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It's 2 p.m. on August 10, the first day of fall practice for the Glades Central Community High School football team. Summer heat is draped over the field like a wet blanket. On the far side of a chainlink fence are a dozen onlookers, their outlines shimmering in the sun. More watch from cars as second-year Head Coach Larry Coffey, a compact but commanding presence, puts the team through a footwork drill. Some of the spectators are former players, and some are parents of the sweat-drenched boys on the field, but all watch as raptly as a professional scout. Such is the importance of Raider football in Belle Glade, Florida, a small, struggling farming town built on the rich, black soil near Lake Okeechobee.
After the second three-hour session of the day ends at 3 p.m., the team wearily heads toward the locker room, cleats clacking on the concrete sidewalk. The only stragglers are the players Coffey has designated as his Super 11, who gather at the practice field's corner to meet with reporters in a scene reminiscent of the new movie Friday Night Lights. The head coach, his voice hoarse, still has the thick chest and arms of the USFL New Jersey Generals halfback he was, but at five-foot-ten, he is dwarfed by the players around him.
Perhaps the best among them is senior cornerback Randy Phillips, listed by Rivals.com as the 15th-best recruit at safety in the country. His 4.5-second time in the 40-yard dash and his size (six-foot-three, 195 pounds) make him a threat on both sides of the ball. As Phillips shakes hands with one of the reporters, his broad grin reveals a blinding set of gold teeth. "Our mission is to do what we should have done last year: win state," he pronounces. Phillips' boundless self-confidence makes him a natural team leader.
Next is Tommie Duhart, a six-foot-four, 255-pound tank who plays defensive lineman and tight end. He is rated among the top 100 recruits in the state, but for the Raiders, he is number one in clowning around. In one early-season practice, as some players vomited from exhaustion, Duhart launched into a series of creditable cartwheels, disrupting a drill. He speaks in a put-on Jamaican patois: "Hey, mon, what you be wantin' to know?"
At six feet and 175 pounds, wideout Jessie Hester looks more like an average high school senior, but he's not. Rated as the 22nd-best receiver in the country and also boasting a 4.5-second time in the 40, Hester made the Super 11 before he ever donned a Raiders uniform. The braided 17-year-old with a wispy mustache transferred from Wellington High School for his senior season in order to, as he puts it, "play with the best." Hester is soft-spoken, with a subtle smile, but on the field, he is a terror, sure-handed and elusive. Of course, he has the benefit of a personal coach at home, Jessie Hester Sr., whose ten-year NFL career puts him in the pantheon of Raiders made good.
The bulkiest of the bunch is Chavorris Roundtree, a 300-pound offensive lineman who has his hair in narrow, braided rows. Roundtree chats with genial humor. "Here, I'll do your job for you," he says to a reporter and proceeds to interview Hester, lobbing softball questions like a Sportscenter anchor.
The Super 11 patiently await their turns to answer questions and have their pictures taken, accepting the reporters' interest as a matter of routine. Their talent is the reason that Glades Central is the preseason favorite to win its district and contend for the state 3A championship.
After 15 minutes, when the group heads toward the locker room, another player, with close-cropped hair and a strong jaw, approaches. "Sir? Are you from the newspaper? Did you get my name?" he asks with quiet insistence, unsmiling and unnervingly deferential.
His name is Ruth Lewis; he's a 17-year-old senior linebacker. Lewis packs 210 pounds of muscle onto his six-foot frame. To an opposing player, the boy's scowl might appear intimidating, but in conversation, his soft voice and unstudied openness quickly dispel the feeling. Though he breaks into an engaging grin when there are no teachers or coaches around, he generally wears a serious expression. There's good reason for his gravity: He is dyslexic, which makes schoolwork difficult. His father works two jobs to support the family of seven, forcing Ruth Jr. to care for his mother, who often can't move because of a back injury. And on the football field, Lewis is constantly overshadowed by the Super 11.
Such challenges would send a lot of kids, in the words of one of his coaches, "off into thugdom." Not Lewis: He meets them with an almost superhuman determination. Lewis stays late in the weight room, does pushups in the lulls between practice drills, and worked a summer job to buy his own school clothes. He spit out teeth after a near-death accident several years ago and just walked away.
Lewis believes he can win a football scholarship, be the first in his family to graduate from college, and then follow the 22 other Raiders who have gone on to play in the NFL. Can he attract recruiters' attention? Can he meet the academic demands of college? Lewis is equal parts hope and fatalism. "I just have to stay focused on my responsibilities and everything else will take care of itself," he says. "If it doesn't happen, then it wasn't part of God's plan."