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THE FIRST WAVE TO come, in the 1880s, did the lowest kind of labor, hauling dirt and lumber, digging holes, plastering walls, hammering. No task was too hard. They could walk for miles, their skin cured for generations by saltwater and sun, and if cancers bubbled up on their forearms later maybe they would cut them off, maybe not. Their eyes blazed with a disconcerting fire. They helped build the Peacock Inn, the first hotel on the South Florida mainland, then the village of Coconut Grove that went up around it. In the 1940s a new wave of them rushed in under a U.S.- Bahamas agreement that is still known in the islands as the Contract—migrants ranging up the coast of Florida to pick beans, okra, mangoes and avocados, to ruin their backs and suffer the scars from cutting cane.
TALLAHASSEE, FEB. 4, 2006—Myron Rolle, a defensive back from New Jersey who was rated the No. 1 recruit in the nation by ESPN.com, said that he had received a text message from Florida governor Jeb Bush on his recruiting trip to Florida State in November. " Myron Rolle is a fantastic scholar-athlete from New Jersey [who] was recruited by FSU," Bush told a reporter. "He's going to be a great football player. And more importantly, he's probably going to be a Rhodes scholar. He wants to go to FSU medical school. He's a spectacular young man."
LIKE EVERY other immigrant clan, they were supposed to give up their past as they dug a foothold in the new country, become just another tile in the vast American mosaic. But they kept coming from Nassau, Georgetown, Bimini—some in fishing boats crunching aground in midnight coves, some crammed by the dozens into the stripped cabins of old warplanes—and settling in Coconut Grove, or across Miami in the stretch of Overtown known as Goodbread Alley. Mothers washed clothes for the rich white folk in their huge houses on Miami Beach. Fathers mowed the lawns, trimming edges with machetes as they inched around the acreage on their knees.
FIRE A ROCK in any direction in the Bahamas today and you'll likely hit a Rolle. And in the U.S. the name snaked north like kudzu; family members say there are Rolles in 49 of the 50 states, more than two thousand of them, many cropping up over the last 30 years in sports reports. Rolles have played college football (Gary, Omar, Arpedge), college basketball (Hewitt), minor league baseball (Randy), college golf (Georgette). Sasha ran track at Arkansas, Charlton hurdles and long-jumps at Tennessee, Henry coaches track at Auburn, Deandrea puts the shot and throws the discus and Leneice runs at Missouri State, Magnum played basketball at LSU and, after transferring, will suit up next year at Louisiana Tech. In September, Ahsha, 22, came out of nowhere to win two rounds in the women's draw at the U.S. Open tennis tournament.
COLUMBUS, OHIO, SEPT. 23, 2007—Freshman Brian Rolle is getting quite the reputation as the hardest hitter on the Ohio State roster. On a day when the Buckeyes dealt a lot of punishment—"I love those vicious collisions," said coach Jim Tressel—Rolle was the chief perpetrator with several jarring tackles on special teams.
EVEN IF they've never met, Rolles recognize each other. First there's what family members call the Rolle nose, flatter and wider than most; grandfathers have been known to declare when they see a newborn, "You got a Rolle there." Then there's the attitude, laid-back on the surface but at the core relentless, given to extremes. When Rolles are good? They're brainiacs like Myron, starting for the Seminoles as a true freshman and planning to graduate premed in 2 1/2 years; or leaders like Billy, called in to rescue a powerhouse that had nearly been abolished amid a sex scandal and mass firings. "But I don't want you to think we're all saints," says Whitney Rolle, Myron's father. "There's good stories and bad stories. The people named Rolle all have a fierce competitiveness in them. There aren't any half steps. When they're bad? They're really bad."
CINCINNATI, NOV. 18, 2007—Arizona's Antrel Rolle scored on interception returns of 55 and 54 yards on Sunday—and had another touchdown on an interception return wiped out by penalty—in a 35--27 victory over the Bengals that got the Cardinals back to .500 and kept them in the NFC race.
SAN DIEGO, NOV. 26, 2007—Despite the Ravens' 32--14 loss to the Chargers, cornerback Samari Rolle took satisfaction in showing he could play with epilepsy. Rolle, who disclosed last week that he has the neurological condition, played his first game since suffering a major seizure on Nov. 2. "I thought he played great," said Ravens coach Brian Billick. "I have huge admiration for Samari Rolle and his passion for [continuing] to play."
NO ONE can draw up a definitive family tree. None of the most famous Rolles are closely related, but that doesn't matter. They believe they are cousins, however distant, and all point to the same settlement on Exuma (pop. 3,600) as the place where a great-great-grandparent was born. But that common link would mean little without its unique shine; Rolle isn't like any other slave name. It's charged by a singular moment in family lore, an enlightened act so rare for a slave owner that it instilled a bedrock self-belief still seen in Rolles 170 years later. "They all have that swagger," says Marcus Forston, the Miami Northwestern High defensive tackle who plays for Billy and has met Myron, Antrel and Samari. "They all have something in their hearts—that confidence. Yeah: swagger."