Once a powerhouse, Pahokee battles losses and unemployment

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JP Sasser leans back in his computer chair and rubs his palms over his face. He's surrounded by wood-paneled walls in a one-desk office the size of a college dorm room. Cars star in every photo or calendar the wall holds. Vehicles are his life; Cavinee's Paint and Body Shop his day job.

On this particular Tuesday morning his mind's consumed by his second occupation and the economic depression that's paralyzing his hometown, a small, struggling Florida town called Pahokee. Sasser's the mayor there, and the town, snuggled up against the banks of central Florida's Lake Okeechobee, has bottomed out.

Not only are Pahokee's unemployment numbers pushing 40 percent -- "probably in the 20s if you only include people who want to work," Sasser says -- the town's once-powerful high school football team is locked in a slump that mirrors its economy. The latest national economic crunch hasn't even dented Pahokee's already-bottomed-out morale, Sasser says, but the football team's strife has.

"You can only go so far down," Sasser explains, and when it comes to football, "the community tends to be very unforgiving."

Much like their town's economy, the famed Pahokee Blue Devils, whose failures and fortunes alike have been chronicled by local and national media for decades, have become a sob story. Proud owners of six state championships and famous football alumni such as Baltimore Ravens receiver Anquan Boldin and retired Hall of Fame linebacker Rickey Jackson, Pahokee has won five games over the past two seasons and may not be much better this fall.

Fans take to Twitter and Facebook to voice their embarrassment and form a circular firing squad, calling for a new coaching staff and a better youth football program. National media outlets the past two years largely ignored the Muck Bowl, the town's long-standing rivalry game against neighboring Belle Glade Glades Central, which Glades Central has handily won three seasons in a row, including last year's 70-0 defeat that's believed to be the worst loss in Pahokee history.

In a programming discussion, a spokesman for the marketing company that plans ESPN's high school football broadcasts sighed last summer at the mention of potentially putting the Muck Bowl on television, saying Pahokee's a far cry from the team that made a television appearance in 2008. "Maybe someday soon, if they ever come back," he said.

Schools that once feared Pahokee no longer do. The majestic Anquan Boldin Stadium, one of the nicest football complexes in the football hotbed that is Palm Beach County, gets awfully lonely on Friday nights, which used to be the best nights to pump Pahokee with fans and revenue.

Head football coach Blaze Thompson, who played at Pahokee, was an assistant for three of Pahokee's state-title runs and won back-to-back rings as head coach in 2007 and 2008. His father, Don, coached the Blue Devils to their first state crown in 1989. Both bleed Pahokee blue, and both have become exasperated with the pressure put on them to reproduce the old winning ways.

"We're human," says Thompson, who started locking out the local community from practices last fall in an attempt to limit the negativity around the program. "When we see the paper, we're hurt. When we hear it from our fans, we're hurt. When the kids look at the stands and there's 100 people there, they're hurt."

The old cycle of Pahokee football -- four different losing stretches separate four periods of proud playoff runs -- may not apply anymore. With population declines, increased poverty and increased competition for football talent, the Blue Devils face a tougher uphill battle than ever.

"Right now we're still missing some fat boys," Thompson says. "I'd like to say that we are on our way back (like history normally would suggest), but a key ingredient to being a dominant football team is being a dominant offensive and defensive line. I can't honestly say we have that or will anytime soon."

Maybe the town's worst economic shape yet is finally catching up to a program that used to be immune to its town's financial status.

Pahokee boomed as an up-and-coming farm town in the middle of last century, and its football team starting sprouting winners shortly thereafter. Muck, the rich, dark soil that makes the region a prolific farming community, proved to be a lucrative foundation for vegetables and produce, which became a staple of South Florida agriculture. Laborers flocked to Pahokee and Belle Glade and other small hamlets along the coast of the mighty Okeechobee. Sugar took off, too, and though it's less labor intensive than produce, it still stimulated the local economy.

As the economy grew, Pahokee became a football playoff force, reaching the postseason five times and the state championship game once from 1973 to 1979. That's when Jackson, who starred at the University of Pittsburgh and then for the New Orleans Saints, helped earn Pahokee its reputation as a program with blazing-fast athletes and tough-as-nails football players.

But while the farming community boomed, there were down periods for the football teams, both in the early 1980s and 1990s. And when the local economy tanked in the late 1990s and into the 2000s, crippled by the proliferation of corporate farming and sluggish downtown revitalization efforts, the team did well, throwing a wrench into any old theories that football and business had anything to do with one another. That may be changing now.

The latest run ended with the Class of 2009, the last remotely successful group of seniors that included 10 players who signed Division I letters of intent. Two players have signed Division I scholarships since, and Rivals.com recruiting analyst Chris Nee says there won't be any prospects signing high-profile letters of intent in February 2013, either. The talent levels, if anything, show the impact of more recent economic problems saddling Pahokee. The "fat boys" the town used to produce -- like Ravens defensive end Pernell McPhee or rookie free agent Micanor Regis -- just don't come around anymore.

Yet Sasser, Thompson and Chamber of Commerce executive secretary Regina Bohlen each come back to similar sentiment, as if Pahokee's economic and football rebounds are one in the same. They use the "once we" phrases:

Once the Army Corps of Engineers finishes reinforcing the dike that protects Pahokee, the only town directly on the banks of Lake Okeechobee, the town's new marina will get its restaurant, jobs will open up and Pahokee will finally have something more downtown than a sterling PNC Bank branch. Then other businesses will want to start up, Bohlen says, and that unemployment number will dive like the largemouth bass that swim in Lake Okeechobee.

"This didn't happen overnight and it won't change overnight," Sasser says. "But we do have a plan."

Once the football team gets a few "fat boys," wherever they come from, it'll start winning again, especially with a 2014 class that Thompson believes has potential. Maybe the media attention outside of Palm Beach County will come back, and the fans, too. The Muck Bowl might be close again. Maybe ESPN will even broadcast one.

"You can't shelter your kids from those comments because they come from their own friends, their own classmates," Thompson says. "You just have to get it to the point where they buy into what we're doing. The talent is starting to poke its head."

Back in Sasser's office -- which ironically is in neighboring Belle Glade -- the hope all seems so legitimate, like the turnaround is just on the other side of those wood-paneled walls, just on the other side of that still-under-construction dike.

With his piercing blue eyes and polar-white, beard-connected crew cut, Sasser looks like Donald Sutherland and talks like Jimmy Carter with a bit of an attitude. He's a good salesman, and he makes Pahokee's future sound promising, just Bohlen and Thompson.

After all, if Sasser's sentiment holds true, the only direction the town can go is up. There is no more bottom.

Maybe Thompson's team can lead the way.

Right now maybe's all Pahokee has.