Staff Photo: Brendan Sullivan Recent Lanier High School graduate Hendhi Agenor poses for a portrait in Sugar Hill on May 24, 2012. Agenor moved to Georgia from Haiti after the 2010 earthquake. During his time at Lanier High School Agenor competed in tennis, soccer and football. In the fall Agenor plans to study finance while attending Florida International University.
Hendhi Agenor spent his first semester at North Gwinnett getting used to everything.
High school in America was nothing like it had been in Haiti.
Agenor was in class at North Gwinnett less than three weeks after the 7.0 magnitude earthquake devastated his hometown of Port-au-Prince.
"In Haiti, I went to a private Christian, American school," said Agenor, an A student and standout three-sport athlete. "So I'd never been to public school. The entire school from pre-K all the way to 12th grade was all in one school on about three acres. We had about 300 students total.
"So obviously when I came here it was kind of like culture shock."
The strongest earthquake to hit Haiti in more than 200 years hit on Jan. 12, 2010. Agenor's house, north of the city center, was left intact. So was his school, but it was taken over by the U.S. military to use as a base for humanitarian aid and he wasn't able to go back.
"When I first heard the rumbling, at first I thought it was a truck because normally we have huge trucks always driving by," Agenor said. "Then everything started shaking. It was intense.
"It only lasted 30 seconds, but the damage in that time was unbelievable."
Agenor, then in the middle of his sophomore year, was able to get out of the city two weeks later on a bus with his mom and younger brother. They road to the Domincan Republic and then caught a flight to Ft. Lauderdale where a longtime family friend lives. Then the three of them came to stay with Agenor's sister and her husband, who have lived in Gwinnett for the last 15 years.
Agenor started at North, with it's 3,400 students, just days later.
"I got lost every day because it was so big," Agenor said. "On top of that, the way the school was, being in a private school, we all had uniforms and a very strict code of conduct. I come here and you wear what you want, use technology at school. In Haiti, we weren't even allowed to chew gum during class. Here we can pretty much do anything."
It took a month or two, but the tall, well-spoken teenager started to settle into his new life.
And he chose to stay when his mom and 10-year-old brother returned to Haiti that summer since their school was reopened.
"I have a lot of family in Haiti still," Agenor said. "My dad decided he could stay because his job was still intact. He worked at the bank. My mom, we have our own family business, a contracting company, so she could still work.
"My parents decided I would stay because it would be better if I finished my schooling in America. Then I would have more opportunities for post-high school education."
Agenor agreed with the decision.
"I thought it would be better," he said. "I thought I would have more opportunity -- which I did -- for sports and school. And it would be an easier transition (to college) if I was already in the U.S. system. I was planning on going to school in the U.S. anyway."
By the time his junior year started, Agenor was ready to jump into a new school -- and a new sport.
Agenor has played soccer his whole life and tennis since he was 7. He wasn't able to do either at North because there wasn't time to get issues with insurance or a physical straightened out before the spring season started.
But Lanier High School opened in the fall of 2010 and Agenor became part of the first class.
"Coming to Lanier was great," he said. "Transferring from an old school to a new school is easier because I could create traditions instead of having to follow them like at North.
"Also doing sports was much easier -- especially for football. North football is really big and coming to Lanier it was easier to get playing time -- and learn the game. I decided since I'm going to a new school, I might as well just start something new. I just walked up to Coach (Billy) Wells and said, 'I'm playing football.'"
Agenor had never watched a game and he knew just a handful of the positions -- and only thought he could play one of those.
"They asked me where I wanted to play," he said. "I knew I couldn't throw -- so not quarterback. I knew I couldn't catch -- so not receiver. I'm not fast enough to play running back and I'm not big enough to play lineman.
"So I said I'd play linebacker. They looked at me and said I should play lineman. I said 'OK,' but in my head I was thinking, 'I'm too small to play lineman.' Then I went on the field and everyone was smaller than me."
He started at tackle and, after the second game of the season, was asked to play center.
"We had some snap problems with the center, so at the next practice, my offensive line coach was like, 'Hendhi, take a few snaps,'" he said. "I didn't even know what a snap count was.
"I'd be going offsides every single time. I wouldn't know when to snap it. I had to get the quarterback to teach me the cadence."
But they didn't move him from the position. Agenor was the Longhorns' starting center for the rest of the season and throughout his senior year.
"I even asked coach if I could try tight end," Agenor said. "He said no, we need you at center."
Agenor was also an anchor for the tennis and soccer teams. That he was able to play both in the same season is a testament to his dedication and the willingness of the school's athletic program to accommodate the talented Agenor. It helped that tennis matches were most often in the afternoon and soccer didn't kick off until evening.
"At first, though, I thought I was going to have to make a decision whether to play soccer or tennis," he said. "But thanks to the coaches, they were able to bend some rules so I could do both."I was glad I was able to do both. They were both fun. At first last year, I was planning on choosing soccer, but as the year went on, I had so much fun playing tennis that I really couldn't make a choice anymore. I had to do both."
Tennis coach Ana Rusch wasn't sure what she was getting in Agenor.
"He was the football center," Rusch said. "He's a big, tall kid and someone said, 'Oh, he plays tennis.'
"You have a lot of kids that say they can play. He can play. He had definitely played before."
His first season of tennis, Agenor won. His team didn't. The Longhorns were 0-15 in 2011.
This year, they went 12-8 and narrowly missed making the state tournament. The No. 1 singles player and, it turns out, quite a recruiter, Agenor was a big part of the turnaround.
"He talked up the program, said this was something special," Rusch said. "We had 24 boys come out this year -- and we only take 12. Last year, we had to beg for a seventh and eighth player so we could have a team."
A couple of the recruits came from soccer, so this season it was more than just Agenor dashing from match to match.
The tennis season was a big success. The soccer season was sometimes tough with many tight losses, but that program improved a great deal as well.
"Statistically, it didn't go as well as we wanted it to," Agenor said. "We only won five games. But behind the numbers, you could tell we had made huge strides in the way we played. Last year we'd be getting blown out 6-2 and 5-2. This year, we managed to cut the games a lot closer. We would lose by just a goal or two. We made huge strides."
The honor of being part of the building process at Lanier isn't lost on Agenor.
"Starting out the first football team, because I know how big football is here in the South," he said. "The first soccer team. The first tennis team.
"It's been great laying the foundation for upcoming for future Longhorns. We even started a few traditions already for football. I look forward to coming back and seeing how we've progressed."
Agenor, who took four AP classes and earned a 98 GPA as a senior, is headed to Florida International in the fall. He'll be closer to his family in Haiti, a short plane ride from Miami, and plans to study finance with an eye toward returning to Haiti and expanding on his family's contracting business.
"Growing up, my parents were always making sure I stayed focused on school," Agenor said. "I was taught to read at a very young age. My mom always wanted me to speak English so it was her decision for me to go to a U.S. private school in Haiti. So at a very young age, I had already learned to speak English. They put the foundation in me to always do well in school."
And he's planning on trying to walk on for one or more teams at FIU.
"He's an amazing athlete and he's a leader," Rusch said. "The kids really responded to him. He's a lead-by-example type of kid. He's always doing the right thing.
"He's so athletic, so good and so humble. His personality is the way he plays -- he gives it his all. It's why he has that GPA and is that kind of athlete. He gives 100 percent."