The Book of Ruth

He plays small-town, big-time football. But is that enough?

Not surprisingly, that love of football is rampant in Lewis' family. His two younger brothers, 16-year-old Russell and 14-year-old Rubin, both play on the Raiders' junior varsity squad. His older sister, 20-year-old Makita, says her only regret about being a girl is that she could not play football. Even Makita's 2-year-old son, Jabarian, has the fever; a football game, on TV or in person, is the only thing that keeps him still. Ruth's father, Ruth Sr., didn't make the Belle Glade high school team as a teenager, but he and Valerie, Ruth's mother, travel to all of their three sons' games.

For many Raiders players, as for Lewis, the game is not just a passion but a career goal. Former Raider and current Jacksonville Jaguars running back Fred Taylor helps to fund the youth league in town. Jessie Hester Sr., a standout receiver over his NFL career, attracts a halo of admiring players as he paces the sidelines during Raiders practices. Raiders defensive backs coach Roosevelt Blackmon is another NFL veteran, and Coffey, though his career was ended by a knee injury his first season in the USFL, is also living proof that playing pro football is an attainable dream.

Coffey tries to dispel unrealistic expectations. "Athletics is great, but education is probably the avenue that we need to be focusing on," he says. Nationally, less than one-tenth of 1 percent of high school football players ever plays professionally. Less than 6 percent even go on to play in college. But in Belle Glade, those odds don't seem to apply. "Football is viewed as the way kids are going to be able to leave this community and go on to be successful," Coffey says.

Tommie Duhart, member of the Super 11, shows off his game face.
Tommie Duhart, member of the Super 11, shows off his game face.
Jessie Hester, member of the Super 11, shows off his game face.
Jessie Hester, member of the Super 11, shows off his game face.

On a Thursday afternoon in early September, a battered white cooler sits on the Lewis family's kitchen floor. When a knock comes at the front door, Ruth's brother Rubin, a roly-poly, talkative boy, opens it to reveal two small girls with shiny plastic in their tight braids standing expectantly.

Valerie, a short, heavyset woman with alert, piercing eyes and a mobile face ready to smile or scold, reaches over and opens the cooler. It is filled to the top with Chek sodas and Thrifty Maid artificial juices packed in ice. She sells the drinks to neighborhood children, 50 cents for soda and a quarter for juice. She says she can make $50 in a good week this way. "I have to do something to help bring in money," she says.

Valerie has been unable to work a steady job since her car was rammed by a hit-and-run driver in 1995. A shattered disk in her spine gives her pain that ranges from a manageable throb on most days to an excruciating lightning bolt when she turns too quickly. "The doctor said that there was a 50 percent chance they could fix it with surgery" to her spine, she says, "but that's a bad place for them to be operating. I told them that I can get along all right for now."

Valerie hands the drinks to Rubin and digs in a green money pouch to make change. "Are you girls playing here in the yard?" she asks them. No, they're going down the street to a friend's house. "Well, you can leave your bikes here, right in the yard," she offers. "Nobody's going to mess with them here." The girls nod silently and crack open their sodas as Rubin closes the door. "I don't know what they do anywhere else," Valerie says of the neighborhood kids, "but they know that once they come into this yard, they give respect."

The Lewis children all show the results of such high standards -- they are unfailingly polite and friendly. Russell, who after the jayvee season will move up to varsity to back up his older brother at linebacker, has adopted some of Ruth's gravity. Rubin is more outgoing, quick to laugh. Makita and her son now live in nearby Pahokee but are often at the family home. She shows more of her mother's warmth and, like her, wears her hair pulled back into a tight bun.

Two years ago, the Lewises adopted 7-year-old Alexis and 4-year-old Olivia. The girls, grandnieces of Ruth Sr., came to live with the Lewises after their father died in a car accident. "They're family, and you've got to take care of family, you know," Ruth Sr. says. All told, seven people live in the small, two-bedroom home that sits at the corner of Sixth Street and Avenue F.

Ruth Sr., a stocky man with gold-framed, rose-tinted glasses and a mischievous grin, spends much of his spare time on home-improvement projects. His handiwork can be seen in the solid, basic cabinetry in the kitchen and the decorative swirls in the ceiling's stucco. The living room is crowded but comfortable, with two low, black love seats flanking a TV stand that also holds a PlayStation. Virtually every flat surface is filled with football trophies, certificates, or ribbons.

On the outside, the Lewis home is a freshly painted white with bright red shutters, a stark contrast to most other houses in the neighborhood, several of which are boarded up and abandoned. Before Hurricane Ivan, the Lewis house was shaded by three huge trees. After the storm, Ruth skipped a day of football practice to help Ruth Sr. cut up their fallen trunks and branches with a borrowed chain saw.

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