Touched by tragedy, Pahokee (Fla.) looks to win one for Pooh
LB Norman "Pooh" Griffith was headed for stardom before he was gunned down
A perennial producer of talent, Pahokee is seeking its third-straight state title
Pahokee hosts rival Glades Central on Saturday in the annual Muck Bowl
PAHOKEE, Fla. -- Lake Okeechobee hardly qualifies as a tourism hotspot in South Florida. The nearest coral reef, oceanfront condo or bikini-dotted beach is an hour's drive east, and no building here bears the name Trump. Soaring apartment towers and lavish shopping malls shrink in the rearview mirror as State Road 80 rips through endless fields of sugar cane. Animals dart across the road, birds swoop between passing cars and it's not unusual to spy a peeking alligator.
Enter Pahokee from the south and you're in picturesque small-town Florida. The road is lined with palm trees, churches and houses with front porches and spacious yards. Enter from the north and witness the underbelly: impoverished neighborhoods and run-down businesses.
"If you stop and talk to somebody and ask directions, or talk to them about what they care about -- football or faith -- you'll understand it's a caring town," said Blaze Thompson, who grew up in Pahokee and played football for Pahokee High before taking the head coaching job last year. "There are some bad things happening, but for the most part, it's a nice Southern, hospitable town."
It's a strange trip, but countless college coaches know the route. Not only is Lake O a heavenly place to fish for largemouth bass and speckled perch, it's also a great spot to reel in linebackers and wide receivers. An honor roll of assistant coaches, predominantly from the SEC and ACC, make at least one annual trip to Pahokee and Belle Glade, an area locally referred to as Muck City. They veer far from postcard Florida, hoping to land next-level talent like Fred Taylor and Santonio Holmes from Glades Central and Anquan Boldin from Pahokee. The two schools' rivalry, one of the most heated in the state, is played out in the annual Muck Bowl, which this year will take place on Saturday before an expected crowd of 10,000 at Pahokee High's Lair Field.
This season several coaches made the trek to scout Norman "Pooh" Griffith, a senior linebacker and tight end for Pahokee, which hadn't lost since the 2005 state finals. The 6-foot-1, 220-pound Griffith had offers from Iowa State, Ball State, Buffalo and Middle Tennessee. It appeared his name soon would be added to the list posted in Pahokee's locker room of 260 former players who reached college football.
However, his dream ended shortly after midnight on Sept. 27, when he was shot in the head after a community dance in Belle Glade. When the mood had turned tense, Griffith had done as he had been taught: He left. Or tried to, anyway. A group of boys trying to steal his gold necklace ultimately took his life.
By all accounts, Griffith was as quiet and tender off the field as he was ferocious on it. News of his death shocked teammates who thought he was one of the least likely players to find trouble. The police said he was "not even a blip" on their radar.
The story took another twist when police arrested 17-year-old Carl Lee Booth and charged him with first-degree murder. Booth was a former math student of Thompson's at Pahokee Elementary, and Booth's father, Carl Sr., is a director of the Pahokee Church of God, which the Griffith family has attended for years.
Booth and Willie Felton, 16, both were charged with first-degree murder and two other felonies. Although forensic tests showed Felton fired the fatal shot, the murder charge also applies to Booth because of his intent. The two are in police custody while they await trial.
Griffith's death struck the community at its core: faith and football. The town lost a popular, promising young son, and the Pahokee Blue Devils lost one of their brothers.
Jackie Griffith saw almost all of her son's games. Her job as a Palm Beach County school bus driver made it challenging, but she usually maneuvered her schedule around Pahokee football. She always let her son know she was in the crowd by yelling "Hey, Pooh," with her instantly recognizable flair.
But on Sept. 26, that call never reached the Blue Devils' ears. With a road trip to face national No. 1 Byrnes High in Duncan, S.C., looming the following week, Jackie Griffith accepted an extra assignment to help cover her upcoming travel costs. Instead of cheering in the stands during Pahokee's homecoming game against Jupiter, she transported another team to a game in West Palm Beach. She missed her son's final game.
Norman Griffith was in top form that night, and the Blue Devils rolled 34-10 to win their 32nd-straight game. Afterward, players celebrated on the field, changed in the locker room and dispersed. Hours later, though, they were reunited in response to jarring, pre-dawn phone calls. Pooh was dead.
Police and friends said Griffith was trying to avoid a confrontation when he got in his Dodge Durango to leave Belle Glade's Bill Bailey Community Center. But as he shifted into drive, a teenager with dreadlocks approached his truck, and at least six shots rang out from two guns.
One bullet struck Griffith. The car rumbled into a telephone pole and terror began to spread via text messages and phone calls. One of the Blue Devils called Thompson, who was home with his family.