FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Rookie running back Sony Michel has infused the New England Patriots with a much-needed spark on the field while standing out to teammates with a wise-beyond-his-years perspective.
To begin to understand why, take a trip back in time to 1990, when Michel's mother, Marie, immigrated to the United States from Haiti.
“I’ve learned about [her journey] very late," Michel said. "Maybe last year was the first time actually asking her about her experience.
"In the Haitian culture, and I think many cultures, there are always boundaries. I always felt I was the kid, so stay in the kid's place. I don’t ask.”
"When I walk on that field, that Michel on my back is not just for me. It's bigger than me. It's my family." Sony Michel
But at some point last year, as Michel prepared to make the transition from University of Georgia star to Patriots first-round draft pick, something changed.
“I just kind of felt it was right, and I asked. She told me the situation, her mindset and how she went about things. Learning about her experience is kind of similar to what we all go through in life,” he said. “We are all going to hit times of adversity, and we’re all going to have opportunities in life, and it’s all what we’re going to do with them.”
That approach reflects how Michel, who is coming off his best game as a pro, in which he totaled 133 rushing yards in a 27-13 win over the New York Jets, has quickly won over his teammates and coaches this season. They say he isn’t the typical rookie.
The Patriots (8-3) plan to rely heavily on Michel over the final five games of the regular season -- the Minnesota Vikings (6-4-1) visit on Sunday -- and what they hope is a deep playoff run.
As they do so, Michel will continue to rely on the strength and guidance of his family, especially Marie.
Michel, 23, is living his dream as a professional football player. When Marie was 23, her dreams were different.
She was living in Haiti with her 19-month-old daughter, Lamise, and the future didn’t seem bright.
“I left Haiti for a better life,” she said.
Marie spent three months in the Bahamas before taking an overnight boat ride with 13 others to Miami with just a small notebook in her hands that included her sister’s phone number to call upon her arrival. With Marie speaking no English and initially having to leave Lamise behind, there was no certainty that the trip would produce the desired result, but she says she was leaning heavily on God and love.
Twenty-eight years later, she laughs when asked how much detail she had shared with Sony about her journey.
“I never wanted to make him upset about it,” she said.
In a quiet moment in the recently renovated Patriots locker room, Michel was asked if anyone, including himself, could truly understand the risk Marie took in journeying to the United States while not knowing if she would arrive safely.
“No, I think it would be impossible,” he said. “Now that I’m older, I can kind of have some type of perspective on it. I have some responsibilities now to see the sacrifices she made -- both my parents made -- and it shows I can’t just think for Sony. I have to do things for other people, too. Especially my family. I need them. They need me.”
In 1991, Marie met her husband, Jean, in Orlando. Their oldest son, Marken, was born in 1993, followed by Sony two years later.
Along the way, Marie worked hard at various jobs, including as a housekeeper at a hotel, to earn enough money to bring Lamise to the United States in 1996.
"Dad is similar. They are both driven the same kind of way," said Michel, whose father also emigrated from Haiti and met Marie in the U.S. "He came over here for opportunity. I haven't asked him about his experience yet, but still to this day, he likes to grind, still wants to do things, get involved."
This is the Michel family that means so much to the Patriots’ humble newcomer.
“We just stuck together through it all -- good times, the bad times," Michel said. "No matter what, nobody in my family flinched to the adverse situations. I thought that was most important. You hear so many stories about families that go through adversity, and then they break apart. But my family is still strong. We all supported each other. My parents, my brother, my sister, I supported their dreams. They supported my dream.
“That’s kind of my approach. Me doing what I do, that’s my motivation, to keep going, to keep making them proud. I know that by me being in the NFL, playing for the Patriots, I give them hope. I give a lot of people hope. Whether it’s me giving them hope or them inspiring people through me -- ‘My brother’s doing this; he’s done this’ -- I think it’s pretty cool.”
Michel includes his close friend Allen Pinder as part of that group. Pinder has been alongside Michel every step of the way since they were youngsters, following him all the way through elementary school to American Heritage High School in Fort Lauderdale to the University of Georgia to the Patriots.
"I knew he was a special kid when I met him at 8 years old," Pinder said. "He's always had a maturity and determination to be great, but he knew he would have to work harder than he ever has."
Marie tells a humorous story about Sony’s early years in football and how it was an adjustment for her to grasp what was unfolding.
“In Haiti, we play soccer. We don’t know anything about football,” she said. “When Sony’s playing running back and has the ball, everybody is tackling him. Me, I want to jump on the field to get my son. One time the coach is telling me, ‘Ms. Michel, it doesn’t work like that.’”
To which Marie replied, “Well, I’m not letting them kill my son!”
She has more of an understanding now, though it can still be difficult for her to see opponents delivering powerful blows or twisting her son’s body, as happened Oct. 21 against the Chicago Bears, when Sony hurt his knee, and again Nov. 25 against the Jets, when he injured his back.
Michel missed two games with the knee injury, and his return in recent weeks has helped provide critical balance to the Patriots’ attack. He missed only a handful of plays in the Jets game, which was a relief to many after seeing him lie prone on the turf in obvious pain.
Michel’s willingness to embrace the daily grind of a professional football player is no surprise to those who know him and his family upbringing. It also isn’t a surprise to many that Marie has continued to work in the cafeteria at American Heritage High School -- a job Sony helped her land -- even after Sony signed a four-year, $9.62 million contract as the 31st overall pick in the draft.
“You still have to try to save some,” she said. “He wants to give me [money] now, but what if one day he says, ‘I can’t help anymore’? If that happens, I still know I can take care of myself.”
Still, it has given Sony great joy to help pay rent and purchase vehicles for both of his parents.
“She’s there because she wants to be there,” he said. "That’s the type of person my mom is. She still wants to help. She still wants to inspire. She still wants to give back. I think that’s important.
“I never had that approach of ‘Hey, quit your job.’ I already knew that’s not the way she approaches things. Her vision is to build to something bigger.”
Michel also has followed the Calgary Stampeders’ successful quest for the Grey Cup in the Canadian Football League, as his brother, Marken, has been on their roster the past three years after a standout career at the University of Massachusetts.
Meanwhile, Sony is reveling in being an uncle for the first time, as Lamise, now 30, recently had a baby. Lamise also works at American Heritage High School alongside Marie.
Staying in Florida has been the best decision for the family, even after Sony relocated to New England.
“My whole aspect on it is, yeah, I’ve made it, I’m living my dream. But I’m also still working toward better things, more things. They’re doing the same thing. They’re trying to better their lives,” he said.
“Even though we’re not close [distance-wise], I can still support them. I can still help them. I don’t think them coming up here would be best for them. I feel like they can build more, and help more people, down there. People that they know. The environment they’re accustomed to.”
Marie calls it all a miracle. She says her bond with Sony is one of the blessings in her life, and they talk almost every day.
“He still listens to me. Even now in the NFL, he’ll call and say, ‘Mom, I’m going to do this. What do you think?’ So he always gets advice before he does something. But not everything. With girls? No,” she said with a laugh. “But he’s always by my side.”
This is the only way it could be. Michel chose Haiti as his theme for the NFL’s My Cause, My Cleats initiative, with the hope of raising awareness for relief efforts by wearing cleats this Sunday with the country’s flag and colors.
"I want the world to see the Haitian flag."— New England Patriots (@Patriots) November 27, 2018
Shining light on disaster relief in Haiti, @Flyguy2stackz laces them up for his family & for his home: https://t.co/Qk6DU4KCyQ#MyCauseMyCleats pic.twitter.com/fGbsw2HhoL
“When I walk on that field, that Michel on my back is not just for me. It’s bigger than me. It’s my family,” he said after revisiting what it was like when he learned of Marie’s journey from Haiti to the United States.
“Being raised in the [Haitian] culture, that’s the expectation -- it’s not going to be pretty, it’s not going to be fun. I knew that her trip wasn’t fun, so I kind of braced myself.
“That right there put it in perspective. Her story was inspiring for me.”