One of the reasons these guys are so ridiculously good is that they've been playing together since Pop Warner (or City League, as it is called around here). Benjamin, a basketball player, is the exception: He took up football only last year, and he already has scores of college coaches—including the ones in Gainesville—salivating. At a 7-on-7 tournament last summer sponsored by Saints fullback Heath Evans, Benjamin was so impressive that he was approached by another NFL player in attendance. "I look at you and I see myself when I was your age," Patriots wideout Randy Moss told him. "Keep doing what you're doing."
That wasn't necessarily the message Benjamin took from an off-season workout at the Belle Glade Boys & Girls Club a few weeks later. While he and 15 or so teammates put themselves through a series of agility drills and plyometrics before heading to the weight room, a chorus of elders worked hard to hold Treetop's ego in check.
Holding down the distressed sofa in a corner of that cramped gym was gray-bearded, obstreperous Ronald Cook. After playing ball at Belle Glade's Lakeshore High, Cook was a running back at Miles College in Fairfield, Ala. He coached both there and at Alcorn State in Mississippi before returning to his roots. "These kids," he harrumphed, "they think just because they're in Belle Glade, they can't get beat. They don't understand sacrifice. In my day, kids tried to get a job after school. These kids—they're luxurizing." Turning his attention to Benjamin, he ticked off the young man's shortcomings, concluding with this one: "All you are right now is a jump ball receiver."
Having played just one season, Benjamin would be the first to admit that his game is raw. But when he spoke up to defend himself, Cook shook his head sadly. "It used to be Yes, sir, no, sir," said the old coach, now channeling Cedric the Entertainer in Barbershop. "He caught a few touchdown passes, and now he thinks he's Jerry Rice. Well, let me tell you something: Jerry Rice had work habits!"
On the couch beside Cook was Willie Jones, the former NFL lineman, who picked up where his elder left off: "What's killing you, KB, is that you don't work hard"—a constructive criticism the junior did not quite catch on account of how hard he was working.
No matter. The stalking of rabbits, the head start these guys get in the City League, the urgency to get out, the lack of anything else to do—all these factors help explain the excellence of football in the Muck. But this pair of grumps sharing the sofa in the Boys & Girls Club represent what may be the most important ingredient. Guys like Jones and Cook and Lammons and countless other self-appointed stewards of the tradition help maintain its absurdly high standards. They root out complacency and kill it at the source.
There is a seemingly endless supply of such guardians in the Muck. One of them turns out to be Jessie Hester, the former Glades Central, Florida State and NFL wideout who became the Raiders' coach two years ago. When the job came open, Hester was inundated with requests to apply for it. But he'd been offered coaching jobs upon retiring as a player and turned them all down. He wanted no part of that stress.
Then, driving one day along Avenue A in a sketchy part of town, Hester saw two young men who'd been friends with his son Jessie Jr., now a senior wideout at South Florida and an NFL prospect. "And I just thought that maybe if I'd stepped up earlier," he says, "those guys wouldn't be on the street."
It was Hester who soothed his ruffled Raiders at halftime of the Muck Bowl. Despite having outplayed Pahokee, the home team was reeling from a 10-point swing in the last moments of a half that had crammed a season's worth of thrills into two 12-minute quarters. De'Joshua Johnson, the Blue Devils' Florida State--bound quarterback, had answered Treetop's touchdown with an electrifying, 59-yard scoring burst, which the Raiders' Greg Dent soon trumped with an 84-yard kickoff return to the house, which was all but forgotten when, with 80 seconds left in the half, our old friend Merrill Noel scooped up a blocked field goal and dashed 81 yards for the score. "If you go out and execute and eliminate penalties," Hester assured his men at intermission, "this game will not even be close." Nor was it, as Thomas started connecting with the impossibly smooth and fluid Dent, his go-to guy all season. Dent, another Hurricane-to-be, finished with six catches for 185 yards and a touchdown to complement his kick return and fumble recovery. When the Blue Devils doubled Dent, Thomas went back to Treetop, who had two long second-half catches, both of which set up TDs. The second score, by Demetrius Evans—yet another D-I-bound wideout—prompted the inhospitable (but droll) P.A. announcer to ask the crowd, "Do I hear the fat lady warming up?"
The final score: 47--21. Glades Central has now won 18 of the 29 Muck Bowls. The announcer's provocations notwithstanding, there was a marked absence of hostility as the two teams filed through the handshake line. The fact is, since these teams are in different classifications, the loss had no bearing on the Blue Devils' playoff goals—which were snuffed out six nights later. All season Pahokee had been less than the sum of its all-star parts. That flaw was on glaring display against Hollywood-Chaminade, which routed the three-time defending state champs 35--0.