Deep in destitute Florida sugarcane country, where only the tough survive, two neighboring high school powerhouses teeming with Division I talent collide every year in a fierce rivalry game called the Muck Bowl
This is an article from the Nov. 30, 2009 issue
Grown-ups on both sides of the rivalry had spent the week selling sportsmanship and harmony, but someone forgot to tell the P.A. announcer at the 29th Muck Bowl, which took place on Nov. 14 in Belle Glade, Fla. "Pahokee, we are going to ride you like the Lone Ranger rode Silver!" boomed the announcer to a standing-room-only crowd of more than 10,000 at Effie C. Grear Field. "Drum major, flip the switch. Let's do this!"
And that salvo was just for the battle of the bands at halftime, when the Blue Devils of Pahokee High led the favored Raiders of Glades Central High 21--19. Despite the schools' proximity (12 miles apart) and the fact that many players have lived in both towns, the enmity between the sides during Muck Bowl week borders on implacable. Consider this sulfurous snippet from the pregame speech delivered by Blue Devils defensive coordinator Rick Lammons:
"You do not call us out, then say there's gonna be peace. These people asked for a goddam war! So guess what, fellas, we're gonna give them a goddam war!"
Once the roar and bloodlust in the room subsided slightly, Lammons brought it home: "O.K., now let's have a prayer."
It's time to deal with the rabbits, so skip ahead if you have a pet bunny or loved the novel Watership Down. For decades, as long as farmers have set fire to the sugarcane fields before the harvest, boys in Belle Glade and Pahokee have hunted rabbits. "They come out of the fire," explains Raheam Buxton, a Pahokee High cornerback bound for Miami, "and we're there waiting for them." How does one, um, dispatch the furry creatures? "Hit them over the head with a cane stalk," says Buxton, helpfully adding that if a bludgeon is not at hand, you can "chase them till their hearts burst."
"Sooo, you can run a rabbit to death?" I ask, wondering if I'm being put on. Buxton nods.
"Now, a cottontail," says Buxton, warming to the subject, "is good for a linebacker to chase. Because they make a lot of cuts."
"Are you messing with me?"
"No, I'm serious. They're shifty."
Local lore has it that the Muck, as this part of south-central Florida is known, produces so many fast football players because they grow up chasing rabbits. That's an oversimplification. It's not that they chase rabbits. It's that they find it necessary to chase rabbits.
The estimated per capita income in Pahokee (pop. 6,598) and Belle Glade (pop. 16,681) is about $13,000. According to a study released in August by the Palm Beach County Economic Development Office, unemployment in the Glades region is running close to 40%. In these parts you can sell fresh-killed rabbits for two bucks apiece—$1.50 more if the animals are skinned and dressed. Or you can keep them and cook them yourself. When Florida coach Urban Meyer talks, as he often does, about loving players from the Glades because they're "hungry," he might be speaking literally.
"Hunting rabbits isn't some hobby for a lot of people," says Willie Jones, a former Raider who had a four-year career as an NFL offensive tackle. "It's a way for you to eat."
Drive west out of West Palm Beach and watch the scenery change. See the gleaming towers and high-end shops give way to strip malls and self-storage warehouses. Cruising under Florida's Turnpike, past the WHOCANISUE.COM billboard and the John Deere outlet and the HOT BOILED PEANUTS stand on Southern Boulevard, you notice the gradual petering out of palm trees and evergreens, the lazy wheeling of turkey buzzards, and finally an undulating ocean of cane that stretches 25 miles to the horizon—a pale-green vastness that yields up half the country's sugar.
The cane fields spread right up to the levees of Lake Okeechobee, on whose southeastern shore you will find Belle Glade and Pahokee. Known as the Muck for its dark, rich soil (unplanted fields appear to be covered with three feet of coffee grounds), the area is outrageously fertile in another sense. In a state with eight high school athletic classifications going up to 6A, two small schools—2A Glades Central (about 1,150 students) and 2B Pahokee (560)—have sent at least 48 players to the NFL over the last four decades. Many multiples of that number have starred in the college ranks. Pahokee High has won five state championships in the last six years; Glades Central has won six since 1971.
Steelers wideout Santonio Holmes, the MVP of Super Bowl XLIII, is from Belle Glade, while Patriots running back Fred Taylor and Cardinals wideout Anquan Boldin are from Pahokee. At least 17 players in this month's Muck Bowl have fielded Division I offers.
"That's not unusual," says Clint Hurtt, the recruiting coordinator at Miami. "It's unheard of. It's insane."
Visitors to Belle Glade are greeted by a sign that may strike them as ironic or darkly comic or both, considering the city's dire economic circumstances: BELLE GLADE: HER SOIL IS HER FORTUNE. The legend is half-true: It's somebody's fortune.
Pahokee lacks a motto, though cornerback Merrill Noel may have provided one last April on the first day of spring practice. Noel, one of three Pahokee High seniors committed to Wake Forest, is the quintessential Blue Devil: undersized, whip-smart, gregarious off the field and nasty as H1N1 on it. It is a testament to the team's otherworldly talent that the guests at that day's practice included Meyer, Florida State coach Bobby Bowden and several members of their staffs. Also present was Chris Dunkley, a five-star wideout (according to Scout.com) who'd recently transferred from Royal Palm Beach High.
Early in the practice, when receivers ran pass routes against the defensive backs, Dunkley found himself lined up against an underclassman. According to a coach who was present that day, the 5'10", 180-pound Noel shoved the youngster aside and said, "I got this guy."
"Now Dunkley is this pretty thing," says the coach, "and I mean that in a good way: great-looking athlete, incredible speed, a legitimate star. The ball's snapped, and he's gonna put a fake on [Noel] and run right by him, which is what he's been doing since third grade. But while he's doing his little shake and bake, Noel jacks him up—plants both palms right in [Dunkley's] chest, knocks him over, almost knocks him out."
Reaching down to help up his new teammate, Noel extended this greeting: "Welcome to f------ Pahokee."
The woman for whom the Glades Central High football field is named is 82 years old and sharp as a blade of sawgrass. Effie Grear retired in 2000 after a quarter century as the school's principal. A native of Huntington, W.Va., she graduated high school at the age of 14. "I liked school so well," she recalls, "I ran out of subjects to take." Grear had her heart set on a teaching job in Orlando in 1956, but the offer failed to come through, so she accepted a position in Belle Glade. The next day's mail brought a letter from Orlando. "They told me they'd hold the job for a year," she says, "but by that time I had too much muck in my shoes. I'd fallen in love with this place and these people." By 1975 she was the principal at Glades Central High.
Grear's fierce pride of place is the norm in both towns, despite their obvious pathologies: poverty, unemployment and crime rates far above the national norm. Ask Tennessee coach Lane Kiffin, who reaped a whirlwind for his condescending remarks about Pahokee before a roomful of boosters last February. (Kiffin had already raised hackles in Florida, and thrilled Vol Nation, by poaching Blue Devils wide receiver Nu'Keese Richardson from the Gators—a victory that would prove Pyrrhic, as we shall see.)
"For those of you who haven't been to Pahokee, there ain't much going on," Kiffin riffed. "There ain't a gas station that works. Nobody's got enough money to even have shoes or a shirt on." (Note to Kif: I purchased $25 of unleaded at Swifty's on East Main Street in Pahokee—from a middle-aged gentleman wearing shoes and a shirt!)
Reaction to those slurs was swift. The president of Pahokee's Chamber of Commerce drafted a letter demanding an apology and sent copies to top administrators at Tennessee and the SEC. Vols assistant coach Eddie Gran was barred from the Pahokee High campus in May. Kiffin has since apologized, and Gran is now welcome back at Blue Devils practices, but the question remains: What exactly, aside from their glorious football tradition, are these people so proud of?
They're justifiably proud of their grit, their resilience; proud of themselves for surviving so long in a corner of the country that can't seem to catch a break. The excellence of these football programs, it turns out, springs from a deep reservoir of toughness. "We are not a complaining people," declares Lammons.
Life has long been hard in the Muck. Dating back to the first half of the last century, laborers would gather at dawn at the 5th Street loading ramp in Belle Glade and be bused to the fields, there to spend the day cutting cane or picking winter vegetables. And those, it turns out, were the good old days. By 1992, sugar companies had replaced most day laborers with contraptions that lift windrowed cane from the ground, then cut the stalks into short pieces. "Air is forced through the cascading cane to remove most of the extraneous matter," according to a display in the lobby of the Sugar Cane Growers Cooperative of Florida, just north of Belle Glade. Better still, the machines never try to unionize or sue their bosses for back wages.
That gradual decline in farming jobs, coupled with a terrifying new scourge, knocked this area to its knees. In 1985, Belle Glades's rate of one AIDS case for every 541 people was 51 times the national average. There was rampant speculation, in those benighted days, that HIV was spread by mosquitoes. People avoided the Muck in droves; its residents are still stung by the memory of a mid-'80s touch-football tournament hosted by Belle Glade. Out-of-town parents "wouldn't let their kids mingle with our kids," recalls Grear. "They wouldn't drink our water. I found it very insulting."
She responded by writing a book, Up From the Muck, celebrating some of the area's highest achievers: doctors, lawyers, professors, musicians, business executives. ("You'll notice," she says pointedly, "I included only two football players.") As the area's congressman, Alcee Hastings, writes in the foreword, Up From the Muck is "the story of purpose-driven people who overcame insurmountable odds."
Insurmountable means not surmountable, so the congressman is trafficking in hyperbole here. But just barely.
It's getting spicy on the practice field at Glades Central. Lined up in press coverage during a scrimmage, cornerback Tavares Crawford jams some poor sophomore receiver halfway back to the huddle, then lectures him after the whistle: "It's a privilege to be on this field. You've got to earn it!"
A tall former Marine is watching with his arms folded, nodding impatiently as I extol the talent on display. "People in this community do a beautiful job of supporting these guys on the field," the former serviceman says. "The sad thing is, we don't support them academically. In the Marines we believe in never leaving a man behind. If we are truly a team, how can one guy be carrying a 3.0 and the guy next to him is academically ineligible?"
The speaker is William Grear, Glades Central '81. After 14 years in the Marines, Effie Grear's only son wanted to return to the Muck. His wife, not being native to the area, did not. The Muck won. Now 46 years old and single, William is a director for the GYRO (Glades Youth Recreational Outreach) program. Last March he was elected one of Belle Glade's two city commissioners. Although out of the service for nine years, he retains the direct manner of a Marine. "Why don't I take you for a ride," he says, "show you around. You need to see what the deal is."
Soon we are in Grear's white Chrysler sedan, cruising slowly through an apocalyptic tableau of dilapidated buildings in a 24-block area of Belle Glade known as the Grid. Window down, elbow resting on the car door, the commish greets passersby by name. He drives past a series of squalid structures, many slapped together a half century ago to house migrant workers. They are in dreadful shape. "Can't renovate them," says Grear, "because we could never get them up to code. And we can't knock them down, because we've already got a homeless issue." Some of the complexes have as many as 40 apartments and two bathrooms. "Not two bathrooms per apartment," he emphasizes. "Two bathrooms for the whole building. One for males, one for females."
Seconds after scowling at a wall defaced by fresh graffiti, Grear pulls up to a group of teenage boys, one of whom seems especially pained by his arrival. "We're painting over that graffiti at four o'clock tomorrow," Grear tells the kid. "You need to be here."
There are bright spots. Two blocks from the graffiti, everything is suddenly immaculate. I meet Pastor Pat, of the Community United Methodist Church, which works with GYRO. He and Grear make plans for the graffiti cleanup. We drive by the Lighthouse Cafe, where "we feed 100 people a day," Grear says with pride.
Back in the 'hood I see an elderly woman on a balcony, sitting on a cinder block as if it were an ottoman. People of every age are marking time on stoops, balconies and street corners. Men loiter in front of a NO LOITERING sign. "They're not hanging out because they're looking to rob somebody," says Grear. "They're hanging out because there's no place else for them to go." There is no mall, no movie theater. "Even if it's 90 degrees outside, it's 105 inside."
Toward the end of the tour we pass the building where Janoris Jenkins lived. Jenkins is the former Blue Devil who started at cornerback as a true freshman on Florida's national championship team last season. "Do you see why he plays with that hunger, that edge? Because if he doesn't make it, look what he's coming back to. He's not coming back to a job."
Help is on the way, predicts Kevin Johns, director of the Palm Beach County Economic Development Office. There are high hopes that this area will be chosen as the site for an inland port distribution hub connecting South Florida's three seaports. Such a hub would create thousands of jobs. The downtowns of both towns are undergoing makeovers, thanks to grants won by the PBCEDO. The Rim Canal, silted over by a series of hurricanes, is now being dredged to reconnect Pahokee and Belle Glade to Lake Okeechobee, to revive the area's moribund marine industry. "But that," Johns allows, "is going to take years."
Big Sugar, meanwhile, is getting smaller all the time. Four years ago Florida Crystals closed its Belle Glade grinding mill. U.S. Sugar shut down its mill outside of Pahokee in '07 and is selling 73,000 acres to the state as part of Governor Charlie Crist's Everglades restoration land deal. That arrangement includes a 10-year option to pick up another 107,000 acres from U.S. Sugar.
The savage hurricane of 1928 filled Lake Okeechobee with rainwater, then blew it over the banks of its inadequate levees. Some 2,500 people died. The Army Corps of Engineers responded by rebuilding the levees much higher—from five to 40 feet in some places. The hard luck of the Muck: While the dike keeps the lake out of streets and living rooms, it also obscures people's views of a spectacular body of water.
As long as a levee was there, Lammons reasoned seven years ago, "we might as well start utilizing it." Since then spring football and fall camp at Pahokee High have begun with a miserable interlude called Hell Week. For five days the Blue Devils don't see the football field, devoting their practice hours instead to a battery of dike-related torments. "Let's see," says Buxton, the cornerback. "We sprint up and over it. Duckwalk it. Hop up it. Backpedal up it."
"Crabwalk," interjects a teammate who sits on the sideline icing his quadriceps.
"Crabwalk, yes," agrees Buxton. "And we do somersaults up the dike."
How is that possible?
"Coach Rick makes it possible."
While there are 45 players on the roster, Blue Devils coach Blaze Thompson relies on a core of 18 to 22, many of whom play both ways. "That's why we condition the mess out of them," Thompson says.
"I remember the last practice I watched at Pahokee," says Michigan coach Rich Rodriguez, whose Wolverines squad includes three former Blue Devils. "The first hour, all they did was run."
But Hell Week isn't just for fitness, says Lammons: "We do it for discipline. And we do it for cohesion."
They are long on the latter, short on the former. A disciplined team turns the other cheek. That's not in the Blue Devils' DNA. Part of their mystique is that they will fight at the drop of a hat. Two summers ago Pahokee High was thrown out of a Nike 7-on-7 touch football tournament in Miramar, Fla., after brawling with players at Booker T. Washington High in a sideline-clearing melee. (They were rushing to the aid of a teammate the Tornadoes had surrounded, Pahokee players insist.) With this strike against them, in July the Blue Devils were banished from another Nike 7-on-7, in Beaverton, Ore., on suspicion that one of them had stolen gloves from a mannequin on display at the Nike campus.
That willingness to throw down comes from, if not a noble place, an understandable one. When everything else in the world lets them down, the Blue Devils still have one another. Lammons distills that notion to these words: "I am my brother's keeper." The players distill it even further, repeatedly reminding one another, "We all we got."
This reflexive closing of ranks is the default response of a team whose coaches foster an us-against-the-world mentality. You saw it a week before the Muck Bowl, when Pahokee High was forced to forfeit two wins for using an academically ineligible player. And you see it before and after every practice, as the Blue Devils come together and send up a cheer—"Hey, Pooh!"—for a fallen teammate.
Hours after Pahokee's homecoming win over Jupiter High on Sept. 26, 2008, senior captain and linebacker Norman (Pooh) Griffith drove to Belle Glade for a dance sponsored by the Boys & Girls Club. "I was supposed to go with him," Buxton recalls, "but my girlfriend came over, and I wanted to spend time with her. Pooh was like, Don't worry about it. Just chill."
Griffith, a popular player with multiple Division I scholarship offers, was shot in the head and killed as he drove away from the dance. Police arrested two suspects. One of them, 17-year-old Willie Felton, was I.D.'d by three witnesses as the triggerman. Because of questions about their credibility, police were unable to build a case against Felton, who has since been released and will not face charges.
"A lot of people tried to make this a Belle Glade--Pahokee thing," says Lt. Michael Morris of the Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office. "It wasn't." The suspects, he notes, "were not going to school. They weren't students."
Morris, a former Florida State offensive lineman, is the commander for PBCSO's District 13, encompassing the Muck. His wife, Melanie, is an assistant principal at Glades Central. In their spare time they take students on college tours, tutor them on Florida's Comprehensive Assessment Test and help them fill out financial aid forms.
"You talk to some of these guys about their future and it's football, football, football," Morris says, shaking his head. "I'll ask them, 'What's your backup plan?' It's football. You know what I'd love to see? I'd love to see one of our players turn down a football scholarship to accept an academic scholarship."
Until that glorious day, boys in both towns will dream of making plays in the Muck Bowl. Buxton recalls playing tackle football in his backyard as a seven-year-old with Griffith and a half-dozen other Blue Devils--to-be. "Even when it would rain, hard, we'd keep on playing. We'd just yell to each other, 'It's the Muck Bowl!'"
In the real Muck Bowl on Nov. 14 Buxton came on a corner blitz on the first play of the game and nailed Glades Central quarterback L.J. Thomas 12 yards behind the line. Amped on adrenaline, Buxton blitzed again on second down, throwing Thomas for a 14-yard loss and giving the Raiders' youthful offensive line much to discuss in the huddle.
It was a portent of the carnival ride to come that, facing third-and-26, Thomas calmly picked up the first down with successive completions. (Both teams punt only in the direst emergencies.) A few plays later he hit 6'6", 215-pound junior Kelvin (Treetop) Benjamin on a slant pattern. Shedding a pair of defenders, Benjamin needed about four of his giant strides to reach the end zone.
One of the reasons these guys are so ridiculously good is that they've been playing together since Pop Warner (or City League, as it is called around here). Benjamin, a basketball player, is the exception: He took up football only last year, and he already has scores of college coaches—including the ones in Gainesville—salivating. At a 7-on-7 tournament last summer sponsored by Saints fullback Heath Evans, Benjamin was so impressive that he was approached by another NFL player in attendance. "I look at you and I see myself when I was your age," Patriots wideout Randy Moss told him. "Keep doing what you're doing."
That wasn't necessarily the message Benjamin took from an off-season workout at the Belle Glade Boys & Girls Club a few weeks later. While he and 15 or so teammates put themselves through a series of agility drills and plyometrics before heading to the weight room, a chorus of elders worked hard to hold Treetop's ego in check.
Holding down the distressed sofa in a corner of that cramped gym was gray-bearded, obstreperous Ronald Cook. After playing ball at Belle Glade's Lakeshore High, Cook was a running back at Miles College in Fairfield, Ala. He coached both there and at Alcorn State in Mississippi before returning to his roots. "These kids," he harrumphed, "they think just because 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're luxurizing." Turning his attention to Benjamin, he ticked off the young man's shortcomings, concluding with this one: "All you are right now is a jump ball receiver."
Having played just one season, Benjamin would be the first to admit that his game is raw. But when he spoke up to defend himself, Cook shook his head sadly. "It used to be Yes, sir, no, sir," said the old coach, now channeling Cedric the Entertainer in Barbershop. "He caught a few touchdown passes, and now he thinks he's Jerry Rice. Well, let me tell you something: Jerry Rice had work habits!"
On the couch beside Cook was Willie Jones, the former NFL lineman, who picked up where his elder left off: "What's killing 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. The stalking of rabbits, the head start these guys get in the City League, the urgency to get out, the lack of anything else to do—all these factors help explain the excellence of football in the Muck. But this pair of grumps sharing the sofa in the Boys & Girls Club represent what may be the most important ingredient. Guys like Jones and Cook and Lammons and countless other self-appointed stewards of the tradition help maintain its absurdly high standards. They root out complacency and kill it at the source.
There is a seemingly endless supply of such guardians in the Muck. One of them turns out to be Jessie Hester, the former Glades Central, Florida State and NFL wideout who became the Raiders' coach two years ago. When the job came open, Hester was inundated with requests to apply for it. But he'd been offered coaching jobs upon retiring as a player and turned them all down. He wanted no part of that stress.
Then, driving one day along Avenue A in a sketchy part of town, Hester saw two young men who'd been friends with his son Jessie Jr., now a senior wideout at South Florida and an NFL prospect. "And I just thought that maybe if I'd stepped up earlier," he says, "those guys wouldn't be on the street."
It was Hester who soothed his ruffled Raiders at halftime of the Muck Bowl. Despite having outplayed Pahokee, the home team was reeling from a 10-point swing in the last moments of a half that had crammed a season's worth of thrills into two 12-minute quarters. De'Joshua Johnson, the Blue Devils' Florida State--bound quarterback, had answered Treetop's touchdown with an electrifying, 59-yard scoring burst, which the Raiders' Greg Dent soon trumped with an 84-yard kickoff return to the house, which was all but forgotten when, with 80 seconds left in the half, our old friend Merrill Noel scooped up a blocked field goal and dashed 81 yards for the score. "If you go out and execute and eliminate penalties," Hester assured his men at intermission, "this game will not even be close." Nor was it, as Thomas started connecting with the impossibly smooth and fluid Dent, his go-to guy all season. Dent, another Hurricane-to-be, finished with six catches for 185 yards and a touchdown to complement his kick return and fumble recovery. When the Blue Devils doubled Dent, Thomas went back to Treetop, who had two long second-half catches, both of which set up TDs. The second score, by Demetrius Evans—yet another D-I-bound wideout—prompted the inhospitable (but droll) P.A. announcer to ask the crowd, "Do I hear the fat lady warming up?"
The final score: 47--21. Glades Central has now won 18 of the 29 Muck Bowls. The announcer's provocations notwithstanding, there was a marked absence of hostility as the two teams filed through the handshake line. The fact is, since these teams are in different classifications, the loss had no bearing on the Blue Devils' playoff goals—which were snuffed out six nights later. All season Pahokee had been less than the sum of its all-star parts. That flaw was on glaring display against Hollywood-Chaminade, which routed the three-time defending state champs 35--0.
Harmony between Blue Devils and Raiders is the point of the Pre--Muck Bowl Banquet, at which players from both teams are required to break bread together. That tradition was the brainchild of Effie Grear, who recalls that, by 1984, hostility between the teams "had gotten to the point where you were almost ashamed to see what would happen after the game." While there were pockets of fraternization in the Glades Central gym on this night, a chilly détente held sway at most tables.
It was Hester who galvanized the room by acknowledging the elephant in it. Although a half-dozen speakers had preceded him, Hester was the one to broach the subject of Nu'Keese Richardson, the Tennessee freshman who'd been arrested in Knoxville on suspicion of armed robbery early that morning. (He was dismissed from the team by Kiffin but has not yet been charged in the case.) Rivalry or not, the news had gutted people in both towns.
Departing from his prepared remarks, Hester practically begged the young men before him to use their heads. "Do not blow it," he pleaded. "Take pride in who you are and where you're from."
What he said next did more to knit these teams together than all the stilted small talk over dinner. In a statement both arrogant and inclusive, he confided that every time the rival Blue Devils take the field—with the exception of one game—"I want to see them win. Because nobody deserves to beat Pahokee, or Glades Central, but us."