Belle Glade, Florida: Football, Sugar Cane… and, “How Fast Does a Rabbit Run?”

By on July 14, 2010

Under the welcome sign to Belle Glade reads “Her Soil is Her Fortune.” I had no clue as to what this meant or any predilection as to what experiences awaited me as I drove in. This small city, nestled on the southeastern shore of Lake Okeechobee–and a stone’s throw from the subterranean Everglade– is not what it appears to be. Belle Glade, with a population of just over 16,000, and Pahokee, with a population of around 6,000, comprise the area known as Muck City. The “muck” in Muck City is slang for the dark, mucky, mineral-rich soil in which the sugar cane grows. Muck City is struggling financially in these lean economic times, but not spiritually.

[media-credit name=”Courtesy James Lee Family” align=”alignnone” width=”300″][/media-credit]

James is surprised by Mayor Steve Wilson (background, white shirt) and the Proclaimation, Miami Hurricane Damien Berry looks on with a big smile.

It all began on Saturday June 12, 2010, at nine in the morning. I work with John Owens, an NFL agent. Our purpose for traveling to Belle Glade was to support John’s client, James Lee of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. James was holding a charity football camp that morning for the youth of Belle Glade and invited John and me to attend (and no we did not bring our cleats, although I did note a wistful gleam in John’s eyes). This event was the first of its kind in Belle Glade because James, who loves Belle Glade with all his heart, wanted to give back to a community that gave so much to him. It was a goal of James’ long before he made the NFL to help the youth of Belle Glade. What surprised me most was that this was not a just a football camp, but a community event held with the deepest civic pride imaginable. One of the first people I met was Elaine Bain, to whom I was introduced by John. Elaine is James’ mom. It all made sense now– James growing up in Belle Glade, graduating from South Carolina State with a Bachelors Degree in Family Consumer Services, and then making it to the NFL. Shortly after the event began, Elaine was up on stage with the microphone in her hand. In less than 15 minutes, I could see the immense respect this whole community had for Elaine Bain. Her message was clear: drop everything and report front and center to the stage. She wanted players, young athletes, sponsors, guest, spectators. Everybody. Immediately. Now! I could not make my way to the stage fast enough. I did not want to disrespect  Ms. Bain. She welcomed everyone and then introduced Mayor Steve Wilson, who opened the festivities with an official mayoral welcome. Next city commissioner William Grear, Jr. was handed the microphone.

Commissioner Grear read the following Proclamation:

WHEREAS, James Lee, son of James Lee Sr. and Elaine Bain, was born on August 17, 1985, in the City of Belle Glade; and

WHEREAS James Lee graduated from Glades Central Community High School and continued his education by graduating from South Carolina State University with a degree in Family Consumer Science, where he also played college football; and

WHEREAS, in 2008, James Lee was sign on by the Cleveland Browns as an undrafted free agent; and

WHEREAS, James Lee is currently an offensive tackle with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers of the National Football League; and

WHEREAS this 6’4”, 305 pound giant of a man has a heart of gold, as he desires to hold fast his roots by spearheading the

“Muck City Fest”

a free football camp for ages 7-17 at Lakeshore Park on Saturday, June 12, 2010; and

WHEREAS, a man of this stature, taking time from his personal commitments and responsibilities, returns home to unselfishly give back to his community, deserves special recognition.

NOW, THEREFORE, I, Steve B. Wilson, Mayor of the City of Belle Glade, Florida, by virtue of authority vested in me, do hereby proclaim the second Saturday in June 2010 as

“James Lee Day”

in the City of Belle Glade, and I extend heartfelt appreciation for your love and devotion to our community and its people. Furthermore, may God continue to bless you as you go forth setting an example for others to follow.

SIGNED AND PROCLAIMED this 12th day of June 2010,
CITY OF BELLE GLADE, FLORIDA
Signed, Steve B. Wilson, Mayor
Attest, Debra R. Buff, CMC City Clerk

[media-credit name=”Robert Vickers” align=”alignnone” width=”200″][/media-credit]

James takes time to sign a shirt for a young fan.

It was official. My lesson had begun. I, the student, was ready. And the teacher, Belle Glade, had arrived. What I learned was that Belle Glade has a deep-rooted passion for its community and that this community lives and breathes high-school football. Many mom-and-pop businesses raised a lot of money to support their special native son James Lee this day. I also learned that a community does not need much in the way of amenities to foster cohesion: there are no fancy malls, hotels, or stadiums. Yet, there is family closeness, community pride, and especially high-school football. I recently had the pleasure of speaking with Elaine Bain and asked her what this particular day meant to her. She stated, “I was so proud because this day finally arrived. You see James, in the 10th grade, had set a goal to do this someday. James told me, ‘Mom, I want to make it to the NFL someday, and when I do I will come back to Belle Glade and put on a football camp for the kids.’ I told James the way to do that is to stay on the honor roll and get into a major university.” Elaine went on to share with me that she told James if he worked hard and concentrated on school, major universities would come calling.

I asked Mayor Steve Wilson what this day meant to the community. He stated, “By all means when people who come from the Glades go out, make something of themselves, and come back to give to the
community like James did, you could not ask for anything better. James has set precedence for giving back to our community. I could never say thank you enough.” When I spoke with Mayor Wilson it was three weeks after the event, and he said, “It’s still the talk of the town. The kids loved it.”

[media-credit name=”Robert Vickers” align=”alignnone” width=”300″][/media-credit]

MUCK CITY FEST,that Rabbit looks fast!

Being both a college- and professional-football fan–especially in the Sunshine State–one would know the talent and deep tradition of Muck City. Three high schools are within nine miles of each other, surrounded by sugar cane fields, and all mucked up. Glades Central, Glades Day, and Pahokee have enough football talent to keep college football scouts busy forever. But one never truly feels the passion of a region until totally immersed in a community’s football pride. Just watching for a moment, one notices the young athletes and the special talent they possess. The Muck City legend started years ago when young men would chase rabbits for money. According to legendary high school Coach Will McDonald, the rabbits would bring in fifty cents apiece and a dollar if cleaned. He said the extra 50 cents was a big difference back then. As the years passed young men continued chasing rabbits and superior, elusive athletic skills developed. I surmised if a player can catch a rabbit, then eluding a defender on the grid iron would be effortless, especially while running through the muddy “Muck” of the sugar cane fields. I asked James if he chased rabbits. He looked at me with a smile of an 8-year old in a candy store and said simply, “Yes Rick, I chased rabbits.”

[media-credit name=”Robert Vickers” align=”alignnone” width=”300″][/media-credit]

Standing L-R: Brad Banks, James Lee, Chandler Williams, Cerge Sincere, unidentified player. Front row on left: Damien Berry and Emanuel Cook with a young fan.

The NFL has had players past and present from Muck City: Fred Taylor, Ray McDonald (grandson of Coach Will McDonald), Reidel Anthony, James Jackson, Santonio Holmes, Willie Jones, Robert Newkirk, Anquan Bolden, and Andre Waters, just to name a few. College rosters across America are speckled with Muck City players, especially here in Florida. It is not surprising why such a region has produced such talent. From one happenstance day back in June, I learned something I will never forget. Tradition and pride offer more than riches can ever offer. I now understand why for Belle Glade “Her Soil is Her Fortune.” And this is why Belle Glade will always hold a special place in my heart.

Below are some Muck City players at Florida schools that I suggest keeping an eye on in 2010.

Miami Hurricanes

WR #3 Travis Benjamin, Glades Central – Travis is a top receiver with great speed and hands. Travis should find pay dirt a lot this year. In 2009 he had 29 catches for 501 yards with 4 TDs. He is a big-game guy with his 4 TDs coming against FSU, Oklahoma, Clemson, and Wake Forest.

RB # 20 Damien Berry, Glades Central – Damien should have a high impact in the backfield and be a favorite for All-ACC. In 2009 he carried the ball 93 times for 616 yards with 8 TDs.

Florida Gators

WR #6 Deonte Thompson, Glades Central – Keep an eye on this guy. His 24 receptions with 343 yards and 4 TDs should improve this year.

CB #1 Janoris Jenkins, Pahokee – Janoris should be listed as the # 1 CB this year, even though according to the UF athletic department, the official depth chart is not out yet.

UCF Knights

S #25 Jarrett Swaby, Glades Day – Jarrett was a red-shirt freshman last year, and according to the UCF athletics department, he is currently 2-deep on the chart and should contribute greatly this year.

USF Bulls

RB # 20 Aston Samuels, Glades Central – Aston is expected to battle back from an injury and will be a part of the Bulls roster this fall.

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