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2009-09-11

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LIFE, DEATH AND FOOTBALL: The story of an unlikely bond between two football powerhouses

Photo by Max Collins; Design by Lan Truong
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BY ANDY REID
Daily Sports Editor
Published September 9, 2009

PAHOKEE, Fla. — It’s not quite summer, but the first twangs of the dog days are already snaking through the warm spring months. It’s hard to escape the heat in a place like this, and although its endearing residents affectionately call it “Muck City,” the ground and air are dry and thick with chalky dust.

Dusk is just beginning to set in as we walk into a small, square, grey box of a house. It’s across the street from one of the most dangerous areas in town, and we have been repeatedly told not to be outside after dark. We walk through the tile-floored living room and kitchen and into a cramped bedroom.

The floor, bed, desk, nightstand and every other flat surface in the room are all covered in a thick layer of rewritable DVDs, anything from "Superbad" to "Terminator: Salvation" (a movie that would not come out in theaters for another week) to Pahokee High School football highlight tapes, which the owner is particularly proud of.

He pops in one of the myriad discs. It’s a guerrilla-style video called “Palm Beach County: Gangstas and Thugs.” Local gun-toting gang members flash across the screen, beating each other senseless and shooting AK-47s into the air.

“That’s my cousin; he’s in jail,” he says pointing, to the screen. “Oh, and that kid’s dead. He was 17.”

Every five minutes or so, a new customer wanders unannounced into this makeshift Blockbuster and sifts through the pile of ripped movies. One acts surprised when he pulls out his wallet and finds that it’s empty.

“Don’t even worry about it — just pay me back later,” the owner says.

It’s not about the money with an operation like this. Sure, it’s illegal, but what are the residents of this small, flailing farm town, where the median family income is almost $25,000 below the national average, supposed to do? There’s one movie theater along a decrepit strip of buildings, the only area that could remotely be described as “downtown.” Its windows are boarded up tightly, and one can only guess how long the marquee has been blank. The next closest cinema is in Clewiston, Fla., more than a 40-minute car ride away.

Not that many Pahokee residents could afford a trip to the movies, anyway. Vast sugarcane fields surround the town, and when United Sugar closed its Pahokee-based plant about five years ago, it took away a major lifeline, according to city commissioner Susan Feltner. Many people left, and those who stayed are still suffering through an even more crippled economy.

“A lot of these kids hardly ever leave Palm Beach County, and a lot of them haven’t even been 45 miles east to West Palm, to the beach,” Pahokee defensive coordinator Rick James said. “So all they know is Pahokee.”

It’s hard to imagine a place in America where children can’t see movies. Or go bowling. Or hang out at the mall, eat French fries with friends at a Burger King, play mini-golf or go to a skating rink. But for Martavious Odoms, Vincent Smith and Brandin Hawthorne — three members of the Michigan football team — that was life.

Without the normal childhood distractions, Pahokee natives have two options:

One is dedicating your life to the high school football team, which has won five of the last six state championships and could see as many as 14 seniors earn Division-I scholarships this year, and Michigan is in the hunt for many of those kids.

The other isn’t so promising.

Former Pahokee coach Don Thompson, who earned a scholarship to The Citadel after playing for the Blue Devils in his heyday, said it best:

“You know, if it wasn’t for Pahokee football, I’d probably be in jail or prison somewhere.”

Local gangs recruit boys as young as 12. At that age, kids are used as “jitterbugs,” transferring weapons and money from one party to another. It’s safer for the thugs and raises fewer red flags with the police.

Once you get into it, it’s hard to get out.

“There’s nothing to do here,” Jawarski Boui, Smith’s half-brother, said. “It’s easy to get into smoking weed, robbing, they even started killing around here.”

Boui said that in order to stock up on the more serious weapons like the AK-47s, teenagers will drive pickup trucks into the front of a gun store, load the bed with as much as they can grab in a few minutes and speed off to a safehouse.

Rarely do the Pahokee Blue Devils — who attract the entire 6,500-person town on game days — and the area’s gang life interact. Instead, the football team bands together.