The freshman philosopher

Syracuse walk-on football player Hernz Laguerre competes in the worlds of the gridiron and poetry slams.

English and football didn't come easy to Hernz Laguerre Jr.

But today, he excels at both crafts.

Laguerre, a broadcast and digital journalism freshman, enjoys performing at live poetry slams during his spare time. This past school year, he also walked on to the Syracuse University football team.

In middle school, Laguerre’s church youth group leader told Laguerre he spoke like a poet, Laguerre said, and encouraged him perform spoken word poetry. From there, Laguerre said his poetry developed further during his freshman year at Spring Valley High School, when his interest in literature led him into different modes of storytelling.

Photo: Alison Joy, Lauren Teng & Callan Gray
Hernz Laguerre Jr. catches a ball during Syracuse's spring football game in April.

Poetry, though, was always his favorite.

“I realized how great of an influence poetry has,” Laguerre said. “The literary elements I incorporate — metaphors, analogies — help people relate to my story more and let me tell it in a unique way.”

Laguerre had experience with public speaking outside of performing live poetry when he participated in his high school’s forensic and debate league team his junior and senior years. Morose Leonard, the advisor for the club, said Laguerre rose quickly in the group, becoming one of their best debaters.

“Whatever you teach him, he’ll implement it right away,” Leonard said. “He’s hungry for learning, and I admire that in him.”

Leonard taught Laguerre English last year and said he saw Laguerre’s hunger in the classroom.

“He’s willing to work hard to get to where he wants,” Leonard said. “If he’s the best, it’s not because of sheer talent, but because of his dedication.”

What amazed Leonard the most, though, is that even though Laguerre grew up speaking Haitian Creole, Laguerre writes and performs in his second language: English.

“He has to master everything that goes with the language, all while mastering the art of poetry,” Leonard said.

Leonard recalled one instance when language provided Laguerre some difficulty. He finished runner up in a poetry competition last year partly due to a lack of clarity in his voice. Leonard saw his student’s disappointment, but reminded him that he shouldn’t confuse doing his best with being recognized as the best.

“I told him, ‘don’t fall in love with success,’” Leonard said. “‘Don’t let it be a hindrance to enjoying what you do.’”

Laguerre has taken that to heart, saying that when he participates in competitions, he has his mind set on more than just first place.

“I don’t go to competitions necessarily to win, but to share knowledge,” Laguerre. said. “I always think if someone has a totally opposite view from mine, I’ll still listen to their ideas.”

Laguerre still keeps in touch with Leonard, who has become a mentor to him. He’ll send Leonard his poems for advice on how to present them. Leonard said he reminds him to continue working towards his goals.

“I tell him, ‘wherever you go, continue to have that hunger. There’s no absolute answer, but if you search you’ll find your own voice,’” Leonard said.

Transition to football

When it came to football, Laguerre did not receive the same encouragement he found in poetry. A fan of the sport since he was in the fourth grade, Laguerre was told at first that he was too small to play high school football, so he took up cross country running and basketball instead.

His junior year, Laguerre started working out to gain muscle. While adding muscle, Andrew Delva, the head football coach at Spring Valley, tried to persuade Laguerre to play football, but to no avail.

“I took a look at his size and thought he could be a good football player,” Delva said.

Finally, his senior year, when Laguerre bulked up to 225 pounds, Delva convinced Laguerre’s parents it would be safe for him to play. After all, at defensive end, he would be the one hitting opponents, not the other way around.

“It was rough in the beginning,” Delva said of Laguerre's learning curve as he tried different positions, “but defense was easy for him to grasp.”

About a month into the season, Delva said Laguerre was in “football mode.” Laguerre understood the concepts and techniques of the sport, Delva said. By the season’s end, Laguerre didn’t want to let it go of the sport he grew to love.

“That last game it was hard to let go and give back the pads,” Laguerre said. “That’s when I decided that whatever school I go to, I’d try out for the team.”

In September 2012, Laguerre did just that.

Laguerre performed in various athletic tests for the football team, including a 40-yard dash and 255 lbs. bench press. He received positive feedback, but was told he’d have to try out again after the season ended. Laguerre continued to train, and the second time around, he made the team.

“Since high school ended, it’s been my goal,” he said of his plans to play at Syracuse.

Going forward, Laguerre plans on competing in more live poetry competitions, and hopes to get on the football field this fall. Despite differences, football and poetry are pretty similar after all, Laguerre said.

“Football’s a war. You have a goal in mind — you train, you study your position, and do anything that is just to get to your goal,” Laguerre said. “In poetry, I’m going to war too. I’m going to war against negativity, for people who have made mistakes and feel there is no remorse.”

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