The Book of Ruth

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

The dozen or so boys, wearing football pants and T-shirts, roar as only athletes can. But the diagram on the board that the players are pointing to is not of a play; it's an equilateral triangle bisected by a vertical line. Finally, cornerback Phillips walks to the board and underneath the figure writes the correct formula to calculate its area.

The rain-delay geometry session is a spillover from the mandatory after-school study halls instituted last year by then-Principal Mary Evans. Evans, a 57-year-old Belle Glade native, came to Glades Central before the 2002-03 school year to do something about its F rating on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test (FCAT). She had already turned around Belle Glade's Gove Elementary, which in her two-year tenure went from a D to an A.

In one of her first actions, Evans removed the trophies from the main lobby. When the football team went 6-5 under Coach Willie Bueno, parents grumbled. After the school year, Evans fired nearly a third of the faculty, including Bueno.

Ruth Lewis' parents, Ruth Sr. (right) and Valerie (center), celebrate a Raiders score as his brother Rubin (left) records the action.
Ruth Lewis' parents, Ruth Sr. (right) and Valerie (center), celebrate a Raiders score as his brother Rubin (left) records the action.
Ruth Lewis (right) and Jacoby Carrigan listen intently as Defensive Coordinator Kenneth Funderburke breaks down the defensive scheme.
Ruth Lewis (right) and Jacoby Carrigan listen intently as Defensive Coordinator Kenneth Funderburke breaks down the defensive scheme.

The resulting uproar was less severe than the 1928 hurricane that leveled the town, but only just. To complicate matters, the school nationally recognized as a football factory remained an academic invalid under Evans. Glades Central raised its FCAT rating from an F to a D. To quell the controversy, Palm Beach County schools Superintendent Art Johnson reassigned Evans to Glade View Elementary at the end of the 2003-04 school year.

Teachers and coaches agree that Evans' radical tactics had an effect. "Before she got here, I think it was 'football, football, football, athletes, sports,'" says Athletic Director Wiley, a math teacher. "But she kind of opened people's eyes."

Ruth remembers Evans as an unpredictable presence. "She had like a split personality," he says. "Some days, she'd know you and talk to you, but some days, she'd just be like you weren't even there and walk on by."

Ed Harris, a principal for 14 years and a former defensive-line coach at Atlantic High School, replaced Evans. Harris, with a fleshy face and broad shoulders rounded by age, calmed things down. "There has to be a balance between academics and athletics," he says. In fact, Harris can often be seen at practice, taking a lineman aside and going over the finer points of blocking. "You can't sit behind a desk all day," he adds.

Coffey is still pushing for academic improvement. He requires progress reports from teachers on his players. The first round at the end of September brought a few D's and one F, but overall, Coffey was pleased. Several players were on track to earn straight A's.

Ruth's progress reports showed two A's, a B, and a C in reading. The grades were good enough to maintain his 2.75 GPA, but Ruth was worried. He knew that his Exceptional Student Education classes might scare away college recruiters. "It kind of bothers me," Ruth says of his academic status. "What kind of helps me out is that I've seen [current University of Miami star] Frank Gore, and he was dyslexic too. He made it, so I can do the same thing."

As for Ruth's academic future, Helen Lawson, one of his favorite teachers, is guardedly optimistic. "I don't think he would have problems with a junior college, no," she says. "Really, I think [football] helps. Because he is disciplined, he would make sure that all his academic requirements are taken care of."

Before the October 15 homecoming game against Suncoast, Ruth and the rest of the team's seniors wait in the south end zone with their parents and relatives. The seniors will walk out on the field one by one, escorted by their families, to mark their final homecoming as Raiders. The light is beginning to fade as the family groups line up under the goal post. A cool breeze causes some of the women in summer dresses to shiver. Ruth Sr. stands out in a light-blue silk shirt and matching pants, while Valerie beams proudly at Ruth.

The stands are still mostly empty as Ruth's name is announced just after 7 p.m. The hopes and dreams that Ruth described in his neat, looping hand on a Senior Profile Sheet blare out over the P.A: "Future aspirations: to attend a major university and get degrees in college, and to someday play pro ball. Philosophy of life: to put God first in all that I do, to work hard and to be an overachiever, and also to be a mentor and leader for others." The Lewis family heads to the sideline, and Ruth Jr. sprints off to rejoin the team for warm-ups.

Coming into the game against Suncoast High School, the Raiders are 3-0 and ranked number three in the state. The Chargers, 2-1, are fired up after a surprise loss and will provide Glades Central with their stiffest test of the season. For Ruth, this is a good time to have a standout game. His play so far this season has been solid but not spectacular. He is seventh on the team in tackles with 16 -- again, a decent number, but as a middle linebacker, he is expected to be around the ball. "Ruth has had some technique breakdowns," Coffey says. "But if he plays to his potential, he has the skills necessary to compete at the next level."

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