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Approaching Belle Glade on County Road 880 on Friday evening, the muck is all around you. The rich, sugar cane-yielding soil is closer to coal in color than most dirt. A sign along the side of the road welcoming you to town lays it all out: "Her soil is her fortune." Then tune in WSWN-AM, Sugar 900, for gospel music and the ag report. Barely visible off to the left as you enter town are the football-stadium lights.
Tonight is the Muck Bowl: the Glades Central Raiders versus the Pahokee Blue Devils. The sugar cane can be tended to in the morning. Football is all that matters in the Glades this evening.
An hour before game time, the cars heading up to Glades Central clog the quarter-mile-long driveway and extend onto State Road 80. Some folks give up and simply bump their cars over the curb and onto the median, a parking spot apparently condoned by the Belle Glade police, because they're appropriating space there as well. Other fans, the smart ones, come on foot.
Inside the stadium the simple metal bleachers that line each side of the field are already packed with fans, many sporting "Muck Bowl '99" T-shirts or at least the maroon and gold of the home team Glades Central Raiders. Pahokee may be just a bumpy ten-mile drive away, but the Blue Devils are greatly outnumbered tonight in the crowd of perhaps 6000. Rumors that the Muck Bowl will be televised on the Sunshine Network turn out to be false, so the only witnesses are here in the stands.
"If you were a thief, this is the time to steal," says Willie Pyfrom, Glades Central's long-time band director and a self-proclaimed Muck Bowl authority. "Everybody's here."
Figuring out the roots of the Muck Bowl is a precarious proposition. Some say the rivalry dates back to midcentury, when the migrant workers who toiled in the cane fields around Pahokee took on the fishermen of Belle Glade. Pyfrom has his own theory on the origin of the rivalry. "Belle Glade and Pahokee have been playing since Moses parted the Red Sea," he says, without a hint of a smile. "That was the reason for the first game." The Muck moniker, though, wasn't added until the mid-'70s. Since then Glades Central has won 17 of the contests, while Pahokee has hoisted the Muck Bowl trophy 11 times. The Blue Devils snapped a seven-game losing streak last year with a 34-14 victory.
There's no embellishment needed in discussing the crop of talent that has been harvested in the muck. The area around Lake Okeechobee has become a veritable pipeline to Division 1 colleges and the National Football League. Reidel Anthony, star receiver for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, played his high-school ball at Glades Central, as did Jacksonville Jaguars running back Fred Taylor. Anquan Boldin, the hero of last year's Pahokee victory, is now a budding star at top-ranked Florida State.
And there is no doubt that tonight's game features some players with similar prospects. Reggie Vickers, the Raiders' soft-spoken, fleet-footed wide receiver, caught the game-winning pass in last year's state title game and has Division 1 coaches salivating. So does Eric Moore, a Pahokee linebacker who is being courted by gridiron powerhouses like defending national champs Tennessee.
Willie McDonald, who has coached in some capacity at Glades Central -- track, basketball, and football -- since the early '70s, says that one theory about players in the Glades is that they're so fast because they "run" rabbits, chasing the animals down on foot and killing them. "A lot of people think that's made-up," says McDonald, "but it's true. When I was a boy, I used to run rabbits."
Despite all this homegrown talent, one of those rabbits might have a better shot at beating Glades Central than Pahokee does tonight. Unlike last year's contest, in which both teams entered the showdown with unblemished records, Glades Central is clearly the favorite tonight. The defending Class-3A state champ is once again undefeated, while Pahokee, runner-up last year in the Class-2A division, enters the game with a mediocre record of 6-3. "We've struggled," concedes defensive coordinator Kenny Berry, himself a Pahokee alumnus, who was drafted by the San Diego Chargers. "But this game here is not an ordinary game. This game's played on a lot of emotion. You really can't say who's an underdog."
After elaborate introductions, in which players' future plans and even their favorite sayings ("Take life as a joke. If you don't it will kill you.") are noted, the game gets under way. Pahokee comes out with pads smoking on the opening kickoff, laying out the Raiders' return man at the 15-yard line. But after the Blue Devils back Glades Central into a third down and six, Pahokee jumps offside, causing the first of many, many yellow flags to litter the field and resulting in a first down. Jatavius McRae runs for another first down on the next play, and before the Pahokee band has even made it to the visitors' bleachers, Raiders fullback Robert Gibbons is celebrating in the end zone, along with several thousand pompon-waving, maroon-and-gold-clad Raiders fans.