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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. Smith, Odoms and Hawthorne have known each other since they were small children. They’ve played football together since age eight. Smith dated Hawthorne’s sister when they were 10 years old. And through it all, the three players have worked toward an eventual common goal — a scholarship to the University of Michigan.

But when Pahokee football and Pahokee gangsters do butt heads, it can rock the community, which has invested so much — physically, emotionally and spiritually — in its Blue Devils.

James — who’s at the local Rec Center helping kids whenever he’s not on the football field drilling them — remembered, with a heavy sigh and teary eyes, Leonard Pitts, an electrifying running back that played in the early 2000s.

“He was one of the most gifted athletes I’ve ever seen,” James said. “But I could drive you ‘round these streets right now and point out 10, 15 guys that should be playing in the NBA or NFL right now and didn’t make smart choices.”

Somewhere along the line, Pitts’s God-given abilities on the field weren’t enough, and he started mixing with the wrong people in Palm Beach County. His grades slipped and he left the football team. He eventually stopped showing up to school altogether. A week before James recalled this story, he briefly caught up with Pitts — as the former running back painted the County Commissioner building with his fellow prisoners.

In 2004, Pitts was arrested on first-degree battery charges, and he has been in jail since. But he might be the lucky one. According to James, someone shoved a shotgun in Pitts’s younger brother’s mouth and blew the back of his head onto the pavement. One of Pitts’s older brothers is dead, too — another victim of the West Palm Beach gang community, one of the most hostile and violent in the United States.

If Pitts had stayed with the Blue Devils, who knows where he’d be today. With Pahokee’s track record — one look at a Youth League photo from 10 years ago reveals eight or nine current Division-I players — it’s easy to imagine a better life for such a gifted athlete.

“That’s how we save them from the gangs — the game of football,” James said.

But sometimes, football isn’t enough.

On Sept. 27, 2008, Brandin Hawthorne was in Ann Arbor for an official visit before committing to Michigan. It was the perfect Saturday for the freshman linebacker to make the trip north. A hint of summer still hung in the fall air on a crisp afternoon, perfect conditions for a football game in the Big House.

He saw the 500th game in Michigan Stadium history, one that will hang in fans’ minds for years to come — a 19-point comeback over Wisconsin in the most exciting game of the season.

Some might point to the energy on the corner of Stadium and Main as the reason Hawthorne chose Michigan. Others might say it was the immaculate facilities or enthusiastic meetings with members of the team and coaching staff. But none of that was on Hawthorne’s mind that day. Hours before his flight, he sat in a hospital waiting room with Pahokee head coach Blaze Thompson and the mother of one of his best friends, Norman “Pooh” Griffith.

That Friday, Pahokee had beaten Jupiter High School 34-10. It was a big night for Pooh — he was named the team’s Most Valuable Player after the game, and according to James, Iowa State had called to give him a full-ride scholarship offer that day. To celebrate, Pooh went to a dance at Glades Central High School, the Blue Devils’ fiercest rival. There was a scuffle when people found out Pooh, one of Pahokee’s best players, was at the dance. Pooh did what he was supposed to, exactly what Pahokee coaches preach to their kids from youth club football to high school. He left at the first whiff of trouble.

As his car was leaving the parking lot, six shots were fired from at least two guns. Pooh died later that night.

There’s an 18-year-old sitting in jail for the shooting. His name is Carl Booth Jr., a kid who came through the Rec Center with Coach James and everyone else. He knew Pooh, was friends with Pooh. He is the son of the director of The Pahokee Church of God, Pooh's church.

He had tried out for the Pahokee High School football team for the 2007 season. Even though the staff doesn’t like to cut players — the more kids they can help, the more that stay off the streets — they had to trim the roster out of necessity.

Booth didn’t make it.

“It kills me dead, man. It kills me dead,” James said. “It hurts for the simple reason that, you can’t save them all. For some, it’s not going to happen. And this is what happens when you don’t do all you can for these kids. It’s a tragedy.”

And there was Hawthorne, exhausted from the game and the swell of emotions, sitting in the hospital’s waiting room and adamantly deciding against flying to Michigan. He had already softly committed to the school. He was comfortable with the program but wasn’t 100-percent set, and felt that being with Pooh’s family was much more important.

But Pooh's mother Jackie and the Pahokee coaching staff convinced him to go.

“When I got (to Michigan), they knew what happened,” Hawthorne said. “They embraced me. They asked me if I needed anything. They asked me how I was feeling. It was great. They took me in like I was already here, a player already here.”

To make Hawthorne feel even more like a family member, the Michigan coaches promised he could wear No. 7, Pooh’s old jersey number.

“I was telling his parents, ‘When I get to college, I’m going to wear No. 7 and dedicate it to Pooh,’ and I kept my word,” Hawthorne said. “It’s a great feeling to wear No. 7, because when I wear it, I feel like he’s looking down on me, like, ‘You gotta do it for me.’ ”

Hawthorne was home. He committed and enrolled early. It was hard to move to Ann Arbor and leave his one-year-old daughter, Brandi, behind. But with a good education and a chance to play at the next level, Hawthorne knew Michigan could give him the opportunity to “raise my daughter and be the father to her that my father was never to me.”

The way the linebacker was treated by Michigan bolstered the bond between a college football powerhouse and a small town in Florida that, even after all it has gotten from football, would never take the sport for granted.

But that relationship had to start somewhere.

The Pahokee-Michigan connection began, in many ways, almost 15 years ago, when a young Martavious Odoms displayed all of the characteristics Michigan coach Rich Rodriguez, who first started recruiting the area while still at West Virginia, looks for in a slot receiver.

As a kid, Odoms was, and still is, small for his age, shifty, strong and fast.

“I used to tell him, ‘You know no one can outrun you in Pahokee,’ ” said his mother, Gloria.

That’s quite a statement when you’re in Muck City, where the kids have a well-documented tradition of chasing and catching rabbits with their bare hands.

To this day, the sophomore wide receiver says people underestimate him because of his 5-foot-9 frame, but when he was little, his grade-school friends Jay, Keevie and Shorty Redhead just made fun of him.

After a while, like any kid, Odoms had enough of the jeers about his height. So one day, he and Gloria devised a plan.

“I used to tell him, ‘Look here. When they’re talking, you shut them up. When they’re talking, this is all you got to do: you hit them first, and I’ll be home,’ ” Gloria said. “I said, ‘You know they can’t catch you. Run. All you gotta do is make it here, and I’ll be in this house.’ ”

The next time someone made fun of him, Odoms jumped up, hit the kid square in the nose and sprinted home, panting on the safe side of the Odoms’ front door. Other than punching his boyhood friends — and even that was at the request of his mother — Odoms was a “good, humble child … like a little man,” according to Gloria.

But even the best can’t always resist temptation. Gloria remembers three straight nights during Odoms’s high school years when the receiver broke curfew. Gloria was afraid that her son might be hanging around the wrong people in The Projects, a neighborhood right around the corner from his home.

So Gloria called Coach James, who came over immediately.

“Rick James, he don’t play,” Gloria said. “I was like, ‘Oh, Lord. Don’t talk to my boy that rough,’ but I left and went out the house. But after that, he didn’t break curfew no more. No more.”

Added Odoms: “Coach J, all the coaches pretty much love us like we’re their own child, so they take care of us a little bit and try to, like, make sure we’re doing the right thing.”

When his senior year rolled around, schools around the country took note of Odoms’s stellar work ethic and behavior — but what they really craved was his 4.5 40-yard time. Unfortunately for him, Odoms’s dream school, Miami, thought that speed could be used on the track.

“We thought they insulted him when they walked into our office with a damn track scholarship for Martavious,” James said. “And the reason I say that is because they had already offered a lot of receivers from Miami-Northwestern (High School) that I know can’t hold Martavious’s jockstrap.”

Michigan saw his football talent, and the tight-knit Pahokee football community respected the school for giving him a chance.

But it’s about more than just football. When Rodriguez came to Pahokee to visit with freshman Vincent Smith’s family, the running back’s cousin, Tyrone, stopped by the house to meet the coach.

His son, Tyrone Jr., tagged along, and when Rodriguez met him, he ruffled Tyrone Jr.’s hair a little, smiled and joked, “Is he the next Vincent Smith? We might as well give him a scholarship already.”

It was a small gesture, but in Pahokee — where the high school principal banned Tennessee coach Lane Kiffin from school grounds after Kiffin made some unkind comments about the town — it means a lot to see a coach who genuinely cares about the kids.

The bond is there — and it seems to be there to stay. When the Odoms family visited last Saturday for the home opener against Western Michigan, friends and Pahokee football fans gave them money so they could bring back Michigan T-shirts and hats.

“I can almost all but guarantee you that Michigan is going to land some more of our kids,” James said. “Martavious has set the tone. Michigan, on the other hand, has given them a justified chance to get out there and play, to turn that program around.”

It’s a warm spring afternoon in the local Rec Center, and students, most of them athletes, are already starting to trickle in. By 8 p.m., the brand-new computer lab will be full to capacity; the library, which currently holds just a few shelves of books, will house kids studying for finals; and a group of Pahokee football players will pack into a small recording studio to cut rap songs to be used as study guides. The gym will be full of kids who would rather play basketball or lift weights in the infamous “House of Pain” with the solid Rec Center support staff than go outdoors.

But for now, the building is dominated by a group of senior citizens, almost all of whom have grandsons playing either college or professional football, enjoying a game of Bingo in the back room. Here on the shore of Lake Okeechobee, a winning card in the ladies’ game seems more out-of-the-ordinary than a full-ride scholarship to play football.

James says hello to all the women. This is his haven — after nearly 15 years, he can’t count the number of kids he has helped escape the streets of Palm Beach County. He realizes that he can’t help them all, but, in spite of everything surrounding him, he remains optimistic about the city’s future.

In fact, Pahokee’s success on the football field in the last 10 years seems to be having a positive effect on the youth community.

“The kids that don’t play football now see the kids that play football and are getting the opportunity to get out of Pahokee,” James said. “It’s like a domino effect. Kids that don’t play football are trying to get their education so they can get up outta here.”

He even says one of the kids he helped tutor at the Rec Center has earned a full-ride scholarship to the University of Florida this year — not for athletics, but for academics.

But as much pride as James takes in the Rec Center’s educational guidance programs, his heart will always be in Pahokee football. Last January, Pahokee native Janoris Jenkins, then a starting freshman cornerback at Florida, invited James to the BCS National Championship game, all expenses paid.

For Jenkins, one of Odoms’s best friends growing up, and every other player that’s ever donned the blue-and-red, it’s not about football. It’s about life, death and suiting up for a town that doesn’t have anything but football to cling to.

But mostly, it’s about earning a future — at Michigan or otherwise.

“Sitting there with Janoris’s dad and mom and first cousin, watching him come out of that tunnel, hearing them introduce him, seeing him play on that level, I got teary-eyed,” James said. “It brings back memories of all the hard work, just trying to make sure these kids stay in line, to the point where they put themselves in position to be on that grand stage. And to see one of the ones that I coached from a baby, to see him in this grand finale, it just — tears of joy. I mean, National Championship. Janoris Jenkins, from the good ole town of Pahokee.”


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