'Muck Bowl' Puts Florida Town's Pride on Display

PHOTO Pahokee, Fla., has sent more than a dozen players to the NFL, a large statistic for such a small town. Current hometown stars include Baltimore Ravens wide receiver Anquan Boldin.
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On the banks of Florida's Lake Okeechobee is Pahokee, an agricultural city of just 6,000 people. Workers toil on miles of sugarcane fields filled with dark, gummy dirt referred to simply as "the muck."

It's considered one of the poorest cities in the country, with unemployment sitting at nearly 40 percent. The average family earns about $26,000, or half the national average.

"It's in the middle of nowhere, not a lot to do. There are no shopping malls to go to. There isn't really any restaurants," New York Jets wide receiver Santonio Holmes said of his hometown to an ESPN documentary crew.

But there is football.

"It's faith, football and farming," said Blaze Thompson, Pahokee High School's head coach. His father stood next to him, proudly wearing the school's state and national championship rings on each of his fingers, from his own years as coach.

In fact, some of the most talented young football players in the country are discovered in Pahokee and its surrounding areas every year. Inside Pahokee High School, are walls of pictures displaying former students. Many players have gone on to play for college football powerhouses including the University of Florida, University of Michigan, and North Carolina State.

In 2009, out of Pahokee's senior class of just 50 boys, 12 received full football scholarships to Division I colleges. In total, those players received $1 million in scholarship funds.

Pahokee has sent more than a dozen players to the NFL, a large statistic for such a small town. Current hometown stars include Baltimore Ravens wide receiver Anquan Boldin.

And so every year, scouts from colleges across the nation flock for the annual "Muck Bowl" between Pahokee High School and Glades Central High School. The showdown, now in its 25th year, brings in the largest crowd for any football game in Palm Beach County.

"We love the Muckbowl," Atkins said. He plans to play for the University of Central Florida next year.

But to these boys, football is seen as much more than just a game. Winning a scout's attention and a ticket to college is one of the few ways out.

"The alternative is so dangerous," Thompson said. "It's scary, so they're motivated."

According to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement the crime rate in Pahokee for 2008 was 7,588.2 per 100,000 residents, about double the rate for the rest of the state.

"When you talk about opportunities and chances, these kids don't have (any)," Pahokee's assistant coach Jonathan Johnson told USA Today. "Football is 90 percent to 95 percent of the boys' only opportunity to get out of here."

According to state records, 92 percent of Pahokee High School's students receive free or reduced lunch.

"The talent has gotten them a lot of notoriety and publicity, but these still are the same poor kids who had probably never been out of the town before," Johnson said.

Gyms and trainers are few around these parts. So kids traditionally improve their speed by chasing down rabbits through smoldering sugar and cornfields. Locals attribute the agility their players are so famous for to this kind of "training."

But, they also say their boys show the kind of heart it takes to be winners.

Just days before the big game, Atkins broke his hand. But instead of sitting out, he gutted it out and decided to play his last high school football game.

In the end, the scoreboard read a complete blowout. The Glades Central Raiders pummeled the Pahokee Blue Devils 58-0.

But losing aside, the players say their town's Muck Bowl is much more than just about football. It's about pride, and showing the world that the muck, as poor and remote as it is, is the center of the universe when it comes to football.

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