On and off the field, Ernst Cleophat “always ready” to win

Every school’s athletic department has one game that stands out from the rest. For Suffolk University, that game came in the spring of 1989, when the men’s soccer team played Northeastern University.
“Imagine, a Division III institution playing a Division I school,” remembered Ernst Cleophat from his home in Augusta, Georgia. “You’re talking about more skilled, talented players. But my teammates and I, we didn’t see it like that. We saw ourselves as soccer players,” he said.
Cleophat was in the middle of an impressive freshman season at Suffolk, but not even his Athletic Director at the time expected them to defeat Northeastern.
“They had scheduled us to pad their number of victories,” remembered Jim Nelson, who’s currently in his 42nd year at Suffolk, the last 32 as Director of Athletics. “I’m not so sure that the vast majority of us expected to win that game, but Ernst would come by my office and say, ‘Mr. Nelson, we’re going to win.’”
They did win, 3-0. Ernst Cleophat scored all three goals.
“I remember the [Northeastern] coaches looking at me, like, ‘Who the heck is this kid?’ We shocked the world. They had more talent but we had heart,” Cleophat said.
“Suffice to say, Northeastern never called us back for another game,” laughed Nelson. The seminal moment in Suffolk University Athletics is just one small part of Ernst Cleophat’s very impressive story.
Cleophat was born in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, and grew up in Delmas with nine brothers and sisters.
“We had a very family-oriented neighborhood, it was a very enjoyable place to grow up,” he recalled.
The son of a truck-driving father and a seamstress mother, Cleophat’s parents worked hard to provide a middle-class upbringing.
“My father was a very strict man, but he always wanted the best for his children,” he said.
Jean and Lyda Cleophat made sure all their children understood the importance of academics. “That’s just Haitian parents,” Ernst said, “You feel you have no choice but to hit the books, to study.”
When Ernst’s parents were away at work, he knew he couldn’t neglect his schoolwork and join his friends for a game.
“If my mom and dad were not around, the elders in my neighborhood became my parents,” he said. “You couldn’t do anything wrong, you still had that fear,” he laughed.
Ernst and his siblings all studied hard, and they all played soccer.
“We used to play all day,” Cleophat remembered. “Sometimes, if our parents didn’t give us money for a ball, we would take our socks and roll them up with paper and plastic and make our own soccer ball!” he said.
Cleophat was undersized for his age, but developed a quick, creative playing style, thanks in a large part, to his brother Yves.
“My soccer hero was always my older brother,” he said. “He was so good and smooth, he used to come to my games and give me advice.”
That advice paid off, and Ernst quickly adapted to playing alongside older, stronger boys.
“This guy we used to play with, we called him Pinocchio because he was so tall,” Cleophat remembered, “He tried to defend me one time and I nut-megged him,” he said, referring to the practice of playing the ball through an opponent’s legs.
Cleophat’s adaptability was tested in a different way at the age of sixteen, when he and his family moved to Boston.
“When I came here, for months man, all I did was cry,” he said.
Ernst attended Boston English High School, where he was a varsity starter for four years. His passion for foreign languages as a young child helped him adapt to his new surroundings.
“Growing up in Haiti, I always loved speaking different languages, especially English. Over there, you have so many people speaking so many languages, it becomes a passion,” he said.
Ernst led Boston English to State Championships in 1987 and ’88. He was named Massachusetts High School Player of the Year in each of those two seasons, according to a release from Suffolk.
“I became pretty popular,” he remembered, “It’s a learning process. You have to get adapted and it can be tough… it wasn’t easy for me,” he said.
Suffolk University was strictly a commuter institution when Ernst began his career there in 1988.
“At that time, we were practicing on the esplanade across from Mass. General Hospital,” remembered Nelson. “It was not a regulation soccer field, we had to put cones out to simulate the goal posts,” he said.
The lack of proper practicing facilities and a true home field didn’t seem to bother Cleophat.
“I didn’t care about home field, all I cared about was the game,” he said. “It didn’t matter where we played, I was always ready.”
As a freshman at Suffolk, Cleophat scored eleven goals over a ten game-span at the striker position. “During those first few games and practice sessions, I was singing our good fortunes that we had a player of his caliber,” Nelson said. Cleophat finished the season with twenty-three scores, including the famous three against Northeastern.
“As a striker, your job is to score goals, nothing else,” he said. “But I became so dangerous, opponents concentrated too much on me and I was able to help my teammates score.”
Cleophat graduated from Suffolk in 1992 with a degree in Business Management, and went on to a distinguished professional career. He played all over the world, including a stint with Santos FC in Brazil that sill stands out.
“When I first walked into that stadium, and I saw thirty-five thousand people, it was just unbelievable,” he said. His career on the international stage provided a host of invaluable experiences.
“Here I am, a little guy from Haiti, who had the opportunity to play overseas and travel and get to know a lot of people, it was amazing,” he said.
After ending his playing career at the age of 32, Cleophat began coaching. He was drawn back to Suffolk in 2005 to help build a women’s soccer program.
“I mentioned that we were thinking of starting a women’s soccer program, and he said he’d love to do it. He was living in Augusta at the time but told me that wouldn’t be a problem,” Nelson said.
The Suffolk women’s team started under Cleophat in 2005 at Club status, and has played at the varsity level for the past two seasons. His players are encouraged to work hard, on and off the field.
“He has a wonderful bond with them,” Nelson said. “They’ve enjoyed his approach to the game and appreciate his focus on academics.”
Cleophat’s coaching achievements are complemented by a plethora of humanitarian efforts around the world. He is the CEO, President, and Founder of The Ernst Cleophat International Soccer Academy, a non-profit organization for underprivileged children. He sets up soccer camps and donates school supplies to children all over the world, including his native Haiti.
“Charity begins at home,” he said. “When I look in the kids’ eyes, they are so grateful… it feels nice to be able to help.”
Cleophat will be inducted into the Suffolk University Athletic Hall of Fame on May 7 at an awards ceremony at the Royal Sonesta hotel in Cambridge.
“When I received the call [about being inducted], I was shocked and amazed,” he laughed. “I guess I did a pretty good job.”