Ten years after reading with the president, Laz Dubrocq finds meaning in sport

Yahoo 9/11 10th Anniversary

When the president walked into the classroom, Lazaro Dubrocq and the rest of the 7-year-old children in Mrs. Daniels' class at Booker Elementary stood up to welcome him.

"Good Morning!" George W. Bush said as the kids sat down to recite some reading exercises. "Get ready!" Mrs. Daniels said. The children all answered as one. They were ready. They had all been waiting for this day.

It was the morning of September 11, 2001.

Soon it was time to read with the president. Lazaro and his friends all had a book, "The Pet Goat," underneath their blue chairs. Lazaro reached down for his book, then looked back up to see the face of the President. It had changed. Something wasn't right. Lazaro could see it. Even as a 7 year old, he could see it.

He felt his heart race just a beat, but he tried to focus on the book in his hands. He put his finger under each word and read aloud. The president had come to his classroom in Sarasota, Fla., to spend a few moments, and the boy figured the man always looked busy.

But the look on his face didn't go away.

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Lazaro Dubrocq. (Credit: Eric Adelson)

Like so many of us, Lazaro Dubrocq can relive that day in his mind as vividly as any day of his life, only he relives it as someone who was very much a part of the history that unfolded. He relives it as someone who was close enough to see the creased lines in the face of a man who would soon order the Air Force to prepare to shoot down commercial airliners if necessary. He relives it as a child who was scared and confused.

And today, 10 years later, he relives it as a high school senior who has committed fully to a sport that requires the utmost of emotional control.

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The day started out with joy. Dubrocq, the first American-born member of his family, was going to meet the president of the United States. He saw the Secret Service and the K-9 dogs outside his school, and didn't mind waiting to be inspected in the hot Florida sun. Lazaro was wearing a clear plastic backpack, so the nice officer waved him through with a smile. The boy got to his class and his teacher, Mrs. Daniels, told him to please be on his best behavior. The president walked in and introduced himself. He smiled. But it wasn't long before another man arrived.

The man, Chief of Staff Andrew Card, bent over to whisper in the president's ear. Of course, little Lazaro had no idea who or what a chief of staff was. He just watched the president start to look around the room, at the lights and cameras in the back. "He seemed completely disconnected from what was going on in the classroom," Lazaro recalls now. "He was not focused at all."

Then President Bush left for a little while and came back. He handed out some M&M candy to everyone and said goodbye. "I had no idea what was going on," Lazaro says now. "I figured there was political stuff going on." It was only later that Mrs. Daniels pushed a television into the classroom and turned it on. The children saw the pictures of two buildings on fire. "I thought we were watching an action movie," Lazaro says. Mrs. Daniels tried to explain that terrorists had stolen some planes.

Lazaro thought, "What's a terrorist?"

Fear set in when it bubbled through the school that because President Bush was nearby, Booker Elementary could be a target. Lazaro's mom, Maria, picked him up and tried to explain what was going on. She spoke slowly and clearly – this is what a terrorist does, this is what happened this morning, this is why the President looked upset.

"He was so young," says Maria, "and we wanted to keep the day nice and fun instead of grieving and sorrowful."

The TV trucks soon showed up at his house, though, and over the coming weeks and months, Lazaro began to grasp just how horrible a tragedy September 11 really was.

For years, his parents wondered how 9/11 would affect their little boy.

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Credit: AP

Lazaro Dubrocq thinks about 9/11 every time he opens the refrigerator. Sitting there in the door is the little box of M&Ms he got from the president. It's the only memento he has from that day, so he protects that candy as if it was an American flag. He wants to see that little box. He wants to remember.

Sept. 11 comes up in history class at Riverview High School in Sarasota – not just as a talking point, but as a part of the curriculum. Dubrocq always raises his hand and tells the class he was there that day. He tells the whole story. He wants everyone to know.

"I like to bring it up," he says. "I'm proud to have read with the president."

To Laz, which is what his friends call him now, it's an honor to be a part of America at all. His father is Cuban and his grandfather is French. His mother was born in Mexico and her father came from Spain. He speaks with friends in English and family in Spanish. He wants to be the first Dubrocq to graduate from an American college. Sept. 11, 2001 may be seen as a sad detour in a great nation's story, but Laz wants more than ever to be a part of the fabric of that story. He's a rare student who is both in his school's international baccalaureate program and a top varsity athlete. (He would be at Booker High now if he didn't choose the accelerated program at Riverview High, 20 minutes away.) How many high school seniors know what they want to do for a career? Laz says he wants to get his college degree in engineering. And he wants to get it at the site of the disaster of 9/11. He wants to study in New York City, at Columbia University.

"I want to be a leader," he says. "I want to be someone who chooses what he wants and accomplishes it no matter what."

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Laz Dubrocq is sitting in the gym where his teammates are practicing. He's wearing a gray, sweat-stained shirt with "Laz Dubrocq" on the back. He doesn't mind all the media requests, nor does the pressure of talking on camera or being photographed seem to bother him. He's done it a lot. It's part of who he is now.

He gets up off the mat and takes his stance, staring a teammate straight in the eye. It's only an early practice – well before the season – but Laz doesn't do much joking around. Between grappling sequences he occasionally barks out an order. It's clear he's monitoring the others. He makes his coach, Jerett Curtis, seem laid back.

"He's definitely a go-getter," Curtis said. "Definitely goal-driven. He takes life at the moment and doesn't waste his time."

Dubrocq wasn't a great wrestler when he started here at Riverview as a freshman. He was 115 pounds and hardly imposing. Curtis told him if he's going to be serious about the sport, he needs to have the discipline to put on weight. Four years later, Dubrocq is up to 150 pounds and a lot of it is muscle. He's got a shot at states this year.

"He's a workhorse," Curtis said. "He's becoming a great wrestler."

The sport can have a reputation for being brutal and unrefined, but it's really the opposite – a mental and physical chess match that is as emotionally demanding as any athletic activity. If you take a second off, you might as well roll right over. This is not a sport for the easily rattled.

"I always tell my wrestlers, this is the only sport that will treat you like life will treat you," Curtis said. "People will not be there to help you."

It's no coincidence that both Laz's parents are trained ballet dancers and instructors. Self-control is not just a bonus, it's mandatory. That's part of why Maria, a stickler for academic performance, has let her oldest son try the sport. "Wrestling," she says, "is one of the things that's made him focus."

To his coach, Laz's choice of sport is proof that any emotional remnants of the trauma of 9/11 have dissipated.

"What happened to him can go either way," Curtis says. "It will spur you on or it will cripple you."

Laz has not been crippled. Like the country he loves, he's only battled harder because of what he went through. He gets a lot of questions about whether wrestling is some outlet for his anger over the terrorist attacks. Is he fighting his opponent or his demons? But that's not Laz and that's not wrestling. Outbursts are wasteful in his sport. Laz doesn't grapple with the image of Osama bin Laden in his mind. He only concentrates on what he has to do next.

"I feel 9/11 has helped me mature," he says. "It gives me a sense of meaning."

He was only seven when he saw worry in the president's eyes. But Laz Dubrocq is now charged with representing a fragile day in his country's history. And although he is the first in his family to be born American, he will not let what happened 10 years ago keep him from writing a truly American story.

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