ACC Official Sponsors
Tickets & Travel
Legal & Advertising
Nov. 23, 2011
By Bill Hass
GREENSBORO, N.C. (theACC.com) – The United States is his country now, and Gelo Orange counts his blessings at Thanksgiving more than most people.
Born in Haiti, Orange came to the “Land Of Opportunity” in 2004 and began his life here without being able to speak a word of English. Now he’s a fifth-year senior on the Wake Forest football team and will graduate in a few weeks with a degree in communication and a minor in sociology.
He is so grateful for the opportunities he has received that he decided to become a U.S. citizen. He studied, passed the test and on April 27 took the oath at a ceremony in Charlotte.
“It means a lot to me to be a citizen of the greatest country in the world,” he said. “I’m very proud and I’m very blessed to be here. I felt very happy (to take the oath). I didn’t know that could happen to me.”
There’s one thing to know about him before going any further. People in America pronounce his name like the gelatin food and the color – Jello Orange. But it’s French, and the correct pronunciation is ZHEL-oh oh-RAHNJ.
He has endured people making fun of his name since he came to the U.S. On occasion he would have to show his ID to people he just met in order to convince them. Most of the time he takes the kidding in good humor, but sometimes it gets tiresome.
“Where I’m from it’s not a big deal, people pronounce it correctly,” he said. “Probably a lot of people (in Haiti) don’t know what Jello is.”
Orange grew up as the youngest of seven children. His mother and father worked hard in Port-au-Prince, selling groceries like rice and corn from their gardens to provide for the family. While the children helped some, the parents wanted them to focus on school.
Jean Orange, Gelo’s father, left Haiti and moved to Naples, Fla., because of the possibility of a better life. In 2004 Gelo joined him with the idea he could go to high school and then to college.
It wasn’t easy. At first he didn’t understand what was going on in the classroom. But he was placed in a program to learn English and began to learn the American way of life.
“It took a little while to adapt to everything,” he said. “The main thing is you just have to work hard at everything, focus on what you want to do and what you believe in. And you have to surround yourself with a bunch of good people. If you have a lot of good friends, they will be able to help you out.”
His best friend at Naples High School was a football player named Junior Petit-Jean. Orange had played soccer and basketball in Haiti – he really wanted to play hoops in the U.S. – but knew nothing about the strange American game. Eventually his friend talked him into trying out for football.
“It was very difficult because at first,” Orange said. “I didn’t know what I was doing. All I knew was how to tackle and how to run to the ball. My coach saw I was very physical and he said ‘you’re going to play defense.’”
By the time he was a senior, Orange had become a good linebacker. Petit-Jean, a defensive back, drew a lot of attention and recruiters began to notice Orange as well. Wake Forest liked them both and signed them in the class of 2007.
“One of the things that intrigued us was we had a young guy that hadn't played much football,” said Deacons coach Jim Grobe. “We saw a raw athlete. As you watched him on high school tape, he was not as good fundamentally as you might like … but he was all over the field. He just had great energy and you could tell he enjoyed playing.”
Petit-Jean had a checkered career at Wake, twice being suspended from the team and eventually transferring to Eastern Kentucky and then to Evangel University, an NAIA school in Columbia, Mo., where he still plays.
Orange, who redshirted his first year, was saddened when his friend left but, felt he had too much invested to consider leaving.
“The coaches are the main reason I’m here,” he said. “They are like father figures to me; they teach you how to become a man. Wake Forest has a lot of good people – friends, classmates. It’s one of the best schools in the country; I feel blessed to be here.”
On the field Orange played special teams in his redshirt freshman season and blocked punts in the last two regular-season games. As a sophomore he started five games at defensive end, recorded three sacks and blocked another punt.
On Jan. 12, 2010, his native Haiti was devastated by an earthquake. His mother, Geronne Orange, and some of his family were living in Port-au-Prince, the hardest-hit area. Fortunately, their home and all family members were OK, although it took several anxious days before Orange was able to contact them.
“They were very lucky and nothing happened to them,” he said, “but I lost a few cousins and friends in the rubble. My brother told me he didn’t eat for a week because of what he saw and what happened.”
Unable to get home then (he has since gone back), Orange concentrated on spring football and then on his junior season. He started twice and played his best game against Navy, making nine tackles. But he also suffered a pinched nerve in his neck and that, combined with a change to a 3-4 defense midway through the season, cut into his playing time.
Grobe thought Orange might elect to graduate and not use his final year of eligibility. But that was never an option because, Orange said, “I wanted to finish what I started.”
In 11 games this season Orange has been a backup defensive end and has made 12 tackles, including 1½ tackles for loss. He has given the Deacons a dependable, veteran player they can use at any point during a game.
“He's turned out to be a really special player for us,” Grobe said. “I was glad he decided to come back, and he's really helped us.”
While he held his green card, Orange could see that his opportunities could become even better, especially in terms of travel and employment, if he became a citizen.
So he paid the $700 application fee, got the required fingerprint, studied for the test on U.S. history and passed. When he took the oath of citizenship many other people were in the ceremony, but no family or friends were there to witness it. Still, it didn’t lessen his pride in the achievement.
Orange has two games remaining in his Wake Forest football career – Saturday against Vanderbilt and then in whatever bowl game selects the Deacons.
“I’m kind of sad right now because it’s about to be over,” he said, “but at the same time you’ve got to move on. You’ve got to put everything behind you and I feel like I want to start a new chapter of my life.”
If he doesn’t get a shot at pro football, he wants to work in law enforcement, possibly as a detective or perhaps with an agency like the FBI or CIA.
But there are some good times yet to enjoy, starting with Thanksgiving, a holiday not celebrated in Haiti, with his teammates.
“Our players love this guy,” Grobe said. “I think he's one of the happier kids on our football team. I think he's very proud of what he's done here. He's going to leave Wake Forest with a degree. He's going to leave as a kid that got a lot better in his football career during the time that he was here. I think he’s proud to be a U.S. citizen.”
Orange acknowledges he has come a long way, and he won’t forget the school and the sport that gave him his chances.
“Football is one of the great opportunities that I have had,” Orange said. “These have probably been the best five years of my life, to surround myself with a lot of good teammates, a lot of good people. It’s been a blessing to me and means so much to me.”
Bill Hass is a long-time observer of ACC sports. His career at the Greensboro News & Record spanned 36 years, from 1969 until his retirement in March 2006. He is now writing "Bill Hass on the ACC" for theACC.com. His weekly columns will keep fans plugged in to the Atlantic Coast Conference.
This article can not be copied or reproduced without the express written consent of the Atlantic Coast Conference.