The estimated per capita income in Pahokee (pop. 6,598) and Belle Glade (pop. 16,681) is about $13,000. According to a study released in August by the Palm Beach County Economic Development Office, unemployment in the Glades region is running close to 40%. In these parts you can sell fresh-killed rabbits for two bucks apiece—$1.50 more if the animals are skinned and dressed. Or you can keep them and cook them yourself. When Florida coach Urban Meyer talks, as he often does, about loving players from the Glades because they're "hungry," he might be speaking literally.
"Hunting rabbits isn't some hobby for a lot of people," says Willie Jones, a former Raider who had a four-year career as an NFL offensive tackle. "It's a way for you to eat."
Drive west out of West Palm Beach and watch the scenery change. See the gleaming towers and high-end shops give way to strip malls and self-storage warehouses. Cruising under Florida's Turnpike, past the WHOCANISUE.COM billboard and the John Deere outlet and the HOT BOILED PEANUTS stand on Southern Boulevard, you notice the gradual petering out of palm trees and evergreens, the lazy wheeling of turkey buzzards, and finally an undulating ocean of cane that stretches 25 miles to the horizon—a pale-green vastness that yields up half the country's sugar.
The cane fields spread right up to the levees of Lake Okeechobee, on whose southeastern shore you will find Belle Glade and Pahokee. Known as the Muck for its dark, rich soil (unplanted fields appear to be covered with three feet of coffee grounds), the area is outrageously fertile in another sense. In a state with eight high school athletic classifications going up to 6A, two small schools—2A Glades Central (about 1,150 students) and 2B Pahokee (560)—have sent at least 48 players to the NFL over the last four decades. Many multiples of that number have starred in the college ranks. Pahokee High has won five state championships in the last six years; Glades Central has won six since 1971.
Steelers wideout Santonio Holmes, the MVP of Super Bowl XLIII, is from Belle Glade, while Patriots running back Fred Taylor and Cardinals wideout Anquan Boldin are from Pahokee. At least 17 players in this month's Muck Bowl have fielded Division I offers.
"That's not unusual," says Clint Hurtt, the recruiting coordinator at Miami. "It's unheard of. It's insane."
Visitors to Belle Glade are greeted by a sign that may strike them as ironic or darkly comic or both, considering the city's dire economic circumstances: BELLE GLADE: HER SOIL IS HER FORTUNE. The legend is half-true: It's somebody's fortune.
Pahokee lacks a motto, though cornerback Merrill Noel may have provided one last April on the first day of spring practice. Noel, one of three Pahokee High seniors committed to Wake Forest, is the quintessential Blue Devil: undersized, whip-smart, gregarious off the field and nasty as H1N1 on it. It is a testament to the team's otherworldly talent that the guests at that day's practice included Meyer, Florida State coach Bobby Bowden and several members of their staffs. Also present was Chris Dunkley, a five-star wideout (according to Scout.com) who'd recently transferred from Royal Palm Beach High.
Early in the practice, when receivers ran pass routes against the defensive backs, Dunkley found himself lined up against an underclassman. According to a coach who was present that day, the 5'10", 180-pound Noel shoved the youngster aside and said, "I got this guy."
"Now Dunkley is this pretty thing," says the coach, "and I mean that in a good way: great-looking athlete, incredible speed, a legitimate star. The ball's snapped, and he's gonna put a fake on [Noel] and run right by him, which is what he's been doing since third grade. But while he's doing his little shake and bake, Noel jacks him up—plants both palms right in [Dunkley's] chest, knocks him over, almost knocks him out."