Saturday, October 20, 2018
Human Interest

In Pahokee, football serves as a way out

PAHOKEE — On the day he thought would change everything, Fred left home early while his siblings, nieces and nephews slept. He skipped breakfast, not even a Pop-Tart. His stomach was tight with excitement.

As he waited outside for his ride to school, a slate sky blanketed the black muck behind him. Ahead, the sun climbed above the clouds, casting a golden glow across the projects.

Dontrell "Fred" Johnson, 19, pulled the flip phone from his shorts: 7:28 a.m. Then he shouldered his flowered backpack, which was stuffed with hope.

All year, college football coaches had been sending him letters telling him how much they wanted him. Wake Forest, Youngstown State and Mars Hill. Schools he had never heard of, in states he had never seen.

Like most of his teammates in Pahokee, a tiny, impoverished town on Lake Okeechobee, Fred had never flown in a plane, had barely been out of Florida. He had spent his life between two water towers, in 5 square miles surrounded by sugar cane — and shadows of players who had come before him. Guys from Pahokee High whom he watched on TV, playing for the Detroit Lions, Baltimore Ravens, Atlanta Falcons.

Football is the story Pahokee loves to tell about itself. The team won five state championships in six years, from 2003-08, and in the past half-century has produced 25 professional players. This year five former Blue Devils are in the NFL, the second most from any high school in the country.

Fred was one of five Pahokee seniors being scouted in 2013; all the guys had played together since elementary school. On the square of grass in Fred's subsidized-housing circle, they had learned to pass, hit and run plays. And every winter, when workers burned the cane fields, the boys chased rabbits that dashed from the flames. Catch a cottontail, the old men said, and you can cut it at an NFL draft combine.

But first, the boys had to play in college.

That Wednesday, the first in February 2014, was national signing day. Across the country, hundreds of college coaches were picking their players. And thousands of high school athletes like Fred were hoping for offers that would forge their futures.

The odds are daunting. The NFL says that every year, about 100,000 high school seniors play football. Of those, about 9,000 make it onto a college team, half on a Division I scholarship. In the end, only 215 will sign an NFL contract.

Fred didn't dwell on those numbers. What was the point? His talent on the gridiron, he knew, was his only way out. His single mom had eight kids and nine grandkids, made minimum wage working with Alzheimer's patients and at a Family Dollar store. Without a scholarship, Fred wouldn't be able to go to college. Without college, he would probably never leave Pahokee.

Tall and lanky — 5 feet 10, 145 pounds with his cleats on — Fred was always surrounded by friends, always laughing about something. His right front tooth was chipped into a triangle, from running into a pole as a kid. His broken smile, he said, "is how people know me — that and playing ball."

He had worked so hard the past two years. He had transferred to the local charter school to get away from the distraction of his teammates and girlfriend, recovered credits, improved his grades.

He had run the dike religiously, shaved his 40-yard dash time to an impressive 4.4 seconds. In his senior season, the cornerback had logged 53 tackles, five interceptions — and caught his first cottontail.

He was ready to add his name to the handwritten list of star players the old football coach kept folded in his breast pocket. But as Fred was sprinting for fame, forces were pulling hard the other way.

His team — like the town — had been in decline. Pahokee hadn't sent a player to a Division I school since 2011. And the street corners were filled with men some whose names are on the coach's list — who got out only to return.

In the morning light, with his back to the fields, Fred pictured cameras in the school auditorium that afternoon, parents applauding, long tables with fancy pens. And a ball cap with the name of his new team.

Grinning, he climbed into his friend's car and said, "Let's do this!"

 

 

THE ROAD to Pahokee is long and narrow, 40 miles off the interstate, on the southeastern shore of Lake Okeechobee. On the way, you pass fish camps and palm farms, wide fields of sugar cane, and follow the 34-foot-tall dike that hides the water.

When you arrive, you won't find much. There's no mall, no motel, not even a McDonald's. The town marina, which housed the only bar and public swimming pool, is closed.

Drive through the palm-lined streets and you'll see two gas stations, three stoplights, 20 churches. Boarded buildings, abandoned warehouses, broken families. And miles of thick, dark muck.

Pahokee is in the poorest corner of Palm Beach County, which happens to be Florida's richest. About 6,000 people live in the town, many in public housing. Most families are African-American and have been there for generations.

The town's roots were planted in the early 1900s, when families moved in to grow corn and squash, beans and celery, crops that thrived in the deep, rich dirt. In 1922, when the city was incorporated, it took the Seminole name for "grassy waters." By the 1930s, the town had been dubbed the "Winter Vegetable Capital of the World."

An ice plant opened. Trains carried carloads of produce across the country. And migrant workers streamed into Pahokee to pick the plentiful crops.

The Rotary Club funded the first high school football team in 1930 and asked the Methodist minister to coach the small squad. Farmers wanted to call the boys "Bean Pickers." But because the minister had gone to Duke University, the "Blue Devils" were born.

Working in the fields made Pahokee boys strong, everyone said. Running after rabbits made them fast.

"Football is the chief subject taught at Pahokee High," a town historian wrote in 1963.

Also that year, as the embargo against Cuba continued, the immigrant Fanjul brothers bought 4,000 acres and built a sugar mill in Pahokee. Sugar cane replaced vegetables, and the town thrived.

Old-timers talk about how idyllic Pahokee once was, when there were department stores and restaurants, a roller rink and an A&P. And folks flocked to a dance in front of the Ford dealership after home football games.

By the 1980s the sugar company was earning $240 million a year. But harvesting machines had replaced hundreds of men and their machetes. Migrants stopped coming, shops started closing. Families fled.

"We used to have everything. Now we have nothing much," said Mary Jones, who has run the flower shop on Main Street since 1962. "First the hospital closed, then the funeral home. It's getting harder and harder to hold on."

During the next two decades, no one in Pahokee built much of anything. Except the new football coach. Don Thompson had spent winters in Pahokee, picking beans and corn with his migrant parents. During the 1950s he played for the Blue Devils. He moved back to town in 1984 to coach the team and his two teenage sons. Five years later, "Coach T" took Pahokee to its first state championship.

As unemployment topped 30 percent, football continued to dominate. The Blue Devils won five more state championships and garnered the attention of ESPN, Sports Illustrated and scores of college scouts. When the sugar plant closed in 2009, the only thing the people of Pahokee had to cheer for was football.

That same year, a new structure sprang from the edge of the muck: a $9 million high school stadium with 5,000 seats, almost enough for everyone in town. Its lights dwarfed the church steeples. The field, everyone hoped, would be the town's salvation.

 

 

FRED'S SENIOR season started strong. Fans filled the stands for every home game, moms and girlfriends climbing the bleachers in tight skirts and spiked heels, granddads and recent graduates proudly wearing Pahokee T-shirts. Even people who didn't have kids, or whose kids were grown, got decked out for the social event of the week — the only thing to do on a Friday night.

By October, the Blue Devils were 4-1. For the first time in five years, people were talking playoffs.

"It's been a while since I've seen talent like this," said Brandin Hawthorne, 23, an alumnus of the Blue Devils' last winning team, who was helping coach. "Without a doubt, these guys have a shot at the state championship."

On a Thursday in October, the day before homecoming, the players suited up for practice, slapping shoulders. "This year," Fred predicted, "this team is going to bring the city back."

The locker room was part living room, part Hall of Fame. In the center, players lounged on leather recliners. On the walls around them, white squares scrawled on with black marker spelled out messages and rules:

Go to bed at home, early, eat good, go to church, no trouble.

The Joy of our Lord Jesus is our strength.

I'm mean and nasty during every play.

A poster featured the names of guys who had gotten out:

2012 NFL Players: Eric Moore, Alphonso Smith, Antone Smith, Pernell McPhee. Janoris Jenkins, Dwight Bentley, Micanor Regis.

And at the top, Anquan Boldin, whose poster hung in almost every home in town. The wide receiver had made headlines at Florida State, played in three Pro Bowls. In 2013 he helped the Baltimore Ravens win the Super Bowl. Pahokee's swanky new stadium was named for him. His $6 million NFL salary in 2013 would have covered the annual income of 350 families in Fred's neighborhood.

"He's their hometown hero, their hope," said the wife of coach Blaze Thompson, Stephanie Thompson. "These are good kids who try hard — but lead crazy lives."

Most don't have computers or cars. Many of their moms work two jobs and so are seldom home to make meals. Without even a fast food restaurant in town, the players live on gas station pizza and hot dogs. Some sleep on sofas. One boy was living in the locker room before the coach let him move in with him.

That night before homecoming, like every Thursday before a game, a church sponsored supper for the players. Volunteers served salad and toasted Wonder Bread, scooped spaghetti into Styrofoam trays. "For some of these guys," said the coach's wife, "it's the only hot meal they get."

The next afternoon, Pahokee High held a pep rally and a parade. Players rode in the coach's pickup, whooping through town, past an empty bakery and the new liquor store. Some waved to their grandmoms, others called to their babies. The past and the future all cheering for football.

That night, the Blue Devils dashed onto the field, two by two, holding hands -- and beat Boca Raton 31-14.

"Now we're doing it!" Fred kept yelling. "We're on our way!"

AS A BOY, Fred remembered going to work with his dad, the sucking sound of truck tires sinking into the sweet soil. His dad moved mountains of cut cane and warned his son, "Don't you get stuck."

Ever since he could remember, Fred had wanted football to make him famous — and to help his mom. He was 10 when his parents divorced. His dad didn't go far but didn't come by much. Fred watched his mom struggle to keep gas in the car, pay the phone bill. He was so proud of his older brother, Donald, when he earned a football scholarship to a junior college in Texas, so angry when Donald got in trouble and had to come home. "That's not going to be me," Fred promised his mom. "You'll see."

He scored his first touchdown in fifth grade, tearing 90 yards down the city league field. He tried an end zone dance. "But I was too tired, I fell down in front of everyone." A few months later, he raced into the muck in his socks and caught his first rabbit. Sold it to a man down the street for $2. First money he'd ever earned.

"My cousin, Fred Taylor, was the fastest guy in our family," said Fred's mom, Hendretta Drummer. He had played for Glades Central High, across the lake in Belle Glade, been on the Florida Gators' 1996 national championship team and was a running back for the Jacksonville Jaguars. "By the time Dontrell was in middle school," his mom said, "everyone was calling him 'Little Fred.' "

School wasn't hard for Fred. He just didn't see why he had to care. He had football to play, cousins to wrestle, Madden video-game teams to build. He assumed, like so many people in Pahokee, that if he was good enough on the field, coaches would come calling. They'd get him into college. All he had to do was play.

Neither of Fred's parents had gone to college, or knew how to apply to one. His brothers and sisters earned trucking licenses and nursing certificates, and stayed close to home. Older brother Donald, the football player, wound up working at the Belle Glade Burger King. Fred wanted to be the first in his family to go to "a big school, with a good team." He said he wanted to earn a degree, but what he really wanted was to be on TV so everyone back home could see him play. He didn't know what he wanted to study. Maybe engineering? Though he wasn't sure what that was. Maybe phys ed? Like most football players in Pahokee, he didn't have a backup plan.

When Fred started high school, his grade point average was 1.9, making him ineligible to play. The Pahokee coach, Blaze Thompson, sat him down and explained that to be on the team, he needed a 2.0. But if he wanted to go to college, he would need an even higher GPA. NCAA schools use a sliding scale for athletes to qualify for scholarships — the higher your GPA, the lower your test scores can be.

"Coach told me I needed to get away from my homeboys, get some sleep and get busy," Fred said. "I know I need to get out of here and help my mama. People who stay in Pahokee either end up dead or in jail."

So he transferred to the charter school, Everglades Prep, two rows of classrooms behind the abandoned historic Pahokee High.

"We try to take care of the whole student here," said Principal Edna Stephens. "We provide transportation, breakfast and lunch, extra milk if they want to take cereal home. We even give the kids T-shirts so they don't have to buy uniforms. We focus on computer-based grade recovery, so the kids can work at their own pace."

Of the 95 charter school students, 11 played football for Pahokee. "I work real closely with Coach Blaze. He comes over all the time to check on their grades," Stephens said. In her office, an Anquan Boldin framed Ravens jersey hung beside the American flag.

On a Friday in late fall, students at Everglades Prep sat at long tables in front of computer terminals, supposedly studying lessons, taking tests. Some scrolled Facebook; others clicked through their highlight clips. Those who were working were skimming reading passages, then typing questions into search engines such as Ask Jeeves. For each credit they earned, the teacher gave them a ticket to trade for a snack-sized bag of Cheetos.

Fred knew he needed math to calculate his NFL salary, figure out how much he could spend on the new house he was going to buy his mom. But what did history or English have to do with his future? Colleges wanted him to help their teams win, to make money for their schools, to draw fans. Who cared if he knew about some ancient Greek guys?

That afternoon, hours before his last home game, Fred was supposed to take a quiz on the "dramatic irony of Oedipus Rex." He studied the question on the computer screen, then called the teacher. "Can you help?"

"Have you read the story?" asked Mildred Ross, the school's long-term sub. Fred shook his head. "Well, read it," she said. "Look for key words." Instead, Fred opened the site for another class: College and Career Prep.

In college, a major refers to: A) Your third year. B) Your class rank. C) The importance of going to class. D) A subject or field.

Fred read the options twice, then called the teacher again. "Can I just guess?"

"Do your best," she said.

He Googled "college major," clicked D, and shouted: "I got it!"

He had spent his freshman year trying to recover enough credits to play football, his sophomore year getting his grades up. By fall of his senior year, he had pulled his GPA up to 2.8. But he hadn't passed the state reading test, which he needed to graduate. And of 36 possible points on the ACT, Fred had scored 15. Wake Forest wanted at least 18. So Fred had started eating lunch alone to study, going to tutoring and Saturday school and church. His girlfriend of three years, a cheerleader, kept trying to get him to hang out; he said he had work to do. His friends, some of whom already had kids, started calling him "No Fly Zone."

"Sure, I go to parties. But I always leave before the fights start," said Fred. "I don't have sex too much, but when I do, I know to use a condom. Babies can wait. They'd just slow me down now. I've got to get it together before I can give it back."

On Nov. 1, Fred's whole family went to see his last home game, all his nieces and nephews, even his dad, whom he hadn't seen in months. Someone said scouts were in the stands. "I can't think about that," Fred said before the game. "I gotta keep focused."

With 11 minutes left, Fred made an interception, his fourth of the season, and the Blue Devils wound up trouncing Kings Academy 34-13. That put them in a three-way tie for the District 7-3A championship.

They lost the title. But in a game to decide second place, Fred caught a 31-yard touchdown pass that helped clinch a playoff spot for Pahokee for the first time since 2009.

 

MAKING IT TO the postseason was huge. For many people in Pahokee, the Muck Bowl was even bigger. For 29 years, the Blue Devils had met their biggest rival, Belle Glade — the next town around the lake — in a showdown.

On Nov. 7, a couple of days before the big game, the two teams held a banquet in Belle Glade's gym.

Just after dark that day, the Pahokee players lined up outside their stadium wearing dress shirts and pants. Coach T carried a pile of sky blue ties from the locker room. He had bought them years ago — the color of Pahokee High.

Most of the Blue Devils didn't own a tie. Even those who did didn't have anyone at home to show them how to tie it. Some of the guys' dads came to games to cheer and brag about their boys. But of the 49 players, only eight had full-time fathers.

So on that mild fall evening, while the charter bus waited, Coach T, 74, and his son Blaze, 45, stood in front of each athlete and threaded knots.

"Just wear your tennis shoes and get over here," Coach T told a kid who called his cell, saying he couldn't come because he didn't have dress shoes. "No one cares."

Some of the players already had backed out; their moms thought the banquet might turn into a brawl — or worse. The week before, gangs in both towns had exchanged gunfire, and a 17-year-old boy had been shot in the leg.

Violence between the towns had been growing for years. In 2008, after Pahokee's homecoming game, senior linebacker Norman "Pooh" Griffith was murdered in Belle Glade, the seventh teen shot that year. Fred knew nine other kids from Pahokee who had been killed.

For his senior Muck Bowl, police moved the game from Friday night to Saturday afternoon for safety reasons.

"Tuck in your shirt, pull up your pants," Coach T called to Fred. "Remember, you're representing Pahokee."

Coach T — Don Thompson — was 9 years old when his sharecropper parents landed in Pahokee in 1949. He and his brothers hauled crates of corn and beans. He threw his first football across those black fields, earned a scholarship to the Citadel. When he didn't make it to the NFL, he came back and married his high school sweetheart, Alice.

For years, he crisscrossed the country setting up weight rooms for college teams. He brought his family back to Pahokee in 1984 to take over the team. He built a weight room, made the linemen bench press 280 pounds.

Both his sons played for him. Blaze, the younger, was an all-state center who wanted to play for the University of Miami in 1988, during the Hurricanes' glory days. When he didn't make the cut, Blaze quit football and enrolled at the University of Central Florida. He taught math, married a Pahokee girl and in 1994 moved home to become an assistant football coach.

By then, his dad had stepped down as head coach but was still washing the uniforms, penning posters. Blaze became head coach in 2007 and won the Class 2B state title that year, and the next. The Florida House of Representatives honored Coach T and Blaze for being the first father and son to lead the same team to a championship.

Those first two years after Blaze took over, folks thought the Blue Devils' dynasty might continue. But as the town continued to slide, people kept leaving, especially dads. There were fewer fathers to push the boys, fewer boys working in the fields, or anywhere. By 2012 the team's record had dropped to 4-5. The deluge of college scouts had slowed to a drizzle. Even fans stopped filling the storied stands.

"When I started, there were no expectations, so the whole town was behind us," said Coach T. "Now there's so much pressure on Blaze. He's got all kinds of issues I didn't have to worry about."

Blaze doesn't make excuses. But if you ask what is happening to his program, he groans and shakes his head. So many factors, so many things out of his control. "You can't recruit here, not teachers, coaches or players," said Blaze. "Who wants to come to Pahokee?" Even Blaze doesn't live in town. He commutes 45 minutes from a ritzy suburb called Wellington. "The wife wants to be closer to Target."

And these boys need more nurturing, not just on the field, he said. Someone has to show them how to sign up for SATs, apply for a fee waiver, get a state ID so they can take the test, make them study. It's not a coincidence, he said, that the last team to win a championship was also the last group of players who had older parents, and both of them at home. By the time kids now are old enough to try out for the Blue Devils, Blaze said, they're already behind in school.

When Coach T was in charge, his mission was to help each boy get to college, so he hired an academic adviser for the team. Blaze feels like he has to focus more on the team winning, said his dad. So he turned the advising position into another athletic coach.

"For most of these guys now, when it comes to college advising, I'm it," Blaze said. He lets the boys use his laptop, drives them to his house for dinner, calls college coaches across the country. "But I can't do it all. They have to help themselves."

When the bus pulled up to Glades Central High for the banquet, cops were waiting. They checked each player into the gym and led them to tables filled with real flowers and plastic football helmets. After everyone piled plates with chicken and steak, potatoes, green beans and chocolate cake, Fred and his friends took seats up front with a group from Belle Glade.

"As we gather for this game in the muck, we see the violence between our towns, so much senseless crime," said keynote speaker Leslie Camel, who runs a Belle Glade funeral home. "It takes a man to teach a young man to be a man, especially in this crumbling community. I applaud all these coaches for helping to build champions."

 

A HALF-HOUR before the Muck Bowl was supposed to start, the Pahokee players hadn't arrived. The team was still at the school, waiting for a bus that never showed. Finally, someone scared up another charter, which got the team to the field with 10 minutes to spare.

Quick stretches, last-minute coaching, someone led the Lord's Prayer. Then Fred lifted his helmet above the huddle and started the cheer: "We all we got!"

In a drenching downpour, the Blue Devils answered, "We all we need!"

The stadium was half full. All the moms had made T-shirts printed with their sons' photos. Fred had told his girlfriend not to come; he didn't want to worry about her if something went down. But there she was, with the other cheerleaders, with his No. 2 painted on both cheeks.

"Ladies and gentlemen, fasten your seat belts," cried the announcer. "You're in for a wild ride."

The Blue Devils kicked off, and in the first minute, they scored a touchdown. Five minutes later they got another. Half a minute after that, it was 21-0.

"Keep it up!" yelled the captain's mom. "I got $200 riding on this game!"

Fred made another interception. But in the second quarter, his team started dropping passes, making turnovers. By halftime, Pahokee's lead had dwindled to 7.

"You got to go back there and be all in!" barked Coach Blaze. "This is it. Do it!"

They didn't do it. In the blinding rain, the Blue Devils never scored again — and lost 23-21.

Afterward, when the players were caked in mud, some wiping hot tears, Coach Blaze called them back onto the field. The captain slammed his helmet to the ground and stormed off.

Fred walked to the center of the circle and took a knee. "Pick up your heads, Pahokee!" he told his teammates. "We still got the playoffs."

When he got home, two new letters were in the mailbox: one from some school called Marshall, another from Purdue.

 

FRED GOT TO school early on signing day, while the guidance counselor was unlocking the door. "Where do I go?" he asked excitedly. "Are the other guys here yet?"

As he waited for his teammates outside the office, he pulled the letters from his backpack and spread them across a picnic table. All those possibilities, all those far-away places.

The University of Florida was his first choice, but he hadn't heard from the Gators. Wake Forest, Purdue — he knew they played on TV. Coach had been talking to Western Michigan, University of Illinois, West Virginia.

The Blue Devils had finished their season with a 6-5 record, two wins more than the previous year. Though they made it to the playoffs, they lost in the regional semifinals. But Fred and two teammates had been chosen to play on an all-star team; he was ranked 24th out of Palm Beach County's recruits. A Florida congressman had sent congratulations. And around town, everyone was talking about what college would get to sign him.

At other high schools across the country, the well-oiled rituals of the day already were under way. Athletes were hugging their parents, thanking their coaches, mugging for news crews. At Everglades Prep, the counselor had never been through a national signing day. She sent Fred and his friends across town to Pahokee High.

"Okay, let's see what you need," said counselor Machele Martin, booting up her computer. "Where's your paperwork?"

Coach Blaze swore he had told the boys what they had to do to become eligible to play for an NCAA school. He had walked them through the forms to waive the $70 application fee, told them to gather their transcripts and test scores weeks ago. But that morning, the players looked at the counselor blankly.

"Okay, Fred, let's start with you," she said. "Wait. Something's not right. You're not even registered."

If they weren't NCAA eligible, coaches couldn't offer them scholarships.

A half-hour later, at 11:10 a.m., a box popped up on the screen: Congratulations! You are now eligible!

The other players waited, each holding their own letters. Anton Paige, the captain, had one from Bethune-Cookman. Jay Hopson, a standout safety, was being courted by a community college in Kansas. Derry Brown, another safety, was talking to "some school in California." Fred's best friend on the team, quarterback Rashaun Croney, was holding out for the University of Minnesota.

"It's hard at the last minute like this, to get everything lined up," said Pahokee track coach John Ford, who was helping the boys while Blaze made last-minute calls to college coaches. "But we're determined to get them into some school on a scholarship."

"You get me in, I'm going to buy you a Bugatti," said Derry Brown.

"That'd be nice," said Ford. "But first you have to fill out these forms."

By noon, all five players were registered. The boys thanked the counselors and went to tell Coach Blaze. He cautioned them against junior colleges; most pay only partial scholarships. Told them they could still hold out for better offers. "Okay, think about where you want to be next year," he said. "And come back here in an hour so we can do something official."

When they returned from lunch, the principal said there had been a change of plans. Instead of the auditorium or gym, signing ceremonies would be held in the library. He led the players upstairs.

The athletic director handed Jay and Derry manila folders filled with typed forms, gave them each a fancy pen.

"I'm sorry," he told the others.

In the end, Jay signed for a full scholarship to Butler Community College in Kansas. Derry had been offered only a partial ride by the California junior college — no room, no board —- so he turned it down. And no one had finalized offers for Anton, Rashaun or Fred.

"You guys got to get your scores up," Coach Blaze told them. "Take the ACT again. I'll keep working the phones. You still have time."

Fred hung his head, didn't say anything. Then he picked up his backpack and followed the other boys to a table that held a huge atlas. Flipping open a map of the United States, he said, "So where's Kansas?"

Anton shook his head and asked, "Where's Pahokee?"

 

THERE'S A PULL to the place outsiders can't understand, a familiarity, hemmed in by distinct boundaries. Because Pahokee is so isolated, most people who grow up there know each other and everyone's extended families. Kids like Fred spend their adolescence dreaming of escape. But they have no idea what else is out there.

And so many who leave wind up coming back — to be close to family, to be somewhere everyone knows them, because other places are too big. Or because Pahokee is so poor and needs so much help.

Every spring, after his NFL season is over, Anquan Boldin comes home to Pahokee, raises money for the kids and puts on the biggest party of the year.

In mid April — two months after the disappointing signing day, two weeks before schools were going to make final offers — Boldin brought 30 pro football friends to town for Q-Fest. The NFL stars played golf, shot hoops in the high school gym, staged drills at the stadium for peewee players. All the events were free, and the whole town turned out.

In the decade Boldin has hosted the fundraiser, his foundation has donated more than $300,000 to Pahokee projects and scholarships. But the event is as much a morale booster as it is a fundraiser, a chance for everyone to celebrate their claim to fame — and their patron saint.

Fred wore his new clip-on gold grills that weekend, hiding his snaggle-tooth smile. He kept talking about all the scouts who were coming to spring practice, promising his coach he was doing everything he could "to make it right."

He had broken up with his girlfriend, nudged his GPA up another tenth of a point, to 2.9, signed up for a second round of the ACT. Insteadof heading to the stadium that Sunday to hear the gospel choir and eat free barbecue, Fred stayed home to study vocabulary.

"That kid's been busting his butt all year," said Coach Blaze. "If he pulls in high-enough test scores, all kinds of colleges will still be interested in him."

"Fred's a quiet giant, real humble. He's going to make it up out of here," said Mayor Colin Walkes, who played for Pahokee in the early 1990s. "He's one to watch."

In two years, the mayor predicted, Fred would be playing on TV. The town, he admitted, would take a bit longer to turn around.

But the mayor had plans: A trailer beside City Hall was going to house a new business for medical records transcriptions, bringing 40 jobs. The pink buildings beside the state road would soon become a residential drug rehab center, serving 25 patients, hiring as many workers. A taco stand was moving into the empty KFC.

"And we're looking for state money to repair the marina," said the mayor. "If we're going to keep families here, if we're going to have a future, we need more than football."

 

DURING THE LAST week of April, a coach at the University of North Dakota phoned Fred. He had been watching him for two years, via game clips.

"My uncle was a doctor in Belle Glade. I know that area. I know how hard those boys work and how much they need this chance," said assistant coach Kevin Maurice. If Fred scored three points higher on the ACT — got an 18 out of 36 — Maurice promised to sign him. Fred Googled North Dakota. The Big Sky Conference, okay. Sometimes they played on TV.

Ellsworth Community College called the next day.

"Where's that?" asked Fred.

"Iowa," said coach Jesse Montalto.

The coach had played football in West Palm Beach, so he knew all about Pahokee. "I've seen your films," the coach told Fred. "I'm extremely excited about your potential."

He explained that his small, two-year school trained players, got their grades up enough for them to transition to big universities. He told Fred that Ellsworth would cover all his costs except transportation. He wanted Fred to come for the summer session — in six weeks.

Fred had his heart set on Division I. But when his ACT score came back a 16 — not nearly enough for Wake Forest or North Dakota — no one offered to sign him. So he called the Iowa coach and said, "I'm in."

In two years, if he earned his associate degree, he would be eligible for a scholarship to any D-I school. And the best part? The Ellsworth coach also had contacted his teammates. Anton, Derry and Rashaun were going to Iowa with him.

All he had to do was pay for the plane ticket.

Jobs were scarce in Pahokee, and Fred didn't have a car to travel for work. What was left of the field work was done by Mexican migrants. His mom and siblings kicked in what they could, but it wasn't enough for Fred to fly out in June. The Ellsworth coach promised to hold his spot until Aug. 7, the first regular-season practice.

 

ON THE DAY everything changed, he left home in the dark; his little brother and sister already were crammed into the car. His mom slid into the driver's seat; Fred had never gotten his license. "Don't need it," he kept saying. "Where I'm going, they said, you can walk to Walmart."

As he waited for his cousin to ride with them to the airport, a cluster of stars winked over the projects.

Fred pulled his new Galaxy 4 cellphone from the pocket of his new gray sweat pants: 5:21 a.m. His mom had saved all summer to buy that phone. Then he shouldered his flowered backpack, which was full of home.

He hadn't packed much. But everything he was bringing with him had meaning: his Blue Devils stocking cap, his Pahokee jersey. His mom talked him out of taking his helmet. "Just enjoy the new one."

It didn't seem real. "Man, oh man," Fred kept saying, looking around at his house, his neighborhood, the only world he had known. The longest he had been away was for a two-week football camp at Florida State. He couldn't fathom how far away 1,500 miles was, or what Iowa Falls would be like. "Derry said they have two water towers, just like Pahokee."

His teammate Derry Brown had left for Ellsworth in June. But after a couple of days, Derry had come back on a Greyhound bus. "Coach said he didn't have the mind-set, didn't go to meetings," Fred said. "I know he was too worried about back home and his girl. But he can't go giving Pahokee a bad name. We've got to go out there now and show them what we're about."

He kept telling himself he was ready. Coach T had told him he was praying for him. His big brother had said he was proud. "Mama's been talking to me about parties and girls," Fred said. "I know I've got to . . . do what I got to do. I got too much to risk."

His cousin had made him a playlist. They climbed into the backseat, and Fred turned up the tunes. As they rolled down the long road out of Pahokee, Fred watched through the window and wiped his eyes.

You only get one shot, do not miss your chance to blow, Eminem rapped. This opportunity comes once in a lifetime, yo.

His mom handed him a list of relatives' phone numbers, just in case. "I know you're going to make good choices," she told Fred. "So if ever you feel something isn't right, you call me. I'll bring you home here that day. Even if I have to sell the TV."

"I'll be fine, Mama. It's going to be fun," Fred said, laughing. He leaned forward to kiss her cheek and folded the paper into his wallet. He still had $90 from graduation; relatives had given him another $300. He didn't know it, but in his gym bag, his mom had stuffed $100 into his socks.

They met Rashaun at the Palm Beach airport. Anton was flying out the next day. Both boys' moms and all their sisters kept sobbing. "You be good," Fred's mom said, tugging his braids. "And when I call that new phone, you better answer. Now go do your thing."

After long hugs, Fred and Rashaun headed through security, waving through the glass wall. Then they walked down the ramp to their gate, not looking back.

"Oh man, oh man, it's about that time!" Fred said, grinning. "I'm ready to get somewhere!"

They kept jostling each other with their bags, texting their boys back home, wondering what snow looked like — what it would feel like to fly. As dawn began to paint the runway pink, their plane pulled up. Rashaun took a photo of Fred.

"Excuse me," asked a woman with long white hair. "Are you someone?"

Laughing, Fred shook his head. "No, ma'am, I play football."

"Well, are you famous?" the woman persisted.

Fred smiled his broken smile and said, "Not yet."

EPILOGUE: He hits the weight room every day at dawn, eats Cap'n Crunch in the dining hall, heads to class. With the help of tutors at Ellsworth Community College, and study halls with his teammates, his grade point average is the highest ever: 3.2. On the campus of 1,100 students, Fred shares a spartan dorm room with Rashaun. "It helps having my homeboy." Their other classmate, Anton, went back to Pahokee. "Some kind of legal problems," Fred said.

He talks or texts with his mom every night. He hates being cold. When temperatures dropped to 9 degrees in November and he saw snow for the first time, he shivered in his Blue Devils hoodie until a teammate gave him a coat. "Good thing they have an indoor practice field here," he said.

He gained 20 pounds in his first semester. His new coach played him in every game, on special teams and defense. The games weren't televised, but Fred's brothers watched a live-stream feed on a laptop and saw him make an interception and block a field goal.

"He's done exceptionally well," Coach Montalto said. "He's fast and coachable, the best pass defender on the team. If he keeps producing and keeps his grades up, he will definitely get picked up" by a Division I school.

Fred already has a letter from Texas Christian University. He's hoping to land somewhere in the South, where it's warm; somewhere he can play on TV.

Fred's mom couldn't afford to go to see him play in Iowa. To bring him home for Thanksgiving she had to stop paying his phone bill to buy a one-way plane ticket: $468, almost a whole month's rent.

The day after Fred got to Pahokee, his high school coach, Blaze Thompson, resigned. Over the years Thompson had amassed a 52-38 record and won two state championships, but his team failed to make the playoffs this year. "I just felt like it was time to move on," Thompson told the school principal.

Fred was happy to be home, but he was ready to return to Iowa as soon as he got there. His mother didn't know how she was going to afford to get him back to school. But she promised she won't let him get stuck in the muck.

Times news researchers Natalie Watson and Caryn Baird and photographer Chris Zuppa contributed to this report. Contact Lane DeGregory at ldegreg[email protected] or (727) 893-8825. Follow @lanedegregory.

     
                           
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