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."
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."
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.
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.
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.
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.
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."
The game gets off to a rocky start when the Raiders fumble the opening kickoff and the Chargers recover on the Raiders' 16-yard line. The visitors quickly punch it in for a touchdown, after which both offenses begin to struggle. In a determined effort to get its running game going, Suncoast assigns a 310-pound offensive tackle named Thomas Locust to block Ruth. The bigger, stronger player knocks Ruth out of the play again and again. After the final defensive series of the first half, Ruth angrily whips off his helmet as he comes off the field.
"They're playing dirty, dog! They're cutting me every time!" he complains, and limps down the sideline, looking for the trainer. Ruth believes Locust is trying to injure him, and sure enough, the trainer determines Ruth has a high ankle sprain.
Despite the tactic, Suncoast still can't generate much offense. The Raiders finally cobble together a drive and score just before halftime, evening the tally at 6-6.
During the break, Ruth ices and re-tapes his ankle. "I wasn't thinking about the ankle," he says later. "I was just thinking about winning." He is back in the game to start the second half.
Suncoast gets a good kick return to midfield. After an incomplete pass, Suncoast runs a simple off-tackle on second down. As before, Ruth is blocked out of the play, and the Suncoast back bursts through a huge hole. The only man left to beat is Raiders safety Kent Henderson. The Suncoast runner fakes, and Henderson loses his footing and falls. The ball carrier runs by, headed for the end zone.
In desperation, Henderson throws up an arm and jars the ball loose. Then Ruth chases down the play. Diving, he scoops up the ball with his right arm. The fumble recovery has saved a touchdown -- and possibly the season. "I started to go pick it up and run with it," Ruth says later. "But I knew my ankle was hurt, so I just thought I'd better jump on the ball."
He reenters the game for the next series but is obviously limping. Defensive Coordinator Kenneth Funderburke pulls Ruth for most of the final quarter, as the Raiders manage another score and hold on to win 12-6. As the relieved crowd streams into the parking lot, Ruth trudges to the locker room with his exhausted teammates. He has notched five tackles and the all-important fumble recovery.
Ruth's parents join the procession of fans leaving the stadium after checking with him to reassure themselves he isn't hurt too badly. Valerie lives in mortal fear that he will be permanently injured. "I'd just like to see him finish his four years and get his degree," she says, "and then see what God has in store for him."
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Carmen Grosso, recruiting coordinator for the fledgling football program at Florida International University in Miami, may help determine Ruth's future. Ruth says Grosso called his home and sent a letter to the football office. With the February 4 signing day still months away, Grosso has said he wants Ruth to visit the campus. (Grosso won't talk about Ruth or any other player he has contacted.)
There might be a hitch, however, because of the special academic track Ruth is on. Grosso's philosophy is to steer clear of possible eligibility issues. "If a kid's in [special ed], for us, I don't think that it would happen," Grosso says.
Ruth is well-aware of the academic obstacles he must overcome. A few days before the homecoming game, he finally, and uncharacteristically, asked for tutoring. "I know it's going to get a lot harder once I go to college," he says. "But I got to start somewhere."
The ankle sprain is yet another challenge, but Ruth is optimistic, even though he is still playing in the shadow of the team's marquee players. "When [the recruiters] come to see them, they can also see a player like me, making plays," he reasons. "They'll see that [I'm] a player that doesn't give up."