Pigskin and Sugar Cane
by Armen Zeytoonian
Leroy Foster is a man on a mission.
The head coach of the Pahokee Blue Devils high school football team has one thing on his mind:
Often overlooked in the shadow of traditional Palm Beach county football powerhouses such as Palm Beach Gardens, and neighboring rivals, Glades Central, the small town of Pahokee has quietly built a football dynasty nestled among the sugar cane along the shores of Lake Okeechobee.
“We play the game hard, we play the game by the rules, we play the game the way it’s supposed to be played”, Coach Foster asserted. “We play to bring pride and respect to Pahokee football, our players, their families and this town.”
Since his arrival at Pahokee in 2002, Coach Foster has amassed a 56-6 record and won back-to-back class 2B state championships in 2003 and 2004. Pahokee has won three state championships overall, with the first one coming in 1989 under former head coach Don Thompson, now a Pahokee volunteer assistant.
The 2006 season has been equally as successful for Foster and his squad, as the Blue Devils are off to an 8-0 start and have outscored their opponents by a staggering 358-27, including a 46-0 thrashing of then-#5 ranked (class 5A) Atlantic Community High School (8-1) of Delray Beach. It is the only blemish on Atlantic’s schedule so far in ’06.
In South Florida, we know all about the Atlantic Highs and the Palm Beach Gardens’, the St. Thomas Aquinas’ and the Booker T. Washingtons of the world. But far too few ever turn our attention to the little school on the big lake some 80 miles to the north.
“(Pahokee) has enjoyed so much success and to get so little recognition at the state level makes me a little (emotional)”, laments Foster.
“Coach Foster honors the tradition and the strong pedigree of Pahokee”, said Thompson. “He has a great ability to communicate with his players and he uses his coaching staff well, so that he gets the most out of players and coaches alike. He’s one of us now!”
But it wasn’t always that way.
Leroy Foster’s road to Pahokee had more than a few detours.
He was an assistant coach at Palm Beach Gardens from 1995 to 1998, at Dwyer from 1998 to 2000. Along the way, he applied for different head coaching positions, but found himself on the outside looking in because of a lack of head coaching experience.
He never gave up his dream, although he came close a few times.
“I took off in 2001 for the birth of my child, and I was thinking about quitting the game then. But, every Friday night I was running to the TV to see who beat who!” he says with a chuckle. “I never would have become the coach, and the man, I am today without the support of my wife. I have zero tolerance for (frustrating situations). She always understood how important coaching was to me and continued to push me towards my dreams.”
Foster took care to develop mentors along the way - men that would help him shape his career in coaching. Men like Coach Thompson in Pahokee, Charlie Persons from Jupiter, Pete Walker from Glades and Tim Tharpe, former head coach at Palm Beach Gardens.
In 2002, Foster ran into John Ford, the head coach at Pahokee. Ford had come to the end of the road in a long coaching career and had all but decided to hang up his clipboard.
“Ford told me I should go over to Pahokee and apply, and the next thing I knew, I was head coach of the Blue Devils”, said Foster.
Pahokee football was no mystery to Foster, a student of the Florida high school game. His curiosity about “Glades football” was born at the University of Central Florida, where he played and roomed with Chris “Big Daddy” Cade, who hails from the Glades region.
“The fellas at UCF were always talking about “Glades football this and Glades football that – Clewiston (High School), Glades Central and Pahokee”, Foster tells. “They would get in arguments over who had the best players and who won this Muck Bowl or that Muck Bowl, and I would say to them, “What the heck is the Muck Bowl!”
The Muck Bowl is the annual matchup between Pahokee and Glades Central, and while the game typically has playoff implications, it has an even bigger allure – the winner gets bragging rights along the east coast of the great lake.
The anticipation for the 2006 game is at an all-time high because of the cancellation of the game in 2005 due to Hurricane Wilma and the success this season of Pahokee (8-0) and Glades Central (7-2), the two east lake rivals that participate in the game.
Foster knows what this game means to this community.
He sums it all up with this statement:
“I knew when I came to Pahokee I was walking into a town that was passionate about its football.”
This one word describes how the town of Pahokee feels about high school football.
Pahokee is an agricultural community with a population of about 6500 (2004 census: 6,459) that harkens back to a day when farming communities were the staples in Florida.
Pulling into town along Bacom Point Road, lined with its humble family homes, majestic royal palm trees and rich, black soil painting the foundation of sugar cane fields, one gets a sensation of traveling back in time to a simpler, more peaceful way of life.
Wayne Jarriel is Pahokee’s volunteer assistant trainer and metabolic nutritionist. Jarriel was born in Georgia, but moved to Pahokee as a youth and went to high school at Pahokee High. Coach Jarriel knows Pahokee – the town AND the football.
“Pahokee is a close-knit farming community and for most of these boys - some of whom have never been out of Palm Beach county - football is way out, a way to see the world outside of our little community”, Jarriel says. “But they always come back. Something about this town.”
Jarriel was taught by Thompson - “Coach Thompson was my history teacher in 11th and 12th grade” - among others, about the Pahokee philosophy of using football to lift young men up and give them an opportunity to better themselves socially, economically and educationally.
“Pahokee football is all about team. We keep these boys on the field and off the streets. We develop them in youth leagues from the time they’re 6, 7, 8 years old. Those leagues run the same plays we run at the high school and they become a minor league system for our high school team. All those boys play on those fields with dreams of someday playing for the Blue Devils.”
Pahokee has produced more than its share of quality college and NFL talent, including former New Orleans Saints & San Francisco 49ers linebacker Rickey Jackson, a 6-time Pro Bowl selection, and current Arizona Cardinals wide receiver Anquan Boldin, the latest in a long line of talent produced by the Boldin family.
The players and coaches and men of Pahokee football form a long and proud legacy.
Men like Web Pell (head football coach from 1952 to 1970), Antoine Russell (head coach of track and football from 1974 to 1984) and Don Thompson (head coach from 1984 to 1991, who led the school to its first state title in 1989).
For these men, Pahokee football is in the blood.
“Our town embraces everyone and our football is a reflection of that”, says Thompson, whose son, Blaze, a former Blue Devil player, is a teacher at Pahokee High School and an assistant coach under Foster.
Walk the streets with Thompson and watch in awe as men and women of all ages greet him with a “Hi, Coach” or a “How ya’ doin’ today, Coach”. He stops for a moment to talk football with a young boy and asks another teen how he’s doing in school. Still another gets a hearty, “Make sure to say hello to your mom & dad for me.” Don Thompson has given much to this town and this town makes sure it gives back.
In 1991, Thompson suffered a heart attack and had to give up his head coaching duties at Pahokee. His doctors instructed him to stay away from football because his body could no longer handle the stress.
Jarriel relates a story told by Thompson’s wife Alice of a man “alone at home, miserable without the sounds and smells and action of the game he loved”. Before too long, she realized that, while a heart attack was certainly something to take seriously, life without football was slowly killing her husband, as well. And so, Thompson returned to the team as a volunteer assistant at the school.
Today, he is in the midst of a personal labor of love – he is compiling a history of Pahokee football through sketch boards and posters that hang on the office and locker room walls. The names of former Pahokee greats and the years they played, along with the coaches and records, stand in plain view so that the players of today will have a connection with the teams of yesterday. It is the essence of Pahokee Pride and the history that ties this team and this town together.
Thompson is something of a football visionary, as well. He was among the first men to advocate weight training for high school football players back in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s. He had his own consulting company teaching high school coaches how to leverage weight training to improve their players.
“They all thought I was crazy back then, but just look at them today!”
Before Thompson brought his weights to Pahokee, Coach Russell used to train his players by taking them to a local trucking company to have them load trailers at night. “The boys got a workout and made a little money, too”, Russell tells.
Russell and Thompson joined forces on Russell’s Pahokee coaching staff and they have enjoyed a friendship bound by football and the town they both love ever since. “Coach Russell could be the mayor of Pahokee”, Thompson snorts as he, Jarriel and Russell share a laugh.
Coach Russell tells the story of how Pahokee grabbed him and held on tight.
“I was a running back at Florida A&M and I hurt my knee. I went home to New Orleans after school and was putting together my life there when my wife’s mother took sick down in Pahokee. We went down to take care of her and I never left!”
And now the legacy of these men so committed to Pahokee football has found its way to Leroy Foster.
“I do love football, but there is so much more to it than that”, Foster says. “Coaching gives me an opportunity to touch the lives of these young men. Make a positive impression on them and show them the opportunities available to them.”
On the wall in his office, he keeps a “Wall of Fame” – players he has coached or had other interaction with over the years, who have gone on to success in the game and in life.
He points out one player who used football to get a scholarship to college and tells another tale of three of his players who have achieved academically and athletically at Wake Forest. He is just as proud of Florida State (and former Pahokee) running back Antowan Smith’s ACC Academic All-American Award as he is of his exploits on the gridiron.
Would he like to add to that wall with some names from his current squad?
“As long as my boys are happy, law-abiding and successful in whatever they choose to do, I’m happy!” Foster replies.
Thompson chimes in about how many former Pahokee players are state troopers and police officers and successful businessmen and you begin to get a sense of football as a pathway to developing the young boys of this town, blessed with so much talent, into productive men in the communities they finally call home.
And Coach Foster works hard to teach them many valuable lessons of life, including the principle of earning your rewards. And of not expecting something for nothing.
“We’re big on pecking order here. In other words, you earn your right to play. My seniors, they will play, and I will use all my influence in this game to market them to colleges”, says Foster, as though he is reading you his personal mission statement.
And his players have obviously bought into his philosophies and his systems.
“Coach Foster is the best thing to come along in this town in a long while”, says Thompson.
With two state championships under his belt, Foster and his team have their sights firmly set on #3 in 2006.
But first, there is a little matter of the annual showdown with the Glades Central Raiders at Pahokee High School this Friday night – the famed Muck Bowl.
“I try to keep them focused on one game at a time”, Foster revealed. “THIS game. THIS week.”
For the Pahokee Blue Devils and Coach Leroy Foster, winning "THIS game, THIS week" will be one more brick in the road as they travel to that elusive place called R-E-S-P-E-C-T.
Armen Zeytoonian is an author and freelance writer covering high school football for the (South Florida) Sun-Sentinel newspaper.