The Real Sugar Bowl
Approaching Belle Glade on County Road 880 on Friday evening, the muck is all around you. The rich, sugar cane-yielding soil is closer to coal in color than most dirt. A sign along the side of the road welcoming you to town lays it all out: "Her soil is her fortune." Then tune in WSWN-AM, Sugar 900, for gospel music and the ag report. Barely visible off to the left as you enter town are the football-stadium lights.
Tonight is the Muck Bowl: the Glades Central Raiders versus the Pahokee Blue Devils. The sugar cane can be tended to in the morning. Football is all that matters in the Glades this evening.
An hour before game time, the cars heading up to Glades Central clog the quarter-mile-long driveway and extend onto State Road 80. Some folks give up and simply bump their cars over the curb and onto the median, a parking spot apparently condoned by the Belle Glade police, because they're appropriating space there as well. Other fans, the smart ones, come on foot.
Inside the stadium the simple metal bleachers that line each side of the field are already packed with fans, many sporting "Muck Bowl '99" T-shirts or at least the maroon and gold of the home team Glades Central Raiders. Pahokee may be just a bumpy ten-mile drive away, but the Blue Devils are greatly outnumbered tonight in the crowd of perhaps 6000. Rumors that the Muck Bowl will be televised on the Sunshine Network turn out to be false, so the only witnesses are here in the stands.
"If you were a thief, this is the time to steal," says Willie Pyfrom, Glades Central's long-time band director and a self-proclaimed Muck Bowl authority. "Everybody's here."
Figuring out the roots of the Muck Bowl is a precarious proposition. Some say the rivalry dates back to midcentury, when the migrant workers who toiled in the cane fields around Pahokee took on the fishermen of Belle Glade. Pyfrom has his own theory on the origin of the rivalry. "Belle Glade and Pahokee have been playing since Moses parted the Red Sea," he says, without a hint of a smile. "That was the reason for the first game." The Muck moniker, though, wasn't added until the mid-'70s. Since then Glades Central has won 17 of the contests, while Pahokee has hoisted the Muck Bowl trophy 11 times. The Blue Devils snapped a seven-game losing streak last year with a 34-14 victory.
There's no embellishment needed in discussing the crop of talent that has been harvested in the muck. The area around Lake Okeechobee has become a veritable pipeline to Division 1 colleges and the National Football League. Reidel Anthony, star receiver for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, played his high-school ball at Glades Central, as did Jacksonville Jaguars running back Fred Taylor. Anquan Boldin, the hero of last year's Pahokee victory, is now a budding star at top-ranked Florida State.
And there is no doubt that tonight's game features some players with similar prospects. Reggie Vickers, the Raiders' soft-spoken, fleet-footed wide receiver, caught the game-winning pass in last year's state title game and has Division 1 coaches salivating. So does Eric Moore, a Pahokee linebacker who is being courted by gridiron powerhouses like defending national champs Tennessee.
Willie McDonald, who has coached in some capacity at Glades Central -- track, basketball, and football -- since the early '70s, says that one theory about players in the Glades is that they're so fast because they "run" rabbits, chasing the animals down on foot and killing them. "A lot of people think that's made-up," says McDonald, "but it's true. When I was a boy, I used to run rabbits."
Despite all this homegrown talent, one of those rabbits might have a better shot at beating Glades Central than Pahokee does tonight. Unlike last year's contest, in which both teams entered the showdown with unblemished records, Glades Central is clearly the favorite tonight. The defending Class-3A state champ is once again undefeated, while Pahokee, runner-up last year in the Class-2A division, enters the game with a mediocre record of 6-3. "We've struggled," concedes defensive coordinator Kenny Berry, himself a Pahokee alumnus, who was drafted by the San Diego Chargers. "But this game here is not an ordinary game. This game's played on a lot of emotion. You really can't say who's an underdog."
After elaborate introductions, in which players' future plans and even their favorite sayings ("Take life as a joke. If you don't it will kill you.") are noted, the game gets under way. Pahokee comes out with pads smoking on the opening kickoff, laying out the Raiders' return man at the 15-yard line. But after the Blue Devils back Glades Central into a third down and six, Pahokee jumps offside, causing the first of many, many yellow flags to litter the field and resulting in a first down. Jatavius McRae runs for another first down on the next play, and before the Pahokee band has even made it to the visitors' bleachers, Raiders fullback Robert Gibbons is celebrating in the end zone, along with several thousand pompon-waving, maroon-and-gold-clad Raiders fans.
The Pahokee offense fares no better, failing even to make it across midfield in the first half. At one point a Blue Devil punt spirals out of bounds five yards behind the initial line of scrimmage.
"What's the score?" asks one fan at halftime. The scoreboard is broken, but the answer isn't hard to surmise: "Over," comes the undoubtedly accurate reply. (Actually it's 18-0. The extra point is apparently the one facet of the game that Glades Central has not yet mastered.)
The Muck Bowl's much-hyped concession stand is pretty much over as well. The grill cooking up fried fish is already cleared, and all the chicken wings have been scarfed down -- with plenty of hot sauce. Pigs' feet are nothing but a rumor. The area around the concession stand still resembles a rugby scrum, with bodies jostling, but about the only pickings left are Starburst and Pepsi.
This leaves halftime entirely for the battle of the bands. Pahokee has the unenviable task of taking the field first in hostile territory, but they are not cowed. Their performance is a mix of traditional high-school marching band and Showtime at the Apollo, with clarinet melodies interspersed with gyrating hips and fist-pumping chants.
The crowd is already delirious by the time Glades Central's 100-member-plus band hits the field. They offer a mellow Duke Ellington number before launching into the not-so-subtly titled "We Can't Be Friends." By the end of the performance, the two drum majors are dancing like they're possessed, and the band members are prostrate on their backs, bodies undulating. The PA announcer notes at one point: "That's more devastating than Hurricane Irene!"
Seated together in a golf cart at midfield are the principals of the two rivals: Effie Grear of Glades Central and May Gamble of Pahokee. Dressed in the requisite maroon-and-gold jacket and baseball cap, Grear is in her final year before retirement -- and therefore attending her final Muck Bowl at the helm of Glades Central. She is at first diplomatic about the lopsided game, but as the teams get ready to resume play, Grear can't help but take a dig at Pahokee. "We're a second-half team," she notes, erupting in triumphant laughter. "It's true!"
Unfortunately for Blue Devil fans, Grear isn't kidding. As in the first half, Pahokee shows an initial glimmer of hope, collecting a fumble and returning it for an apparent touchdown. But the play is called back because of an illegal forward lateral, and the Pahokee drive stalls. About the only bright spot for the Blue Devils is that they do finally get the ball into Raiders territory, only to throw an interception. At the final whistle, the score is 31-0, although few people are paying attention. Those who remain have turned their attention to postgame plans or to handicapping Glades Central's chances in the upcoming playoffs.
At midfield the Raiders and Blue Devils exchange greetings. There is no spitting in palms or slapped handshaking. Only embraces and smiles -- even from the losers.
Reggie Vickers, Glades Central's all-everything wide receiver, is all smiles after the game. In his final Muck Bowl, Vickers burned the Pahokee defense for 88 yards on three catches, including a pair of long touchdowns. "It was great," he says of the game. "Loud and noisy, just like I thought it would be." By this time next year, Vickers will most likely be playing in front of crowds ten times this size.
Coach Berry, of Glades Central, gathers players from both teams in prayer at midfield. Separation of church and whatever be damned. This is the Muck Bowl. Amen.
Contact Paul Demko at his e-mail address:
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