the 2015 season.
Prior to that, Caprara had been a kind of forgotten man of the defense under former coach Paul Chryst. The scheme didn’t make complete sense to him, and it affected his ability to thrive.
“That’s where I personally got lost in the mix. If you’re not on point you can’t play fast and they can’t trust you to be out there,” Caprara said.
He said the Narduzzi-Conklin defense simply makes sense to him. And after missing the last handful of games with a lower body injury, Caprara plans to return to face Virginia Tech Thursday night at Heinz Field at the “Money” outside linebacker position.
“There’s no gray areas with this defense,” he said. “I always knew ball and was a smart player. But understanding the defense, it makes it that much easier to play faster.”
Football is just a piece of who his son is, said Mike Caprara Sr., who was never surprised Mike made his way to struggling Haiti not once or twice, but four times.
“Honestly, I wasn’t shocked. That’s the way Mike’s always been ever since he was a young teenager, he’s always looked to help others,” Mike Sr. said. “Instinctively, that’s the way he’s always been.”
Mike, his father explained, went to church regularly with his grandmother — “St. Joan” they call her — and was hooked on community service from the first time he had an opportunity to volunteer in high school.
Former football manager Colin Sisk, who now is a life skills coordinator at Pitt, said it’s a striking quality.
“Mike has always been one of those students who is incredibly engaged,” Sisk said. “Going to Haiti four times takes a deep personal commitment. Service is a mentality for him. He’s really found his niche.”
And for Caprara, whose team is still within striking distance of an ACC Coastal Division title, he plans to return to Haiti after football season, regardless of which direction life sends him.
He has run the trip before by himself before, organizing it is a few texts and phone calls away.
“Why not take that opportunity to help somebody?” Caprara said. “Because you really have to understand how fortunate we are, how blessed we are each and every day to do what we do.”
Courtesy of Jenn Menendez, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. To read more, please click HERE