BELLE GLADE, Fla. -- There's a fair share of schadenfreude bubbling up on some Florida Gators fan sites over the arrests, early Thursday morning, of three Tennessee freshmen. After pulling alongside their victims in a 2010 Toyota Prius (!?), wide receiver Nu'Keese Richardson and defensive backs Janzen Jackson and Mike Edwards allegedly tried to rob three guys at a convenience store just off campus. One player allegedly used a semi-automatic weapon (a pellet gun, it turned out). Some of the comments across the Web are mean-spirited ("You can take the kid out of the hood, but you can't take the hood out of the kid"), while others have merit ("YOU DON'T COMMIT ARMED ROBBERY IN A PRIUS!").
It is Richardson, who once verbally committed to Florida, to whom Gators fans are devoting the bulk of their attention, delighting in what must be Volunteer Nation's severe case of buyer's remorse.
They remember how the dreadlocked showman picked up a Florida hat at the press conference announcing his decision last February, only to toss it on the floor and don a Vols cap instead. They remember how, in the contretemps that ensued, Kiffin accused Gators head coach Urban Meyer of cheating in his recruitment of Richardson -- he was wrong, and had to apologize -- just as they remember Kiffin's disparaging remarks about Richardson's hardscrabble hometown, Pahokee, Fla.: "There ain't much going on," Kiffin told a group of boosters. "You take that hour drive up from South Florida, there ain't a gas station that works. Nobody's got enough money to even have shoes or a shirt on." He was wrong, and had to apologize.
I'm pleased to report I was able to purchase $25 of unleaded at 8:45 p.m. on Wednesday at Swifty's, a convenience store on E. Main St. in Pahokee -- and this from a middle-aged gentleman wearing shoes and a shirt!
I'm doing some reporting in Pahokee and Belle Glade, eight miles south, for an upcoming SI story. On Saturday, these outrageously talented programs -- at least a dozen guys from each team have received D-I offers -- will play in the 39th annual Muck Bowl, a game that owes its name to the area's fertile, black soil. On Thursday night, they dressed up to attend the annual pre-Muck Bowl banquet, a tradition begun in 1984 by Dr. Effie Grear, the former Glades Central principal after whom its football stadium is named. Now 82 and sharp as a blade of saw grass, Grear recalled the purpose of this meal. By 1984, hostility between the teams, she recalled, "had gotten to the point where you were almost ashamed to see what would happen after the game."
The guys are forced to sit with members of the other team. A kind of icy détente held sway at some tables, although I did see pockets of actual fraternization. Pahokee's DeJoshua Johnson (a quarterback and Florida State commit) and Merrill Noel (cornerback, Wake Forest), were getting along famously with Raiders that included L.J. Thomas (quarterback, Hampton) and Antoine Chisholm (running back, Mississippi State).
While Richardson's arrest occasioned much drollery on the Web, it cast a pall over not one but two battle-weary communities on the southeastern shore of Lake Okeechobee. The undeniable melancholy hanging over this banquet had everything to do with the news that had broken that morning. You might think Glades Central fans would take pleasure in the downfall of Nu'Keese Richardson, who has apparently, with one horrible decision, thrown his gleaming college career in the dumpster.
You would be wrong. "I've been thinking about how much sweat and sacrifice it takes to get just one of these kids out of here," JD Patrick told me. "For this to happen to Nu'Keese -- it makes me sick to my stomach."
Patrick, a Glades Central assistant, is also the city's Director of Parks and Recreation. Every weekday of the summer, he can be found in a cramped gym just off MLK Boulevard, putting Raiders through agility drills and plyometrics, counting their reps in the weight room. On the June afternoon I visited, he interrupted our conversation to bark at the assembled youth: "You guys are NOT doing me a favor just bein' here. Now we're gonna do this [drill] AGAIN, and do it RIGHT, or we'll just make some EXTRA time to run."
Nodding in agreement from a worn sofa in the corner was Ron Cook, the senior-most member of the Raiders staff who spent much of his time in the gym that day channeling Cedric the Entertainer in Barbershop:
"These kids, they think just 'cause they're in Belle Glade they can't get beat. They don't understand sacrifice. In my day, kids tried to get a job after school. These kids -- they luxurizin'!"
Beside Cook sat a giant named Willie Jones, an Glades Central, ex-Kansas City Chiefs offensive lineman who made it his business that day to cut Kelvin Benjamin down to size. Benjamin, a 6-foot-6, 210-pound junior with just a single season of football under his belt, is one of the most dazzling wide receiver prospects in the country -- Florida is drooling over him -- but you wouldn't know it from hearing Jones ride him relentlessly: "What's killin' you, KB, is that you don't work hard" -- a constructive criticism the junior did not quite catch on account of how hard he was working.
No matter. One of the reasons these teams win so many state championships, why they've sent countless players to Division I and 48 (by their count) to the pros is because guys like Patrick and Jones and Cook come back to the community and keep the tradition alive. They uphold exacting standards; root out complacency and kill it at the source.
It's why Jessie Hester, the former Glades Central, Florida State and NFL wideout came back to be the Raiders' head coach two years ago. He's sure not in it for the money.
It was Hester who electrified Thursday night's banquet, deviating from his prepared remarks to "speak from my heart." Raising the subject of Richardson, Hester practically begged the young men in the room to do a better job using their heads. Citing what was at stake -- scholarships, the opportunity to play on huge stages, their very futures -- he pleaded, "Do not blow it. Take pride in who you are, and where you're from."
He went on to confide that, every time Pahokee takes the field against anyone but the GC Raiders, "I want to see them win."
"Nobody deserves to beat Pahokee, or Glades Central, but us."
Thus was the purpose of this dinner served. The teams were knit together by Hester's eloquence, and by their shared sadness over a terrible mistake made by a mutual friend.