Let me tell you about my Florida vacation. Well, I suppose it wasn't a vacation exactly, seeing as how my editor sent me down there to find out why that state is turning out so doggone many good football players. He sent me on my way with all sorts of facts and figures, about how every Division I conference except the Big Sky has at least one Floridian in its ranks. How in every year of the 1980s but one, at least two of the state's three major schools, Florida, Florida State and Miami, have been in somebody's final Top 20. And how the three guys who were arguably the best running backs in the nation last fall—Lorenzo White, Sammie Smith and Emmitt Smith—are natives of the Sunshine State.
David Wilson, the coach at little Middleburg High near Jacksonville, sounds a whole lot like that old Northeast Airlines pitchman, Jim ("Come on down!") Dooley, when he says, "You tell Texas to come on over!" And Lamar Thomas, a fairly rapid wide receiver from Gainesville who's enrolling at Miami this year, says, " Texas has had its turn. It's our turn now."
Fact is, if you subtract all the carpetbagging college recruiters who come through Florida to hunt for talent, the state's annual visitors' figure drops dramatically. Athletes like Thomas can be found all over Florida, in towns that sound like Seminole incantations (Immokalee, Chattahoochee, Loxahatchee), or the Shangri-la that your Aunt Muriel and Uncle Hubert finally found (Leisure City, Treasure Island, Frostproof). Football players are groomed at high schools that might be mistaken for pool hustlers (Tallahassee Leon, Orlando Jones, Jacksonville Lee) or that hint at Florida's position as the most far-reaching state in the South ( Titusville Astronaut).
I originally thought that from time to time maybe God grabbed the nation and rapped it with His clipboard, causing the football players, who tend to be bigger and heavier, to tumble down into the receptacle at the lower-right-hand corner of the country, where recruiters could scoop them up. Now I think He works in other, more indirect ways: with sandy soil, through a beneficent climate, and with spring practice, spring practice, spring practice. And rabbits; yes, rabbits. I'll show you the slides if someone could hit the lights....
That's Rickey Jackson. He was a star at Pitt, and is now a linebacker with the New Orleans Saints. We found him in a poolroom in Pahokee, the town on Lake Okeechobee where he grew up. I didn't expect him to set aside his poker chips, invite me out to his powder-blue Mercedes, turn on the air-conditioning and tell me about the black muck, but he did.
The black muck is the outrageously rich soil in which sugarcane and vegetables grow through much of the Everglades. The muck starts as soon as you head west across the bridge from West Palm Beach, and doesn't stop until the foot of the Pahokee levee. Jake Gaither, who coached Florida A & M from 1945 to 1969, once said that Florida turns out so many fast football players because the sandy soil builds up their legs. Running in the black muck will do even more for you.
Every summer before reporting to training camp, Jackson pulls on work boots and slogs through the muck. Just about every kid growing up in the 'Glades finds himself negotiating the stuff at one time or another, and more or less as a result, says Jackson, "This town is full of fast guys. Guys are so speedy, you can't hardly get nobody to play offensive line. In the next two or three years you'll find five or six pros come from Pahokee, a town of 6,600 people. The whole city of New Orleans has about one. You can't beat that."
Start in Clewiston on the southwest shore of Okeechobee, go around the lake to Belle Glade and on up to Pahokee, and the population blackens as the soil does. Ask Antoine Russell, who coached Pahokee High for 10 years, what players the town has produced, and he demurs. "I'm afraid to start naming names," he says. "I might miss somebody." Suffice it to say that since 1985, when he became coach at Pahokee, Don Thompson has packed off 38 kids to college on scholarships that he figures are worth more than $1 million. Pahokeeans now on Division I rosters include linebacker Ellis Fuller at Florida State, defensive end Corey Lundford at Kansas and defensive back Kenny Barry at Miami. Belle Glade (HER SOIL IS HER FORTUNE reads the sign at the edge of town) has about 10 players on college rosters, including Florida's all-America safety Louis Oliver, and Clewiston (" America's Sweetest Town") has two. So you can understand why Russell nods appreciatively toward the muck. "When I first came here, I couldn't figure it out," says Russell. "It looks like God just put it in. Is it black because of the nutrients? The vitamins? I don't know. I just know it makes things grow."
This is a picture of the Thunderbird Swap Shop, which sits in the northwest corner of Fort Lauderdale, just about in the middle of the three-square-mile area bounded by the homes of Lorenzo White, Michael Irvin and the Blades brothers, Bennie and Brian. Seeing as how they were among the NFL's first 49 selections last April, you could say that the Thunderbird was the '88 draft's epicenter.
With 21 siblings among them, the four are walking advertisements for Florida's population boom. You can make jokes and call the state God's Waiting Room, but the fact is more folks are checking in than checking out, which helps account for Florida's ascendancy in producing football talent. Some 3� million people live on the Gold Coast, the corridor from Homestead, just south of Miami, to Riviera Beach, north of West Palm. And they play every variety of football. A kid in Fort Lauderdale can borrow Velcro flags and a ball from any recreation supervisor to play pickup flag football, just the game to develop the pelvic dance steps that White showcased at Michigan State and that Irvin and the Blades brothers took to Miami.