ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. -- Visions of future NFL grandeur aren't dancing in Claudell Louis' head as the 6-foot-5, 294-pound undrafted defensive lineman stands on the edge of the Buffalo Bills' practice field Tuesday after his team's second organized team activity of the spring.
On a cloudless, 70-degree afternoon near Buffalo, his thoughts go back to a much darker day, perhaps the darkest in the history of his native Haiti: Jan. 12, 2010.
Just before 5 o'clock that evening, a 7.0-magnitude earthquake rocked the island nation to its core. Hospitals crumbled, homes were destroyed and by the time the more than 50 aftershocks ended, an estimated 100,000 people had died. The poorest country in the Americas, and one of the poorest in the world, was largely reduced to rubble.
After spending the first 12 years of his life with his father in Haiti and visiting his mother in the Miami area each summer, Louis and the rest of his immediate family moved to the United States in 2001. He graduated from Boynton Beach (Florida) Community High School, and by Jan. 12, 2010, Louis was working a wage job for a retirement home in the area when he first heard news of the devastation about 700 miles away in the Caribbean.
As Louis watched the initial reports emerge on television, he and his family tried to reach relatives in Haiti. No luck. The already-shoddy communications infrastructure of the country had been wrecked by the quake. When Louis was able to connect on the phone, all he heard was screaming from family members as he and his parents tried to ask what they could do to help.
Louis soon learned that an older cousin named Ralph was lucky to be alive. His cousin was in a school when the tremors began, and about "10 or 20 seconds" after Ralph escaped, the building completely collapsed. Family members of Louis' old friends from school and church lost their lives in the chaos of the quake, he recalled Tuesday.
And now, Louis wants to return to Haiti for the first time since he left the country 15 years ago.
"Hopefully soon," Louis, who speaks with a slight Creole accent, said Tuesday. "Because I want to. Because with the advantage from the NFL, you could start and help a lot of people back at home. Because that's the plan for me, to help back at home.
"I would probably start with an orphanage. Help all the little kids. Use myself as an example because I was born and raised in Haiti. Telling them that anything is possible. Because a lot of them, just a lot of kids in general just grow up and feel like they don't have hope. But I mean, hope is a powerful thing. You got to keep believing and keep pushing yourself to get better."
Louis knows what is possible with hope. His football career to this point has been nothing short of remarkable, if not accidental. In Haiti, the game was foreign to him. The NFL might be gaining popularity in that country these days, but in the 1990s, soccer and basketball dominated the sports landscape in Haiti.
Soccer was Louis' first love, and when he moved to Florida, he played the sport in middle school. But he soon grew too big for soccer, and so one of his older brothers suggested trying football. As a freshman in high school, Louis practiced with the junior varsity football team, but the learning curve was steep.
Forget Cover 2 defenses or zone-blocking schemes. Louis had to learn the game from the ground up, and that meant embarrassing moments around his teammates when he wasn't sure how many points a touchdown was worth or how to put on his shoulder pads.
Louis gave up football after one season in high school.
"I said, maybe I would try football later on," he recalled Tuesday. "Or maybe not."
He didn't try football again during high school, and after a year of soccer, he quit that, too. He wanted to focus on his grades, and that meant not participating in sports at all. With no prospects in athletics, Louis began working at the rest home after graduation while continuing to keep himself in shape.
Eventually, the idea of playing football again crossed Louis' mind. He found a training facility in Wellington, Florida, to learn the sport. After getting an up-close look at Louis, one of the trainers called his friend Alvin Amilcar, a Florida native who played at the College of the Sequoias in Visalia, California, and later at UNLV. Amilcar referred Louis to Robert Dougherty, the head coach at COS.
By the fall of 2011, Louis was in football pads again. Learning the game in the desert-like climate untouched by the urban sprawl of San Francisco or Los Angeles, Louis was a 41-hour drive away from his family in Florida and more than 3,000 miles from his original home in Haiti.
"I would probably start with an orphanage. Help all the little kids. Use myself as an example, because I was born and raised in Haiti. Telling them that anything is possible. Because a lot of them, just a lot of kids in general just grow up and feel like they don't have hope. But I mean, hope is a powerful thing. You got to keep believing and keep pushing yourself to get better." Louis, on his intentions to return to Haiti to help his community
Louis' two years playing football at the junior college level caught the attention of coaches at Fresno State, a Division I program about 50 miles north. Louis enrolled at the school in 2013, redshirted his first season and began to break through by the end of the 2014 season, making his first start for Fresno State in its Hawaii Bowl loss to Rice on Christmas Eve.
Last fall, Louis blossomed. He finished second on the team with 6.5 tackles for loss, got his first forced fumble and tallied five sacks. He was an honorable mention All-Mountain West selection, and NFL scouts took notice. Louis' coaches relayed the scouts' interest to him, but he couldn't believe it.
"They told me maybe I'd have a chance to play at the next level," Louis said Tuesday. "To be honest, with me not having a lot of background playing football, I didn't think that was possible."
Despite Louis' expectations, an opportunity to join an NFL roster was possible. The kid from Haiti who grew up playing soccer, stopped playing football after his freshman year of high school and worked in a retirement home to make ends meet made the improbable trip across the country to play junior college football. He climbed his way up the ladder at Fresno State, beat the odds and, on May 2, agreed to a professional contract with the Bills.
Louis faces yet another challenge in trying to crack the Bills' regular-season roster this summer. He conceded Tuesday he's still nervous sharing practice fields and meeting rooms with coach Rex Ryan and assistant defensive backs coach Ed Reed, two of the NFL's most well-known figures of the past decade.
But if there is anything to put the daunting task now facing Louis into perspective, it is his unlikely journey to simply reach this point.
"Everything I do, I try to stay in the moment," he said. "You never know what life is going to turn out to be or what life is going to give you. So just stay in the moment and make sure I seize each moment and each practice and get better. And then if it comes to fruition, then it comes to fruition. And if not, then go and do something else."