Florida stars go from Muck Bowl to Super Bowl
TAMPA, Fla. -- The black, gritty mud from the bottom of Florida's Lake Okeechobee, the endless sugarcane fields and the financially strapped towns of Pahokee and Belle Glade all inspire Glades Central graduate and current football coach Jesse Hester.
"The muck never leaves you," he said.
Fortunately, there's high school football to fuel dreams. And this week, those dreams have grown bigger than ever.
With Super Bowl XLIII in Tampa, the Muck Bowl has come to Super Sunday.
The long-running rivalry between Pahokee and Glades Central will be played out Sunday on football's biggest stage.
On one side is Anquan Boldin, Arizona Cardinals receiver and legendary Pahokee quarterback. On the other is Santonio Holmes, Pittsburgh Steelers receiver and Glades Central playmaker who led the Raiders to three state titles.
Once again, Blue Devils versus Raiders.
"This week a thick line has been drawn in the muck," said Pahokee graduate and football coach Blaze Thompson. "That means everyone in Pahokee, and I do mean everyone, will be pulling for Arizona. And down the road [10 miles south in Belle Glade], everyone will be pulling for Pittsburgh.
"No one, no way, is going to cross that line. Cross it and it could get serious."
Thompson chuckled, but he wasn't really joking.
For Holmes and Boldin, the Super Bowl will be another chance to represent their homes on the big stage.
"Pahokee means everything to me," Boldin said during Tuesday's media day in Tampa. "Pahokee has a lot to do with the person I am and the way that I have gone through life. My heart is there."
The Pro-Bowler often goes back to Pahokee to talk the Devils and buy them uniforms. He hopes every November that Pahokee beats Glades Central in the annual grudge match.
Even though he went just 1-3 against the Raiders, Boldin credits the Muck Bowl for preparing him for every obstacle that life has ever thrown at him.
"Sure, it is high school, but the pressure that surrounds the game, it's tremendous. I'd say it definitely helps me here [at the Super Bowl]."
Hester, who played at Florida State and in the NFL, said he never felt more intensity than when he played against Pahokee.
Super Bowl XLIII
Florida is home to some of the best high school football action. Ten players on the active Super Bowl rosters of the Cardinals and Steelers were gridiron superstars in the Sunshine State.
William Gay -- Rickards (Tallahassee)
Santonio Holmes -- Glades Central (Belle Glade)
Bryant McFadden -- McArthur (Hollywood)
Orpheus Roye -- Miami Springs (Miami)
Max Starks -- Lake Highland (Orlando)
"I remember my very first game as a freshman at FSU, running out on that field with all those people, and not being fazed by it," Hester said. "The Muck Bowl was just as intense."
Between football games and seasons, a pervasive quiet settles over the area and the growing cane isolates the towns.
There is little to do. Little to see. The same old fast food restaurant grocery store bowling alley.
So it's not surprising little boys from Pahokee and Belle Glade see players like Boldin and Holmes as larger-than-life, or, as Thompson put it, "tangible giants."
"They see them and talk to them and hear them say, 'I came from here and I did it, and so can you,'" Thompson said. "So the kids want to do whatever the guys before them did."
In the quiet, brutally hot summer days, the boys can be found chasing rabbits through the cane.
Boldin chased rabbits. So did Holmes.
"The majority of the people we knew chased rabbits for survival," Holmes said. "Up until my sophomore year of high school, that's what I did, chased rabbits. I actually did it a couple of times during my freshman year of college. I went out to chase rabbits just to see if I still had it."
Dennis Hall, Boldin's cousin and a junior receiver at Pahokee High, said it proudly: "Yes sir," he said, "I chase rabbits!"
Do you catch them?
"Of course I catch 'em," Hall said. "I catch 'em just like Anquan [Boldin] and [Santonio] Holmes did.
"It worked for them, and it works for me. It helps us run a little faster."
This Sunday, Hall, who has talked with Boldin a couple of times this week, said he will be at Raymond James Stadium for the Super Bowl, pulling hard for his cousin, and, of course, dreaming of playing in his own Super Bowl.
And why not?
He's already building his own legend in Muck City.
With 55 seconds remaining in Florida's Class 2B state final, Hall caught a 19-yard pass in the end zone of Orlando's Citrus Bowl, sealing Pahokee's 21-17 state championship over Trinity Christian. It was the Devils' third consecutive state title and fifth in six years.
There is something, however, that bothers Hall despite winning a championship.
"We lost the Muck Bowl," Hall said. "I honestly think I'd rather win the Muck Bowl than the state title. Nobody around here would ever let you forget it. It's like torture to lose that game."
While Boldin and Holmes have bigger things to worry about Sunday, the two towns have taken to calling the game the Super Muck Bowl.
Talk about added pressure.
"You need to always remember," Thompon said, "that it always comes back to the muck."
Scott Purks is a freelance writer in Florida.