He left Haiti for a better life. Twenty years later he’s playing soccer in Milwaukee and enjoying every minute.

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Max Ferdinand is blessed. He says that a lot.

Most times Ferdinand is talking about his life in soccer, about the success he’s had making his teammates look good, about a championship or the friends he has made over 4½ years in Milwaukee.

Most times. Because that’s the Max Ferdinand most people know.

He’s the Milwaukee Wave’s quiet star with the deft touch and million-watt smile. Ferdinand has managed to make a living in the game he played tirelessly as a child, and for that he understands how fortunate he is.

But go deeper.

Go back to his childhood. Go back to Haiti, the impoverished Caribbean nation further devastated by a 2010 earthquake, where none of these other things would have been possible.

“I moved to the States when I was 13,” said Ferdinand, who went to New York City to live with the father who had left when he was 2 and a stepmother who didn’t speak his language.

His mom stayed behind in Haiti. Ferdinand left his friends, his school and his culture there, too.

“New everything,” he said.  

“But I was very fortunate to come here and have a better life compared to Haiti. I know how many of my friends I left back there in not such a good situation also. So it’s definitely a blessing to come here.”

Everyone has his struggles and challenges, Ferdinand says. There’s not a contest. By telling his story, he’s not looking for sympathy or extra credit. It’s just part of who he is, and someone asked.

Tilden High School in Brooklyn had a sizable Haitian population, so Ferdinand sensed some connection to his old home. His stepmother, born in Grenada, spoke no Creole, so English was the primary language at home, and he picked it up quickly.

Because basketball is to New York what soccer is to Haiti – with playground pickup games from dusk to dawn, where skill means more than age – Ferdinand learned to play.

“I’m all right,” said Ferdinand, now 33 but still a spindly 5-foot-9. “You challenge me, we can play anytime.”

He is, after all, a competitor.

Ferdinand actually stepped away from soccer briefly, but after moving to Baltimore he found a team and picked up the game again.

Reinvigorated, Ferdinand made the Baltimore Blast indoor team on an open tryout and spent his first six seasons there before Wave star Ian Bennett – an outdoor teammate with the Rochester Rhinos – helped bring the speedy, cerebral forward to Milwaukee.

Veteran forward Max Ferdinand takes a breather between drills at Milwaukee Wave practice.

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Veteran forward Max Ferdinand takes a breather between drills at Milwaukee Wave practice. (Photo: Dave Kallmann / Milwaukee Journal Sentinel)

Here Ferdinand became known for an infectious smile, his headgear –  a trademark since he suffered head injuries early in his career – and his quiet demeanor and unselfishness.

Ferdinand led the MASL in assists in 2016-17 and 2017-18, has finished among the top three each season and was ranked third entering the weekend. The defending champion Wave (9-4) split a pair of games over the weekend and next plays at 5 p.m. Sunday against the Florida Tropics at the UW-Milwaukee Panther Arena.

“I don’t think he’s a guy who wants to shine, to be the star, so he’s more than happy to make other guys look good,” Wave captain Marcio Leite said.  “He’s a big reason Ian scores so many goals, their relationship. Ian loves scoring, and Max loves passing the ball, so it’s a great thing we’ve got going on.”

In 13 games, Ferdinand is second on the team with 29 points on 10 goals and a team-leading 19 assists. Bennett leads with 31 points on 27 goals and four assists.

“Max is one of those guys, a guy who’s always thinking, how can we score, what can I do?” Leite said. “And he’s creative. He finds some passes that nobody else would.

“It’s hard to defend, because you never know what Max can do. He can dribble you, he can pass, he can score. But there’s always a little trick, a little something that he pulls out of his sleeve and all of a sudden somebody is scoring.”

In addition to finding his place on the team with the Wave, Ferdinand also has made a comfortable home in Milwaukee. It’s a far cry from Brooklyn and even farther from Haiti but fits his laidback personality.

“Enjoying it every day,” he said.

The community, the game, the team and his life – all of it – Ferdinand enjoys. He is blessed.

Ferdinand’s mother, who resettled in New Jersey, watches the Wave play online and they talk afterward. She didn’t get to see the team win the 2019 MASL title in person, but he hopes to help give her another chance.

Ferdinand has yet to go back to Haiti as an adult, but he intends for that to happen as well.

His mother has 12 siblings and family spread about the East Coast, Ferdinand said, and the hope is that as many aunts and uncles and cousins as possible could visit together. He has kept up with some old friends and keeps them in his heart.

“It’s a poor country. Poverty, no food. Not clean water,” Ferdinand said. “Back then it was bad. I can imagine now after the earthquake.

“You just got to pray, right? I appreciate being here for sure.”

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