By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Keegan Hamilton and Francisco Alvarado
By Jake Rossen
By Allie Conti
By Kyle Swenson
By Chris Joseph
By Michael E. Miller
Downtown Belle Glade is the epicenter of an economic crisis that has paralyzed the region for more than a decade. When the major sugar producers began using machines to harvest cane, thousands lost their jobs, and the businesses that catered to them began to disappear. Now, only one downtown business attracts a steady clientele: the Salvation Army thrift store. Many of the few remaining unshuttered storefronts house evangelical churches, like the Victory Tabernacle of Prayer for All People or the Miracle Deliverance Center, that are marked with colorful, hand-painted signs.
Nearly one-third of the 15,000 people in Belle Glade live below the poverty line. The median household income, $22,715, is about half the state average; the crime rate is more than double. Officially, unemployment is around 20 percent, but some put the actual figure much higher. The town's main industry these days is corrections; Florida's Glades Correctional Institution and Palm Beach County's Glades Jail are planted at each end of town like quarantine signs.
Head southwest from downtown and the view is grimmer still. This is Lewis' neighborhood. Stripped automobile carcasses dot the area. Most yards are bare dirt. The streets are lined with discarded bottles, junk-food wrappers, and plastic bags. Many windows and doors in the concrete apartment buildings are thrown open in lieu of expensive air conditioning.
Few of Belle Glade's roughly 5,000 white residents venture into this neighborhood, just as few white children attend Glades Central. Whites make up nearly one-third of the town's population but are less than 2 percent of the school's 1,400 students. Among the Raiders football players, there is not a single white face.
The white kids generally go to private Glades Day School, which is situated in the opposite corner of town. The Glades Day Gators are a perennial football power at the 1A level, but the two schools have little else in common. "To be honest," Glades Central Athletic Director Gabriel Wiley says, "I couldn't drive there right now if you asked me to. I don't know where the campus is." He pauses, looking for diplomatic words. "I think Raiders are Raiders and Gators are Gators."
In the stands at Glades Central's Effie Grear Stadium on Friday nights, however, many white fans join the African-American majority. In fact, some say that the town's extraordinary football success may be the only thing holding it together. Addressing the team before one game, Randy Phillips reminds other players of what is at stake. "We carry this whole town on our backs," he says. Helmets bob in agreement.
In Glades Central's 33 years, its football team has won five state and 18 district titles. It has been ranked in the national top ten three times, most recently in 2001. The division 3A Raiders regularly beat 6A schools, some with nearly double the school's enrollment. In 1999, the school had seven players on NFL rosters, more than any other high school in the nation. Though that number is down to two this year, it will likely climb again as current college stars such as Santonio Holmes of Ohio State join the league.
The Raiders won three consecutive state championships from 1998-2000, but then began something of a down cycle. In 2002, the team finished an unheard-of 6-5. The next year, Coffey's first as coach, they returned to form, going undefeated in the regular season before a disappointing, error-plagued loss to Cocoa High School in the playoffs.
"It's more than a tradition; it's a way of life," says Albert Dowdell, Belle Glade's slightly built, ebullient chief of police. Dowdell, age 50, is the town's first black chief and a rabid Raiders fan. His department runs the Police Athletic League program that nurtures the town's football talent.
Florida accounts for 53 percent of the cane sugar produced in the United States, and three-quarters of the state's cane crop grows in the fields around Belle Glade, as it has since the early 1920s. If sugar is king here, football is crown prince. Growing up, Dowdell, like many of his friends, made shoulder pads from cardboard and footballs from fruit wrapped in rags for sandlot games. The future chief weighed just 97 pounds as a freshman and was cut from his high school team, but he proudly points out that he was a water boy for the 1971 state championship team. "If you make the Glades Central football team, then you've accomplished something," Dowdell says. "That's something to brag about."
Three of Chief Dowdell's sons have played for the Raiders. His nephew, Javorris, is on this year's varsity roster even though the sophomore looks to be closer to his father's high school weight than his listed 120 pounds. The chief has missed fewer than five Raiders football games in ten years. In 1997, he underwent prostate surgery just before the season opener. Rather than miss out, he had his hospital bed carried outside and put in the back of a van. He watched the team roll to victory from outside the fence, propped up in his bed.
Mary Ford, a Glades Central administrator who arrived two years ago from a high school football power in Ohio, is amazed by Belle Glade's fervor. "I thought they were crazy there [in the Buckeye State]," she says. "Here -- oh my God. If you don't love football when you get here, you'll learn pretty quick."