Football only escape from Fla. mean fields
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Santonio Holmes slipped into his sweats after practice yesterday, the final one before the Steelers' much-coveted off week, and said he would be trying to make it home on the weekend. Just not all the way home.
Holmes heard about Pooh Griffith last week, because news out of Belle Glade, Fla., travels at the same rate as many of its scores of gifted footballers, most all of them quicker and more elusive than a hot Florida breeze.
Pooh Griffith is dead, the seventh kid shot in the ever-desperate tension along the southeast rim of Lake Okeechobee, the second to die in the perpetuating cycle of violence that is backdrop to the football rivalry between Glades Central High of Belle Glade and Pahokee High, just eight miles farther north in the muck of Palm Beach County's inland sugar cane fields.
"I'm glad my kids don't live there anymore," Holmes said. "My mom moved away now too, so there's not much point in me spending a lot of time in Belle Glade."
Holmes rejects the notion, advanced in the week after Griffith's bullet-riddled body was pulled out of a car leaving a school dance, that the Pahokee-Glades Central football rivalry exacerbates the madness.
"I don't think that's it at all," said the sleek third-year wideout. "The violence is mostly the other kids, not the football players. They don't have any opportunity to do anything else but be in gangs. Football is the only way out. That area has no choice but to continue holding football above everything else."
At the urging of Griffith's family, his funeral was postponed until after last week's televised game between Pahokee and Byrnes High School, a powerhouse from South Carolina. Griffith lived in Belle Glade, but played for Pahokee because his father lived there. The Pahokee-Glades Central game, scheduled again for a Friday night in early November, might now be moved to daylight in an evident concession to fear.
That's the signature football event they call the Muck Bowl, which annually draws a small horde of college recruiters and even pro scouts. Holmes played in it, as did Jacksonville's Fred Taylor (Holmes' second cousin), as did Anquan Boldin of the Arizona Cardinals, as did Ray McDonald of the San Francisco 49ers, as did former NFLers such as Andre Waters, Reidel Anthony, Jessie Hester, and many others on into the dozens. In that part of Florida, the state championship game is a nicety; the Muck Bowl is life and death, a term used all too advisedly.
According to The Associated Press in Florida, the gun that killed Pahokee linebacker and tight end Griffith was found last week in the home of another kid who had been arrested on charge of shooting Glades Central cornerback Byron Blake.
"We were recruiting Griffith and another kid on that team," Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt said yesterday. "We were going to wait and see how their season went before we went any further. Ricky Gary's dad is the defensive coordinator at Pahokee. He brought all those kids up here for three days this summer, including Griffith. They were at our camp in June. We had them workout, do some 7-on-7's against Thomas Jefferson."
Like Holmes, Wannstedt had a hard time imagining that the football rivalry was only intensifying the desperation in an area where more than a third of the people subsist below the poverty line and where HIV has one of the highest concentrations in the state.
"I would like to think not," Wannstedt said. "You can go anywhere in the country and you can have fierce rivalries, and does it sometimes lead to violence, yes. But not like the situation you're talking about there."
Generations of abject poverty in an area where field work is essentially the only option has created a warped understanding of hope, much less opportunity.
"It was very tough and football was the only thing we had to look forward to," said Holmes. "Anyone we knew who was successful was a football player. There was never anybody we knew that you could say, 'He's mayor of this,' or 'He's a Congressman.'
"Me and Fred [Taylor], we've been talkin' about it, trying to think of something we can do. And Anquan, he does what he can do. We're talking about starting a football camp or having a toy drive, things like that. There are things that we can get accomplished there for young people."
Like too many places, Belle Glade and Pahokee simply have too few benefactors. The schools that were in a position to rescue a player like Pooh Griffith, the way Pitt did with Pahokee's Ricky Jackson a generation ago, can't remain the only way out. The sad charade of a job fair that is the Muck Bowl is only one day a year. Now Griffith can't even go to that. Investigators think he was shot over a necklace.
First Published October 9, 2008 12:00 am