crw September Football Saturday -
September 12, 2009 - Football Saturday 4-m-
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
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 kitch-
en 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 "Ter-
minator: Salvation" (a movie that would not come out
ifs theaters for another week) to Pahokee High School
football highlight tapes, which the owner is particu-
larly 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, sup-
posed 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 beenblank. 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 suffer=
ing 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 Paho-
It's hard to imagine a place in America where chil-
dren 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 champion-
ships 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 prob-
ably 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 seri-
ous weapons like the AK-47s, teenagers will drive pick-
up trucks into the front of a gun store, load the bed with
as much as they can grab ina 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
But when Pahokee football and Pahokee gangsters
do butt heads, it can rock the community, which has
invested so much - physically, emotionally and spiritu-
ally - 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
"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
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 Com-
missioner 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 youngerbrother'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 vio-
lent 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 Michi-
gan. It was the perfect Saturday for the freshman line-
backer to make the trip north. A hint of summer still
hung in the fall air on a crisp afternoon, perfect condi-
tions for a football game in the Big House.
He saw the Sooth 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 Sta-
dium and Main as the reason Hawthorne chose Michi-
gan. 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 hos-
pital 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 accord-
ing 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
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., akid who came through the
Rec Center with Coach James and everyone else. He
"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 hospi-
tal's waiting room and adamantly deciding against fly-
ing 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 hap-
pened," 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, Haw-
thorne knew Michigan could give him the opportunity
to "raise my daughter and be the father to her that my
father was never to me."
See PAHOKEE, page 7B
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 foot-
ball 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.
(CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT)(1) Dark skies loom at one of
Pahokee's 20 allotted spring practices. (2) Downtown Pahokee,
just down the road from the shore of Lake Okeechobee. (3) Paho-
kee defensive coordinator Rick James shows off a few of his
championship rings. (4) Florida State commit De'Joshua Johnson
jogs out to practice. (5) Players resting after a tough practice.