Struggles of immigrant parents drive Clemson’s Mackensie Alexander to chase American Dream

Clemson cornerback Mackensie Alexander with his parents Jean and Marie after a victory at Memorial Stadium in 2014. Mackensie is an early-round prospect in the 2016 NFL Draft. (Photo provided by the Alexander family)

CLEMSON — Mackensie Alexander, dreaming of glory beyond himself, nodded with empathy as his idol was overcome by real life.

Minutes after slipping into his new Pro Football Hall of Fame blazer on Aug. 6, 2011, Deion Sanders broke into an impassioned monologue thanking his mother for working whatever jobs it took to let Sanders find his way to the NFL.

Once just a kid from south Florida with unnatural football ability but odds stacked against him, Sanders’ eyes filled with tears and his voice cracked at the induction ceremony: “I made a pledge to myself: I don’t care what it takes, my momma will never have to work another day of her life. ... The problem is with some dreams, the dream’s only about you. If your dream ain’t bigger than you, there’s a problem with your dream.”

Watching on television was a 17-year-old kid entering his junior year at Immokalee High School whose mother and father faced decades of daunting challenges to raise their family in a new country.

“You could immediately see that (speech) resonate on his face,” said Jerrod Ackley, Alexander’s high school coach. “After that, he says to me, ‘I’m going to do this for my parents.’”

Going on to star at Clemson and hoping to hear his name called among the 31 first-round picks in the NFL Draft on Thursday, Alexander has been full speed ever since. Even though their son’s finances are about to change dramatically, Marie and Jean Alexandre (their surname is spelled differently from their children’s) continue to toil away in south Florida. Mackensie’s 60-year-old father still picks tomatoes twice a week. They’ve never known any other way.

The word “Immokalee” was derived from a Seminole term meaning “my home” or “his home.” If pride is part of the equation in the small agricultural farming town nestled between Fort Myers and the Everglades, so are struggles and sacrifice.

The 2010 U.S. Census reported Immokalee’s per capita income was $8,576, one of the poorest income averages in America. A 2011 New York Times article wrote, “Immokalee is ... to the outsider at least a depressing community with few signs of hope.”

Immokalee provides one of the nation’s largest sources for tomatoes — 90 percent of this country’s winter tomatoes are harvested in Florida — and many of its residents have worked much of their lives in the tomato farms without health insurance, sick days or, after emigrating from Mexico, Guatemala, Haiti or the Dominican Republic, family to care for them.

A 2009 documentary titled “Immokalee, My Home” illustrates the life of an immigrant tomato picker. Every morning, men and women load into buses before dawn. The sun rises as they trudge their way to the tomato fields for shifts of 10, 12 or even 14 hours — and in the sweltering south Florida heat, they must wear boots and long-sleeved clothing to protect their skin from getting cut.

In the film, a man speaks Popti, a Mayan language spoken in parts of Guatemala and Mexico, to his friends and family back in Guatemala: “Because there are so many obstacles in front of us, we must always struggle to be respected. But in this struggle, we must never forget our culture or our language.”

“For me to watch that happen,” Mackensie Alexander said recently, “I’m just humbled every time I’m home. That’s the reason I chose to train (for the draft) at home, to see these things happen right in front of you every day.”

Marie and Jean are Haitian immigrants who separately reached America as adults and found each other among the harsh conditions in Immokalee’s tomato fields. On Nov. 12, 1993, Marie and Jean welcomed twin boys Mackenro and Mackensie in Naples, Fla.

The parents speak very little English, but the boys grew up speaking both English and Creole, one of two official languages of Haiti (French is the other). They also were raised under the language of labor.

“Our parents taught us: Nothing’s free in this country. Nobody owes you anything,” said Mackenro, the older brother by a few minutes. “You have the same 24 hours as everybody else in the world. What do you want to do that separates you from others? Everybody wakes up and goes to work, but what are you willing to sacrifice to achieve?”

All Marie and Jean knew was taking care of the family. It was on their kids to get an education and make something else of their lives besides picking tomatoes.

“Their parents have done a great job of instilling the idea that you have to work hard to get ahead because they model that behavior to their kids,” said Ackley, who coached the Alexanders at Immokalee High School and now coaches in Austin, Texas.

“Mackensie was not just working for a college scholarship. He’s not just working for a chance in the NFL. He’s working as an extension of that American Dream that his parents instilled in him at a very young age and the reason they came to the United States to begin with.”

While Jean still works in the tomato fields twice a week, Marie is no longer able because of her health. She had back surgery just before Clemson’s appearance in the national championship game in January. Mackensie jetted straight from Glendale, Ariz., to south Florida to be by her side during the first few days of her recuperation.

Their homeland remains important to the Alexanders, who lost some extended family in Haiti’s devastating 2010 earthquake. Their closest relative, Marie’s sister, survived the quake. The twins have not been to Haiti since they were 11.

“I’ve told my mom, when she gets healthy, that’s a trip I do want to make,” Mackensie said. “We’re going to go to Haiti and check it out and enjoy it whenever I get a good little break and some time off.”

Trey Robinson, a Charleston-based agent who represents Alexander, has spent time this spring in Immokalee.

“It’s not easy living. Most people who grow up there would never be able to get out of there,” Robinson said. “It’s a testament to who he is as a person that he has the opportunity he has now. He’s very well-spoken, very intellectual in how he thinks, very long-sighted. He’s very proud of his Haitian heritage, which to him, translates to hard work.”

Mackensie was not as physically gifted as Mackenro or other teammates in high school, but he was more motivated and disciplined, says Ackley, his former coach. Mackensie would go out in the yard beside his house and perfect his footwork until well after sundown. He’d even do his own drills after games on Friday nights.

“He would grab a freshman or sophomore receiver who hadn’t played,” Ackley said, “and Mackensie would line him up and say, ‘OK, you run this route,’ and he’d do backpedal drills. When the game was over. That’s how he always was.

“People would work. Mackensie would work harder.”

Immokalee’s streets are rich with Division I talent, but few make it as far as Alexander.

“To him, it’s not just, ‘I worked hard to get to this point,’” Robinson said. “Some guys just want to make the league and they think, ‘I’ve made it.’ For him, it’s a lifelong thing. His work level, his intensity, his dedication to his passion will only continue to grow in the league.”

Four-time Pro Bowl running back Edgerrin James is the local hero, but Immokalee has also produced NFL players Javarris James, Brian Rolle and Albert Bentley.

Alexander hopes to become the next source of hope as he trains in Immokalee with aspirations to fulfill his Haitian-American Dream.

“We don’t live the same lifestyle everybody else lives. It makes you appreciate life a whole lot more,” Mackensie said. “I was born in this country, and I’m blessed to be here, and I’m thankful to be able to play this sport. But I put the work in because of my parents. They’ve done this all their lives.

“For me not to put the time into something I really want to be good at, to drop everything and focus on what you need to focus on to be successful ... if you couldn’t do that when you watched your parents (struggle,) I don’t know what’s wrong with you.”