Twelve years have passed since Vikings guard Vladimir Ducasse left Haiti to seek untapped opportunities in the United States. He was chasing the elusive American dream at age 14, although what he has ended up doing for a living now was a completely foreign concept then.
He was just trying to conquer the language barrier and adapt to the American culture while still seeking his favorite Haitian dishes, such as griot — fried pork soaked in a sour orange marinade.
“The transition wasn’t easy, but it was done,” Ducasse said.
During that process, Ducasse wound up admiring a puzzling sport called football that has taken him from Haiti, to Connecticut, to Massachusetts, then New York and now Minnesota.
The Port-au-Prince native will be thrust into a starting spot Sunday against the Falcons after right guard Brandon Fusco was placed on season-ending injured reserve because of a pectoral injury. Ducasse, 26, will be making his sixth career start, and first with the Vikings.
“He’s a difficult guy to move,” offensive line coach Jeff Davidson said of Ducasse, listed at 6-5 and 325 pounds. “He tries to play with the technique which we play with. We like a lot of our young guys. Realistically, we feel that Vlad gives us the best chance going forward to win games.”
The fifth-year veteran left Haiti because of his father’s growing concern about their safety in a country marked with poverty and corruption. Ducasse has played football since his junior season at Stamford (Conn.) High. He was clueless about the sport until he was dragged into a trailer by Stamford coach Kevin Jones, a former Gophers defensive assistant. Inside the room, there were NFL game tapes stacked to the roof.
“The easiest way for me to learn about it was watching film,” Ducasse said.
So they watched. And watched. And watched, until Ducasse started experimenting and emulating the techniques he saw. It was nothing like soccer and basketball, the two sports he knew most about in Haiti.
“It’s not like I didn’t like the sport, but it was like, ‘What do you do?’ ” Ducasse said.
Ducasse went on to play for UMass, where the two-time, first-team All-Colonial Athletic Association pick opened some eyes at the NFL combine.
He spent his first four seasons in the NFL with the Jets, who drafted him in the second round. Ducasse knew he was a project, and he said the Jets did as well, as he split time during his second and third season. He finally got his chance to start last season, but after the first four games was benched.
“I still can’t explain to this day why I got benched,” Ducasse said. “But, hey, I guess it’s a business.”
Ducasse had the 11th most penalties among guards in just 331 snaps last season, according to Pro Football Focus. He was credited with allowing two sacks, four quarterback hits and 11 hurries.
While replacing Fusco in the second half last week against the Saints, Ducasse committed two penalties — a hold and a false start — on 11 snaps. Ducasse said the penalties are a byproduct of his aggressive style.
“I like to time myself as the ball gets snapped and sometimes I’ll get ahead of the ball getting snapped,” Ducasse said. “It wasn’t like I wasn’t doing my job, but that’s the kind of player I am. I like being aggressive, and it gets me in trouble sometimes but, for the most part, that’s who I am. Everything I do, I’m not patient. I’m just aggressive.”
The Vikings offensive line has played together for three seasons with basically the same starters. Ducasse praised right tackle Phil Loadholt, and the line’s ability to communicate with one another and center John Sullivan; those two players will be on either side of him Sunday.
“[Ducasse] has got some punch to him, and [we’ve] just got to make sure those guys get cohesiveness in there,” Vikings coach Mike Zimmer said. “They just got to keep working that part of it and making sure we’re all together on the protections.”
Ducasse isn’t playing up this start, or the opportunity to replace Fusco throughout the season, as anything more than a backup being called to action. It’s not his style to do so, even though he signed only a one-year deal in the offseason.
As aggressive as Ducasse is on the field, he’s fairly quiet off it.
“I’m more of a get-it-done [player] and not talk about it,” Ducasse said. “[Haitians], they’re just about business. That’s how I was raised, just about my business and keep it moving.”