Youth leagues (some school districts in South Florida won't spring for junior high programs because they can't afford the insurance rates) get kids playing high school rules as early as age eight. And Fort Lauderdale's Fab Four played right in front of their houses, where there were always plenty of kin to fill out a side.
Here's a shot of Marvin Pope. He graduated from Gainesville's Eastside High in June, and according to
, which keeps track of these things, he was the best all-around schoolboy athlete in the state last year. Marvin, who goes 6'1" and 240 pounds, got into a little trouble at the state weightlifting meet last winter. Another lifter found it amusing that Marvin, with a chance to break the state record in the bench press, failed to make the lift at 450 pounds. The other fellow's amusement didn't sit well with Marvin, who slapped him upside the head. That got Marvin, and his tormentor, disqualified from the meet.
Marvin probably won't end up designing rocket booster seals for a living, but he does bench 450 pounds now, and cleans-and-jerks 335. Marvin was recruited by Miami and Illinois, but according to the NCAA's rules, he will have to sit out his freshman year for failing to take enough college preparatory-level courses. His SAT scores were also not up to snuff. Illinois backed off when Marvin's academic shortcomings became apparent, so he signed with I-AA Western Kentucky. But he was smart enough not to close his hand before he hit the guy who was running his mouth, and he's basically a good kid and a mean linebacker.
The point is, if Marvin had grown up in, say, Vermont, his 240 pounds might not be quite as solid as they are today. Few states offer interscholastic weightlifting, and none has as many high school kids competing in dual meets as Florida. "My little Bulgaria" is what Harvey Newton, executive director of the U.S. Weightlifting Federation, calls Florida. Unfortunately for Newton, few lifters there treat the sport as anything but a way to prepare for football.
This is Derek Brown of Merritt Island High. He's a tight end whom many considered to be the top schoolboy player in the nation last season. Brown was a tough recruit to land, and not just because he has teenage twin sisters, which made it difficult for recruiters to get through on the phone. He's 6'7", 235 pounds, runs a 4.7 in the 40 and had a GPA just shy of 3.0. Florida, Florida State and Miami hit on Brown hard, but he signed instead with Notre Dame.
Even as Florida's big-time triumvirate finishes consistently high in the national rankings, other universities are plundering Florida for skill players who can dovetail with the heavy-legged, European-surnamed linemen from the Rust Belt. Last season, the quarterbacks at both Michigan and Michigan State, Demetrius Brown of the Wolverines and the Spartans' Bobby McAllister, were from Florida. Defensive back Markus Paul of Osceola High in Kissimmee will start his senior year at Syracuse with 15 career interceptions, three short of the school record. Michael Timpson of Hialeah Springs will be Penn State's top wideout this fall. West Virginia has 17 Floridians on its roster, six of them starters or regulars, including both wide receivers, Calvin Phillips and Grantis Bell.
But Derek Brown is a rarity, because most Florida footballers who head north do so as much by necessity as by choice. The numbers tell the story. By last spring more than 250 high school seniors from the state had signed Division I letters of intent. The Gators, Seminoles and Hurricanes can offer only about 90 scholarships a year among them.
Consider Wendal Lowery from Fort Lauderdale Dillard High, a Parade All-America and the first-string quarterback on the Florida high school All-Star team this spring. He didn't get anything more than a few recruiting brochures from the three in-state biggies (Dillard coach Otis Gray says, "I don't think the Florida schools are ready for a black quarterback"), so he'll head for that other land of citrus dreams and perfect weather, Syracuse's Carrier Dome. "I get calls from other schools," says Dave Scott. Miami's recruiting coordinator. "They want to know who we're not taking."
But it hasn't always been so. Even though Miami High was winning mythical national titles as far back as the early '40s, until recently the University of Miami used to consider it a bad recruiting year if it signed as many as 15 Floridians. That was before integration. When Howard Schnellenberger took over as coach of the Hurricanes in 1979, he drew a line roughly along Interstate 4, from Tampa across the state to Daytona Beach, declaring all that lay below it "the state of Miami." Any player from within that territory, said Schnellenberger, rightfully belonged to the Hurricanes. His cartography—along with the vow of running backs Melvin Bratton ( Miami Northwestern High) and Alonzo Highsmith (Miami Columbus) to go to Miami "to win a national championship"—won the Hurricanes a national title in 1983.
Miami won another one last season, with 65 Floridians, including 15 starters. In Gainesville this year, Florida's 112-man roster will have only 17 out-of-staters, just three of whom figure to start. A scant 30 of the 101 players on Florida State's '88 roster come from the Upper 49.