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Reaching down to help up his new teammate, Noel extended this greeting: "Welcome to f------ Pahokee."
The woman for whom the Glades Central High football field is named is 82 years old and sharp as a blade of sawgrass. Effie Grear retired in 2000 after a quarter century as the school's principal. A native of Huntington, W.Va., she graduated high school at the age of 14. "I liked school so well," she recalls, "I ran out of subjects to take." Grear had her heart set on a teaching job in Orlando in 1956, but the offer failed to come through, so she accepted a position in Belle Glade. The next day's mail brought a letter from Orlando. "They told me they'd hold the job for a year," she says, "but by that time I had too much muck in my shoes. I'd fallen in love with this place and these people." By 1975 she was the principal at Glades Central High.
Grear's fierce pride of place is the norm in both towns, despite their obvious pathologies: poverty, unemployment and crime rates far above the national norm. Ask Tennessee coach Lane Kiffin, who reaped a whirlwind for his condescending remarks about Pahokee before a roomful of boosters last February. (Kiffin had already raised hackles in Florida, and thrilled Vol Nation, by poaching Blue Devils wide receiver Nu'Keese Richardson from the Gators—a victory that would prove Pyrrhic, as we shall see.)
"For those of you who haven't been to Pahokee, there ain't much going on," Kiffin riffed. "There ain't a gas station that works. Nobody's got enough money to even have shoes or a shirt on." (Note to Kif: I purchased $25 of unleaded at Swifty's on East Main Street in Pahokee—from a middle-aged gentleman wearing shoes and a shirt!)
Reaction to those slurs was swift. The president of Pahokee's Chamber of Commerce drafted a letter demanding an apology and sent copies to top administrators at Tennessee and the SEC. Vols assistant coach Eddie Gran was barred from the Pahokee High campus in May. Kiffin has since apologized, and Gran is now welcome back at Blue Devils practices, but the question remains: What exactly, aside from their glorious football tradition, are these people so proud of?
They're justifiably proud of their grit, their resilience; proud of themselves for surviving so long in a corner of the country that can't seem to catch a break. The excellence of these football programs, it turns out, springs from a deep reservoir of toughness. "We are not a complaining people," declares Lammons.
Life has long been hard in the Muck. Dating back to the first half of the last century, laborers would gather at dawn at the 5th Street loading ramp in Belle Glade and be bused to the fields, there to spend the day cutting cane or picking winter vegetables. And those, it turns out, were the good old days. By 1992, sugar companies had replaced most day laborers with contraptions that lift windrowed cane from the ground, then cut the stalks into short pieces. "Air is forced through the cascading cane to remove most of the extraneous matter," according to a display in the lobby of the Sugar Cane Growers Cooperative of Florida, just north of Belle Glade. Better still, the machines never try to unionize or sue their bosses for back wages.
That gradual decline in farming jobs, coupled with a terrifying new scourge, knocked this area to its knees. In 1985, Belle Glades's rate of one AIDS case for every 541 people was 51 times the national average. There was rampant speculation, in those benighted days, that HIV was spread by mosquitoes. People avoided the Muck in droves; its residents are still stung by the memory of a mid-'80s touch-football tournament hosted by Belle Glade. Out-of-town parents "wouldn't let their kids mingle with our kids," recalls Grear. "They wouldn't drink our water. I found it very insulting."
She responded by writing a book, Up From the Muck, celebrating some of the area's highest achievers: doctors, lawyers, professors, musicians, business executives. ("You'll notice," she says pointedly, "I included only two football players.") As the area's congressman, Alcee Hastings, writes in the foreword, Up From the Muck is "the story of purpose-driven people who overcame insurmountable odds."
Insurmountable means not surmountable, so the congressman is trafficking in hyperbole here. But just barely.