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
Ruth was born January 22, 1987, at Everglades Regional hospital in Pahokee, the fourth male in the Lewis line to bear the unusual first name. His early school pictures show the baby fat that earned him the nickname "Butter Roll," which evolved into "Buddy Roll," both of which he despised. Like most Belle Glade boys, Ruth started playing football early and joined the citywide youth football league at age 10. By age 12, he was competing with 14-year-olds, earning himself a more flattering nickname. "They called him the 'Iron Man,' because he never came off the field," Valerie says.
That iron would be tested on May 7, 2000, when he was 13 years old. One day after school, a neighborhood friend let Ruth borrow his family's four-wheel ATV, neglecting to mention that the brakes weren't working. Ruth accelerated down the street with the throttle wide open but then, unable to slow down, couldn't make the turn at the end of the block. He hit the curb and was thrown against a building, smashing almost completely through the wall. His brother Rubin, 10 years old at the time, watched in horror.
"He got right up," Rubin recalls. "He tried to walk and then fell down, and then got up again and started picking up his teeth." Ruth had shattered the left side of his skull, dislocated his jaw, and knocked out six teeth. His father was at his side as he was loaded onto a helicopter to fly to West Palm Beach for surgery. "He looked up at me and said he was sorry," Ruth Sr. says, shaking his head, "sorry that he put us through that." Ruth's toughness continued to show when, still bearing the fresh scars of reconstructive surgery, he returned to football two months later.
Ruth Sr. has worked for the past six years as a heavy equipment operator at the University of Florida's Everglades Research and Education Center in town, earning a modest $24,000 wage and a solid health plan that takes care of most of his wife's medical bills. The senior Lewis has an easy, rolling laugh, and his taste in clothes runs toward the flashy, both in marked contrast to Ruth Jr., whose usual school clothes are sweatpants and a plain T-shirt.
But if Ruth gets his manners from his mother, his determination may come from his father. Ruth Sr., in an effort to provide for his large family, is on call on weekends for the local funeral home -- picking up bodies at $50 a trip.
Ruth Sr. and Valerie make sure that Ruth Jr., like all their children, stays out of trouble. "I never have to worry about him on that street corner," Valerie says. "I would set his curfew, and if he was late, he would come running."
Ruth says that many of his friends, "too many to count," have been in trouble with the law. He recalls opting out when break-ins were planned. "If I knew something was about to go wrong, I'd either say I'm not going or I'd make up some excuse," Ruth says. "Or I'd try to convince them not to do it. I'd say, 'Even though nobody may see you, you still got God above -- he's watching all the time.' That's what my mom always says."
Few other kids in the neighborhood have similar supervision. One example is fellow Raiders linebacker Jilvarris Webb, who lives down the street from the Lewises. The brash senior is one of Ruth's closest friends on the team. Webb says that his mother "wasn't really that good of a mom" and that as a result, he got into trouble early and often. At age 13, he was sentenced to three years in a youth correctional facility for armed robbery and assault.
One Tuesday after practice in early October, the six-foot-two, 190-pound Webb lounges on a concrete bench outside the football locker room, flirting with a trio of girls. With gold teeth, braids, and a booming laugh, Webb is a sharp contrast to Ruth. He thinks his friend is a bit coddled by his parents. "They gave him guidance, but they were putting too much pressure on him," Webb says. "He was interested in the street life... so I sort of took him under my wing." Since Webb's stretch in prison, the pair's roles have been reversed. "He keeps me out of trouble," Webb adds.
Both Webb and Ruth say that the main reason for Belle Glade's high crime rate is also one of the foundations of its football mania: There's nothing else to do. Riding through town on the way home from practice one day, Ruth elaborates: "There's an arcade there that we go to sometimes," he says, pointing to a dilapidated storefront where a handful of video games can be seen behind windows coated with grime. "I do homework, do pushups..." He pauses, at a loss. "There isn't much around here but football, football and track."
On Monday of the week before the Raiders' September 17 season opener against Cardinal Newman High, rain has delayed practice. At 4:15, an argument breaks out in the team meeting room. Voices echo down the hallway, so loud and rapid that the cause is at first hard to discern. Inside, the odor of sweat, mildewed pads, and cleats is thick in the air. The room, which serves as a health and life-skills classroom until the school day ends at 2:45, is in the building that also houses the gym, weight room, locker rooms, and training room where Ruth is at the moment getting taped up for practice. The bare walls amplify the fluorescent glare of the overhead lights as well as the tumult of the argument.