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Authors: Bryan Mealer

Muck City

BOOK: Muck City
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Copyright © 2012 by Bryan Mealer

All rights reserved.
Published in the United States by Crown Archetype, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc., New York.

Crown Archetype with colophon is a trademark of Random House, Inc.

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Mealer, Bryan.
Muck city / by Bryan Mealer.
p.   cm.
1. Football—Florida—Belle Glade—History. 2. High school football players—Florida—Belle Glade—History. 3. Belle Glade (Fla.)—History. 4. Belle Glade (Fla.)—Social conditions. 5. Belle Glade (Fla.)—Economic conditions. I. Title.
GV959.52.B45 2012

eISBN: 978-0-307-88864-8

Jacket design by Michael Nagin
Jacket photograph: Gary Coronado
/Palm Beach Post


To Nolan,
Evelyn, and
Ann Marie


Do or die
Better not cry
We shall win
They shall die
Kill! Kill! Kill! Kill

—Raider pregame chant


f there was ever a moment to look back upon and remember the love of a town, it was tonight under the lights of Effie C. Grear Field, when all of Belle Glade came out for the Jet.

In a halftime ceremony on homecoming night, Jessie Lee Hester stood on the fifty-yard line and gazed into a familiar crowd. His team, the Glades Central Raiders, was already ahead by thirty-four points—a throwaway game in a march toward another winning season. But tonight’s ceremony wasn’t about winning and losing. It was about honoring a man who’d come home himself and, long before doing so, had returned some dignity to this blighted lakeside town.

To everyone in the stands, he was known as Jet, the local kid who’d found his way into one of the most elite fraternities in the world, leaving an opening for hundreds of others. And as with many cheering from the bleachers tonight, his history was their own.

He’d grown up among poor migrants: the Jamaicans, Haitians, and African Americans who worked the black muck in one of the most fertile corners of the earth. He’d lived alongside them in the teeming boardinghouses in Belle Glade’s “Colored Town,” one of six children piled atop one another in a two-room apartment that lacked its own toilet. His mother, Zara, left her brood each morning at four thirty for whatever field was in
harvest, and didn’t return until late, bent-backed and exhausted, her heavy sleep filling the soupy darkness. Two siblings had been born with autism, and with no father in the house, their care had fallen on Jessie and his older brother Roger. Back in those days there was never enough food, and Jessie remembers once having awakened at school surrounded by his peers after falling out of his desk from hunger. His willowy arms still bore the scars where his field knife had missed the stalk, his mind so hazy from fatigue during long hours in the vegetable rows. To the surprise of many, he would insist that his childhood had been happy, simply because in Belle Glade he’d seen nothing better.

As a high school track star and wide receiver, he could sprint forty yards in 4.2 seconds. Roger was even faster, but he played in the band. And if you believed everything you heard in Belle Glade, neither boy could be called the
fastest ever
. For the graveyards were filled with the bones of all those who’d ever been christened
the greatest
—Friday-night legends such as James Otis Benjamin, Rosailious Hughley, C. W. Haynes—their destinies cut short by common fallibility and a childhood not likely described as happy.

In addition to speed, Hester was blessed with shrewdness. He’d avoided pitfalls: He never smoked or drank or chased women he knew he couldn’t outrun. Decades later, his former teammate and future Hall of Famer Isaac Bruce would describe him as one of the most intuitive route runners he’d ever seen play the game. As a young man in Belle Glade, Hester had spied the hidden lanes in the canefields and slipped quietly into the light.

Everyone still remembers the crowd of recruiters and coaches that used to camp outside Zara’s house. They remember when Bobby Bowden marched through the front door, grabbed a Coke from the fridge, and announced to the other coaches seated in the living room that “Jessie’s
boy.” He was All-American at Florida State, then, to the shock of everyone back home, taken in the first round of the 1985
draft, number twenty-three, just south of Jerry Rice and William “the Refrigerator” Perry.

It was the first time that Belle Glade had been associated with anything more than sugarcane, black poverty, or disease—the same month as the draft, the town made international headlines when researchers discovered it had the highest rate of AIDS in the world. When Jessie Hester declared himself a Los Angeles Raider, Belle Glade felt a cool wash of redemption. Then the floodgates opened.

In the years that followed, there would be scores of others to enter the league from Belle Glade and Pahokee, the rival town just eight miles across the canefields. Over time it would be hard to watch a game on Sunday and not find a player from the muck. But out of all the young men who made it, who tasted the cream in the faraway places where money and education could now take them, very few came home. Judging from the term papers Jessie composed in college describing his room in Zara’s house (“My room at home is sunflower yellow. My mother made me matching curtains and a spread …”), to the way he’d suddenly appear during off-seasons, parting Avenue E like Moses in a red Mercedes—it was as if he’d spent his whole career just waiting to get back.

“After ten years in the NFL,” the announcer said over the public-address system, “he returned to give back to the youth of his hometown, which he loves.”

A statue in the shape of a football helmet was revealed atop the press box, emblazoned with Hester’s legendary number, 42, now being retired. Cheers erupted from the stands. Flanked by his wife, Lena, and two of their three sons, he stared back through the familiar light, returning the love with the smile the town had come to know. It was the smile he’d given every woman who’d ever fed him as a child, to every man not his father who’d ever praised him in the form of advice—
watch that middle gap, Jet, you know how you do it
. And it was the smile the few whites left in Belle Glade would remember when later asked to describe him.

“He was the best those folks ever had,” one man said, then added, “It’s a shame what they did to him.”

Looking closely now at that smile, there was nothing behind the eyes that seemed to betray it, nothing that resembled distrust. The Jet was still running his routes, unaware the lanes were slowly closing around him.

ne of the greatest high school football programs in America, one that has supplied the NFL with an average of one prospect per year, does not have a booster club. There is no team bus or multimillion-dollar stadium in which they play. There are no parents who volunteer their time for raffle drawings and car washes, or to decorate the windows of Main Street on game days. There are no steak nights or bumper stickers, and no water tower or welcome sign along the highway that boasts of their achievements.

So it was little surprise that on a sweltering football field in Tallahassee, Florida, where the temperature soared above a hundred degrees, the Glades Central Raiders did not even have their own water.

It was early August, and the Raiders had traveled six hours north to the campus of Florida State University for an off-season “seven-on-seven” tournament against some of the best high school teams in the South. The glorified touch football games—usually twenty minutes long and played
without pads—were primarily a showcase for passing offenses, which were a specialty in a state that consistently produced speedy skill players. In recent years they’d also become one of the chief exhibitions for college coaches and recruiters to eyeball the current crop of talent. For elite teams such as the Raiders, the invitations to such tournaments now filled the summer months.

That afternoon at Florida State, twelve games were scheduled in a round robin. During a lull between matchups, the boys from Belle Glade appeared exhausted. At the motel the night before, most had stayed up until dawn playing video games. They’d overslept, missed breakfast, and forced the team to arrive late, barely escaping disqualification. They’d also arrived without enough uniforms, forcing players to strip off their sweat-soaked jerseys and share.

Now, along the sidelines, they were wilted and starving. As other teams rested under giant tents bearing their school logos, enjoying sandwiches and cold Gatorade, about ten Raiders squeezed under the skinny shadow of a light pole—the only shade they could find—and split a bag of M&Ms.

For the Raiders, the tournament at FSU was only their second appearance since suffering a humiliating loss the previous season in the state 2A championship, a defeat that still hung like swamp gas over the Glades. Worse, at the end of the school year they’d graduated twenty-two seniors off the title-seeking roster, and twenty-eight the year before. For most teams, it would take years to recover a loss of that many starters. By all estimates, the Raiders entered Tallahassee a team looking for direction, testing whatever talents remained in hopes of a decent season.

But, as the saying went in Belle Glade, “The Raiders don’t rebuild, they just reload.”

That afternoon, under a cloudless sky with the sun burning white hot, the arsenal was on full display. The Raiders had entered two teams in the tournament, one of starters and one of reserves. By the end of the afternoon, the two squads were undefeated and barely missed meeting each other in the championship round.

As the Raiders’ starting seven dominated Miami’s Booker T. Washington High School, crowds of parents, coaches, and recruiters soon formed to watch the electrifying show and, in particular, a blue-chip wide receiver who’d arrived that morning one of the most heavily recruited high school athletes in the nation. Reporters had nicknamed him “Treetop.” The recruiters who routinely crowded the Glades Central practice field had their own term:

BOOK: Muck City
13.35Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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