After surviving Orlando’s slums, SteveO Michel looks to make a better life for his family

Keegan Pope

(Brett Kennedy/CTV11 Sports)

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SteveO Michel shouldn’t be here.

Not as a graduate student.

Not at Colorado State.

Probably not even out of the city of Orlando.

Maybe not even alive.

Where SteveO comes from, most don’t make it out.

The city of Orlando, Florida, has a crime rate index of 2 – out of 100. SteveO’s hometown is considered safer than 2 percent of cities across the United States. The violent crime rate in Orlando is triple the national average, and the chances of being a victim of violent crime in Orlando are 1 in 109. The city is defined by statistics, and SteveO Michel could very well have been one of them.

Born into the streets

Colorado State defensive end SteveO Michel overcame a life of poverty to graduate this past May from Colorado State. (Kevin Olson/Collegian)
Colorado State defensive end SteveO Michel overcame a life of poverty to graduate this past May from Colorado State. (Kevin Olson/Collegian)

SteveO, who was born Steven Anthony Michel, is one of Elucia Michel’s eight kids, all born of Haitian descent. The nine of them grew up in a two-bedroom apartment in Orlando, with the kids bunking together. He doesn’t remember much about his father, who committed suicide when SteveO was just four years old.

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“It was tough growing up without a father figure because he wasn’t there the first time I was riding a bike, or my first time at a football game,” Michel said. “I’ll never be able to experience that again in my life. Never again. My father passed away because of suicide and when I was younger I felt like it was selfish. I knew I would never be able to see him again and it hurt me growing up. I’d see other people playing with their fathers and I was like, ‘Man, I’ll never be able to experience that.’ As I got older, I realized that I didn’t know what he was going through at that time, so I can’t hold that against him. But did it hurt me? It sure did.”

Without a father figure to look up to, SteveO, along with his three brothers and four sisters, relied on Elucia to play both the role of mother and father as they grew up. Throughout his childhood, SteveO stayed with a number of relatives and close family friends who offered him a place to stay to take some of the burden off of his mom. He quickly got in with the wrong crowd and began spending much of his time in the streets of his neighborhood instead of the halls of his school. Without anyone to check in on his schoolwork, SteveO’s grades continued to plummet. He finished his freshman year with a 1.8 GPA, and was on his way to finding himself where so many others from his neighborhood ended up.

For kids in the Michel family, education was somewhat of an afterthought, and the expectation was simply to make it through high school. College wasn’t even in the picture.

That changed for SteveO during his sophomore year of high school, when a math teacher approached him during the alternative school hours which SteveO had been assigned to because of his troublesome behavior. Without truly knowing it, Kathryn Kuehn, the math teacher who pulled SteveO aside, changed his life.

“I’m coming from a situation where I’ve got a parent who doesn’t know anything about college, didn’t go to high school and everything kind of got rocky for her in middle school. She doesn’t know how to read and write, she doesn’t know English so school was pretty tough for us. We did it because we had to, and I struggled in school growing up, I’m not going to sit here and lie about. I struggled for the simple fact that my mom couldn’t teach me the things that they tell you to go home and work on. I couldn’t go to my mom and ask her, ‘Hey, how do you this math problem? I couldn’t do that so I struggled with reading a lot.'”

“…I got in trouble one day in school and I was in the alternative bell schedule, where I’d kind of come to school after school was over for everyone else,” Michel continued. “It was my birthday, and she (Kathryn) came up to me and said, ‘I see something in you and if you want me to help you grow and get better, I’m willing to do it.’ She doesn’t have any kids, and she kind of took me under her wing and I kind of just jumped at it. I remember later on that week, the lights were off at my house and I was just crying. My sister came in and asked me what’s wrong, and I was just like I’m tired of living like this. I realized that I was part of the problem too, because I was up to no good, doing stuff I didn’t have no business doing. So when I realized I had a chance to chance my family background and do something they’d never done before, I took it by the horns and rolled with it.”

With Kathryn’s help, SteveO began to turn things around in the classroom, quickly realizing that he had a future with football. The only way to pursue that was to make sure his grades were intact, and he graduated high school with 3.3 GPA. During his junior and senior seasons, SteveO helped lead the Jones High School Tigers to a 15-8 record and a berth in the regional semifinals of the Florida Class 2A state playoffs. He garnered all-metro recognition and was named to the Orlando Sun-Sentinel’s Super 60 list. When it came to football recruiting though, Stevens attracted solely local schools, amassing offers from Florida Atlantic, Georgia Southern and Savannah State. But then-CSU head coach Steve Fairchild saw something in Michel, offering him a scholarship on his official visit. Michel didn’t even have to wait to get home to tell the staff he was going to be a Ram. The fact that college football was even an option almost didn’t seem real to him, though.

“I didn’t know nothing about college,” Michel said. “That wasn’t something growing up that we even talked about. I tell my teammates to this day that I didn’t know about college until my sophomore year of high school and they laugh at me. And I just tell them, “Man, my mom doesn’t even know how to speak English, so it’s not like she could tell me I needed to go to college. I just realized during my sophomore and junior year that I could really do something with this.”

Home away from home

SteveO Michel laughs during warmups before Colorado State's game against Savannah State earlier this season. (Abbie Parr/Collegian)
SteveO Michel laughs during warmups before Colorado State’s game against Savannah State earlier this season. (Abbie Parr/Collegian)

Even though he had seen Fort Collins when he visited, adjusting to life in a place he didn’t know, with people he didn’t know, proved to be an obstacle for Michel. Coming from a neighborhood and high school where nearly 95 percent of the population is African-American to one where the majority of people are primarily white was a major culture shock.

“It was tough, man,” Michel said. “After my freshman year I called my high school coach and told him I was coming home for good. I come from a big family, and I missed them. And then not seeing anybody who looked like me was also tough. I’m in a classroom, and it’s a whole lot of salt, with one little speck of pepper. It was hard, because I wasn’t used to that. But I realized in order to get to somewhere I want to go, I had to be uncomfortable.”

SteveO stayed at Colorado State and over the next three seasons he racked up 53 tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss and three sacks. But likely his biggest contribution at CSU came on special teams, when he forced a fumble in the waning seconds of the 2013 Gildan New Mexico Bowl against Washington State. Michel injured his shoulder on the play, and he would require offseason surgery the following summer, but it gave CSU the ball back and led to a game-winning field goal by kicker Jared Roberts as time expired.

Michel said it was his favorite moment in his time at CSU on the field, but the real highlights of the last four-plus years in Fort Collins came on his graduation day, and the day his daughter, Peyton, was born. Peyton, who turned 2 in June, and her mother are back home in Florida, but SteveO is able to FaceTime and talk to her on the phone on a regular basis, despite his busy schedule and the two-hour time difference. SteveO’s favorite part of her fatherhood is just having that relationship with Peyton after he wasn’t able to have it with his own dad.

“There’s two things I’m most proud of in my life: graduating college and having my daughter,” Michel said as he smiled. “Fatherhood is something I was never able to experience with my dad. So for me to be able to give that to her is the best thing in the world. There’s nothing I care about more than being a father to her. It’s the best thing in the world knowing that she looks up to me. Every move I make, she’s right there. Even being able to hear the word, “Dada” is special. I’ve never been able to say “Dad” to someone growing up. Her saying that just makes me feel good, and I can just imagine the joy my dad had being a father to me.”

His teammates have taken notice of his maturity in raising his daughter, too.

“SteveO might as well have had a daughter for 10 years because he’s always been the same guy,” senior safety and fellow Haitian Kevin Pierre-Louis said. “He’s a very mature guy for his age, you would think SteveO is like 45 years old with how mature he is; taking care of business and raising a daughter just makes him more mature.”

A bit of a miracle

Despite needing help in the classroom after coming to CSU because of the difficulty of his classes, along raising a daughter from 3,000 miles away, Michel again found mentors to help him along the way, and he graduated this past May with a degree in social work, as the first person in the Michel family to complete college.

One of those who took an interest was Dr. Malcolm Scott, the main advisor in the social work department for student-athletes. Scott, who has written a number of books and published scholarly articles about the challenges facing African-Americans in the American educational system, took an interest in Michel when he walked into his office out of the blue for an advising appointment. When he first met SteveO, Scott was simply excited to have a football player in the social work program. He soon realized that, academically, SteveO had a ways to go to reach his goals of graduating. But the two met multiple times a week during the school year to improve his work, but also to discuss the daily challenges he would face while trying to graduate.

“It’s nothing short of him being exceptional, and probably a bit of a miracle,” Scott said of SteveO’s development as a student. “There was a lot there, in terms of both obstacles, but also potential. Not even just the academic work he had to do, but just navigating this space and being an African-American male in this community. It’s just so challenging for people who have so many different things working against them to succeed. But he did.”

The day he graduated, SteveO said, made everything he’d been through during his childhood, adolescence and adulthood worth it when he walked across the stage.

“When I first grabbed my diploma and sat down, I was kind of like, ‘This is just like high school,’” Michel said. “But once I walked out to see my family, I saw my mom bawling, and I just broke down. After I was done crying with my mom, so much pressure just came off my shoulders because a lot of people didn’t think I was going to be here. Some of my family members didn’t, and they had a reason to think I wasn’t going to be there because of all the stuff I was doing. But my mom was just proud, and my sisters were there, and my daughter was there to witness that moment. It was just something I’ll never forget.”

With his final year of eligibility in full swing, Michel is focused on the task at hand: winning a Mountain West championship. 

What lies beyond that is unknown to him. The possibility of playing in the NFL has always been a dream, but he can sleep easy knowing that if football doesn’t pan out, he’ll have an education to fall back on. No matter what it took to get here, through all the trials and tribulations, SteveO Michel says he would do it all again.

“I told my mom and my sisters that everything I’ve been through in my life, I would do all over again because it was worth it,” Michel said. “There were times where I didn’t see light at the end of the tunnel. But as long as you keep fighting and keep pushing, once you see that light, it just all becomes worth it. I want people to understand that if I can do it, they can do it.”

Collegian Senior Sports Reporter Keegan Pope can be reached at kpope@collegian.com and on Twitter @ByKeeganPope.