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Sports >  WSU football

Two former orphans from Haiti announced commitments to Washington State on June 28. Here’s how Jakobus Seth and Djouvensky Schlenbaker are connected through fate, fortune and football

Because college football recruiting is a never-ending cycle that consumes roughly 365 days a year, it’s uncommon for programs that typically sign between 15-30 new players every season to pick up multiple commitments in a single day. Commitments tend to happen on a more sporadic basis – maybe once every few weeks on average – but schools do manage to hit the occasional jackpot.

This rare recruiting conquest happened recently at Washington State.

Jakobus Seth, an enormous tight end/defensive end who projects as an offensive tackle at the college level, and Djouvensky Schlenbaker, a strong, fast running back, both chose a future with the Cougars late last month and made their decisions public on the same day.

It was 8:27 a.m. on June 28 when Schlenbaker penned a commitment letter on his Twitter account and shared photos from his official visit to WSU. Seth’s reveal happened on Instagram later that night, just shy of 10 p.m.

But when it comes to the parallel tracks their lives have followed, this is just the tip of the iceberg.

Both play high school football on the west side of Washington – Seth for 2A Lakewood and Schlenbaker for 3A Squalicum – and here’s another interesting twist: they chose the same weekend, June 25-27, to go on their official visits, though Seth and Schlenbaker say they never bumped into each other, maybe the only way to confirm their June 28 announcements weren’t actually choreographed.

If you didn’t know any better, you’d think their lives had been.

There’s a reason WSU’s coaches connected the in-state prospects a few months earlier through a group text message chat. It’s true: their visits and same-day commitments were completely random, but Seth was familiar with Schlenbaker and vice versa. Now their bond stands to grow even tighter.

“Us Haitians got to stick together,” Schlenbaker wrote in an Instagram post when Seth committed to the Cougars.

Schlenbaker and Seth are natives of Haiti – both former orphans who’d been legally adopted by families in Washington before a 7.0 magnitude earthquake slammed the Greater Antilles island in 2010. But the future WSU football players didn’t actually make it out until Jan. 12, the day powerful tremors started to uproot the impoverished third-world country.

With evacuation stories that should make more than a few jaws drop if they’re ever shared in WSU’s locker room, both Seth and Schlenbaker got out safely – their outlook much more optimistic than that of a nation that suffered more than 220,000 deaths as a result of the destructive quake.

“I remember the chaos of it and the situation being stressful for everybody, but you can’t fully understand the gravity of the situation until somebody tells you when you’re much older,” Seth said. “I just remember it being a new situation for everybody and how scared everyone was. That’s about the full extent of it.”

‘Somebody was looking out for us’

It’s become a household joke for Sena Seth and her family of five.

“I can tease my biological kids about how many hours I was in labor and this and that and the other,” she said. “I tell Jakobus and Stella, his sister, you guys were the worst labor. You guys were hard.”

When Sena and her husband decided to adopt in 2007, they were already parents of three – two daughters and a son – and figured they’d round things out by bringing another boy into the family to interact with their own son. It didn’t happen that way, though, because not long after identifying Jakobus on their first trip to Haiti, they also learned of his older sister, Stella.

Jakobus was too young to remember the details, but he reasoned the adoption process was “pretty much like shopping,” and still wonders why his parents wanted to keep shopping after giving birth to their first three children.

“I don’t know why they’d want five kids,” he laughed, “but that’s what they wanted.”

When the Seths took their first trip to Haiti in 2007, they hosted Jakobus at their hotel. They watched him wade through their swimming pool. They bought him his first Coca Cola. They saw the wide grin of a boy whose less-than-modest lifestyle rarely gave him reasons to smile. At the orphanage, Jakobus’ nights were spent on plain metal bunk beds, usually not outfitted with mattresses or blankets. But those meager circumstances didn’t seem to change his demeanor.

“(He) was just the sweetest as could be,” Sena said.

It took 2½ years to complete adoption paperwork, visas, passports and everything else the Seths would need to bring Jakobus and Stella back to Washington, meaning they couldn’t return to Haiti to finalize the adoption until 2010. So, they came back in January of that year. Jan. 12 specifically.

“Crazy timing,” Sena said.

Sena and Jarrod Seth made a fateful decision to fly in and out of Haiti on the same day, rather than stay the night in a hotel. A taxi transported the parents and their two new children to the airport and the four were standing in line with boarding passes when they first noticed rumbles. As the seismic activity below started to intensify, most passengers fled back through the airport’s main entrance, but Jarrod Seth grabbed his family by the hands and made a beeline to the airplane.

A Haitian soccer player who was studying in the U.S. helped the Seths translate to their French creole-speaking children what was happening as they waited nervously on the tarmac. While pilots tested out the runway for cracks or debris that might make a departure unfeasible, billows of smoke emerged from the city behind the airport.

“The airport had quite a few cracks in it,” Sena said. “All of the ceiling tiles had fallen down on us. But it was really creepy seeing all that smoke and knowing how serious of an earthquake that had been and not hearing any sirens or anything. It’s like, I don’t know if there’s any help coming.”

Once pilots got clearance, the Seths hurried onto the passenger plane that ferried them to Florida. They boarded the last plane to leave Port-au-Prince before the earthquake grounded every other commercial flight coming in and out of the country.

“The earthquake had happened and we were just waiting on the runway, they were doing a runway check and there was one plane left,” Jakobus said. “We were fortunate enough to make it on that plane.”

What they left behind was a country that had its already-flimsy infrastructure swallowed by one of the most destructive natural disasters in recent memory. The orphanage Jakobus and Stella resided in was damaged. Numerous guests staying at the hotel Sena and Jarrod would’ve booked didn’t survive. Buildings that had stored adoption documents for both children were reduced to dust.

“Thank god for that timing because if we’d gone out the next day – we wouldn’t have been able to go out the next day,” Sena said. “… So, somebody was looking out for us, that’s for sure and I feel like it was really meant to be.”

‘Djouvensky picked me’

Unlike the Seths of Arlington, the Schlenbakers of Bellingham weren’t planning to add members to their family. Missionary work commonly took Kendra Schlenbaker to Haiti and while there, she’d interact with children at the various orphanages. During her first trip, the youngest boy at one of the orphan homes caught her eye – and eventually stole her heart.

When she returned a few years later, the same baby was a 2-year-old toddler. Djouvensky still goes by his nickname, Ben, and Kendra remembers asking someone at the orphanage, “Is that Ben?” when she spotted a familiar face at the opposite end of the orphanage’s playfield.

“He heard his name and nobody answered me because he came running at me,” Kendra said.

Djouvensky didn’t leave her side the remainder of the trip and when a friend captured a photo of the two, he made the comment “that’s looking kind of permanent,” to which Kendra responded “yeah, I think it is.” The picture’s had a permanent home in her wallet ever since.

“We weren’t adopting, I was just on mission work,” Kendra said. “So, I will always throw this back to Djouvensky. Djouvensky picked me.”

The Schlenbakers would’ve brought Djouvensky and his sister Djennika home earlier, but neither had birth certificates, so the family had to start from scratch. It didn’t help that Haiti’s government had a tendency to “lose track” of adoption paperwork, understanding Americans would be willing to pay a good sum of money in order to retrieve it. After firing lawyers she thought weren’t working in a time-sensitive manner, Kendra took the adoption process into her own hands and spent a month in Haiti in November of 2009. She made copies of every document and returned home to Washington for Christmas.

Just weeks later, they were alerted about an earthquake. It took 24 hours to establish communication with Djouvensky and Djennika to confirm they were alive and Kendra arranged for her husband, Brett, to take a private plane that was shipping medical teams to the Caribbean island.

“It was a breeze,” Kendra said. “He was expecting it to be really hard and it ended up, everything was just handed to him on a silver platter getting down there.”

Still, out of fear Brett might be kidnapped or lost in the chaos of the earthquake, Kendra made phone calls to numerous media outlets, appeared on Good Morning America and went to extreme lengths to assure government officials knew her husband was in Haiti extracting their adopted children. If the madness of the earthquake wasn’t enough to make two young kids shiver, consider the circumstances of their first-ever flight. Djouvensky and his sister, along with their new father, boarded a military plane that wasn’t necessarily built with the comfort of its passengers in mind. The kids were essentially strapped into small seats that came down from the plane’s side panels and transported away from the only home they’d ever known.

One of the only things a 6-year-old Djouvensky recalls from that day was “being soaking wet in the airplane because I peed all over myself. I was very afraid.”

When they landed, another moment made a permanent impression.

“My nose getting squished by my mom’s soldier,” Djouvensky laughed, replaying their first hug in the U.S.

Kendra Schlenbaker remembers the day in more detail.

“I get choked up talking about it, to be honest with you. The first time seeing my children on American soil,” she said. “My husband was coming up the escalator holding one of them on each side of him and I just lost it because I really truly didn’t think we’d pull it off. To be honest with you, I didn’t think we would.”

‘Grateful for it’

When the Schlenbakers made their first trip to Haiti as a family, they brought a peculiar, oddly-shaped ball wrapped in pigskin. It was inflated and looked similar enough to the soccer balls Djouvensky was familiar with in his home country, so the young boy dropped it on the ground and started to kick at it.

When he got to the U.S., Schlenbaker showed an instant knack for running with that same ball cradled between his arms. Sometimes he’d run past his kindergarten-aged opponents, other times through them. Either way, he had a gift.

“He was scoring over and over and over again,” Kendra recalled. “We told him no when he was like fist-pumping in the air yelling out he was the champion. It was the only English he knew, ‘Me champion, me champion.’ I was like, ‘We don’t do that in kindergarten, Djouvensky.’”

Schlenbaker, whose Hudl highlight tapes show someone who runs with patience and power, rushed for 1,068 yards and 14 touchdowns in just five games during Squalicum’s shortened spring seasons and was considered a major recruiting coup for the Cougars, who are expected to lose two seniors after the fall season. They’d also yet to sign a high school back under second-year coach Nick Rolovich.

Schlenbaker said the time he spent with Rolovich chipping golf balls onto a green at Palouse Ridge was a particularly meaningful aspect of his visit to Pullman, as was meeting Max Borghi, coincidentally on another golf course. Schlenbaker’s commitment to WSU also represents what Rolovich and the Cougars hope is the first of multiple wins over cross-state rival Washington in 2021.

The Huskies were in hot pursuit of Schlenbaker at one point during the recruiting process, as was Cal, but he explained, “when I went (to UW) on my visit, I didn’t feel really drawn to go there, if I’m being honest.”

“When I went to Cal also on a visit I felt drawn, I could go there,” Schlenbaker added. “Then when I went to WSU, I felt like that was home. It felt more like home where I want to feel like I’m waking up in my own house every day rather than not doing that, like just visiting there.”

Seth found soccer in Haiti at a young age, but he was shielded from the sport he’ll be playing on a full-ride Pac-12 scholarship until the seventh grade – his mom explaining, “I really like his head, I really like his brain and so it kind of scared me.”

Seth has shown a variety of peculiar interests away from the field. He’s tended to a vegetable garden at the family home in Arlington and he’s developed into an avid chef. It’s possible he was the only major college football recruit in America to receive a pasta maker for his last birthday. Now he balks at his mother anytime she pulls a brand-name alfredo sauce out of the refrigerator.

When Seth and Schlenbaker arrive at WSU, it’s possible their encounters won’t be confined to the gridiron. If these two didn’t share enough already, both would like to to study engineering in college.

In his time at Lakewood, Seth has excelled as a two-way lineman, so it should be no surprise his name is linked to multiple school weightlifting records. According to the Everett Herald, he can squat 485 pounds, bench press 335 and power clean 315. The 6-foot-3, 281-pound prospect who carries a 3.6 GPA was named to the All-Wesco 2A First Team as both an offensive and defensive selection.

“They have 5:30 weightlifting at the school and so that kid does not want to get out of bed in the morning,” Sena Seth said. “So that really showed how important that was to him because he didn’t miss it. He did not miss that. He was getting up. So I think physically, genetically he kind of got lucky. But he has truly, truly worked his butt off.”

In 2022, Schlenbaker and Seth will add more Haitian flavor to a WSU roster that already has a hint of it, courtesy of junior running back Jouvensly Bazil. All three have first names – Jouvensly, Djouvensky and Jouvens (Seth’s birth name) – that are strikingly similar.

This summer, Schlenbaker celebrated his 18th birthday, which is more meaningful for the Haitian-born football player than it is for many of his American friends. In Haiti, that’s usually the age kids are kicked out of the orphanage. If they’re lucky they’ll find work, but many go down a much darker road. So Schlenbaker, someone who’s usually too busy running toward the next goal – and doing so literally on the football field – has allowed himself to reflect on the circumstances, and the people, who helped him acquire a better life.

“I’m grateful for it. I don’t know if I’d be alive if I was still there,” he said. “Because when you get too old for the orphanage, you would get put kind of out on the street and try to find a job and start your life.”

Schlenbaker will be starting a new life, in a sense, when he gets to the Palouse next year. So will Seth. It’s no guarantee the future Cougs click – friendships don’t always materialize, even for people that share so much in common – but if nothing else, their congruent paths should be enough to spark a conversation next year in Pullman, hundreds of miles from their homes in Western Washington and thousands from the place they used to call home.

“It is a little crazy to think about it,” Seth said. “Even with my background in general, It’s crazy to think about the position I’ve put myself in today.”

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