Editor's note: This story originally appeared in the April 9th issue of ESPN The Magazine.
"Why are these guys so fast? Everybody says the same thing. You know what the tale is?"
-- Bobby Bowden
Drive out there. Get off the interstate, put Palm Beach, Orlando or Miami in your rearview and keep going until the road ends at the horizon and the telephone poles sag like old cypress trees. Roll down the windows. Listen to the eerie silence of the Everglades, a seemingly endless run of fields landmarked only by the railroad tracks, the dike along Lake Okeechobee and the state penitentiary. Race past sugarcane field after sugarcane field until it feels like you're not moving at all. Then stop at the gas station with no gas by the convenience store with no name. Don't worry, you can't miss it -- there at the crossroads of the place they call Muck City.
A box of corn husks sits next to a box of mangoes on the cement island where the pumps used to be. Men sit all around, in sweat-soaked T-shirts, jeans and greasy caps. Is it true, you ask, what they say about this place? They laugh. You must be lost. And who are you, anyway? When you ask again, the old men stop laughing and look you straight in the eye. Yes, they say, it's true.
Colby Katz for ESPN The Magazine
What are they chasing?
Drive deeper, then, into the fields, around Dead Man's Curve, past the shuttered storefronts and mobile homes reinforced with plywood. Turn left, over the tracks. The cane stalks tower higher and higher, up to 10 feet on either side of the road, until you feel like you're in a scene from a horror movie in which you never find your way back home. These are the fields where, in 1942, a sugar company allegedly violated laws relating to the 13th Amendment, the one that abolished slavery. The case was dismissed on a technicality, but word is a supervisor captured three workers trying to escape the plantation and returned them to the fields by force.
As the cane recedes, the town of Pahokee rises, barely, in the distance. The stadium lights of Pahokee High reach up like spires. The locals are quick to tell you that Lair Field is where Anquan Boldin played and that Pahokee won a state title last year, as did two other schools on the banks of Lake Okeechobee: Glades Central and Glades Day. That's three Florida titles in an area of just over 35,000 people. And there would have been a fourth had Clewiston pulled it out in triple overtime. Crazy how a place so small can produce football so big.
In his office, Pahokee head coach Leroy Foster will see you now. The coach opens the door, offers a chair, puts in a game tape and presses "Play." He doesn't smooth-talk anybody, skipping the sales pitch even when Bobby Bowden or Urban Meyer stops by. And they stop by often. What words sell better than speed? Look now at the pictures that hang around the room, of great teams dating back to the mid-1980s. Check the rosters, written with Sharpies on manila folders and taped to the walls. There's no time or money here for pomp and ceremony.
Is it true, you ask, about what the boys do in the cane fields?
He's a big guy, Coach Foster, with a round head, a deep, throaty voice and eyes that bulge when he has a point to make -- which is always. "I'm not from here, so when I was told that what these boys do in the fields makes 'em fast, I didn't believe it," he answers. That is, until one day when he was driving past some field and saw a kid running out of the cane, holding a pillowcase full of who knows what. The boy was covered in muck and soot. Coach Foster's eyes bulged. Then he gripped his steering wheel and said to no one in particular, "Holy crap."
Down the road from Pahokee, the sun sets and the wind picks up, tickling the white, feathery tops of cane stalks that blanket the land. Against the darkness of the surrounding crops, the glare of Glades Central High's stadium lights makes its track look like a stage on the moon. This is where Fred Taylor and Santonio Holmes started their run to the NFL, and from where 28 graduates have gone on to pro football careers in the past 29 years. Eight more Glades Central players signed D1 letters of intent in February, including the top wideout in Florida, Deonte Thompson, who'll be one of Meyer's Gators soon. "This is the fastest place in the entire country," Meyer said on his last visit. Is it because of what's in those cane fields? He wants to know too.
Cheers and public address squawks break the silence as the meet begins. Under the lights, the men roaming the infield look like ghosts. There's Ray McDonald Jr., the former Gators defensive lineman, just back from the NFL combine. And there's his dad, who was drafted by the Patriots. And by the track, quietly coaxing the sprinters before they take their lanes, is Ray Jr.'s grandfather Willie, who still coaches the track team at age 65. He's taught five decades of athletes here how to run. Ask Willie about what goes on in the fields just beyond this stadium, and his voice quiets into a rasp.
There's something you need to understand, he says. "When I was growing up, most kids around here didn't have Burger King or McDonald's. The only jobs were to pick beans, shuck corn or pull radishes." So ever since the sugar companies started to amp up production in the 1940s, annexing more and more land and employing more and more migrant workers from Jamaica and Mexico, boys in Muck City have been running into the fields. "We run those fields for food, for money," he says. "We're not savages. We do it to survive."
Glades Central leads tonight's meet by 50 points. The Raiders are a blur. Legs reach out, stride, curl behind. Each runner's eyes are locked straight ahead, their chins up, just like Willie taught them. As the ground shimmies under the pounding of feet, it's easy to connect what takes place in those fields to what's happening here.
Pahokee High's star quarterback, Anthony Sheppard, takes in the action from the bleachers. He says he's out in the fields every weekend. Want to see where this speed comes from? He'll show you, he'll pick you up tomorrow in the school parking lot. Eight a.m.? Make it 7.
As promised, just after dawn the next morning, a 1982 Chevy Caprice rusted into three different colors rolls up. Rap blares from its speakers and echoes off the school's brick walls. The car parks, and a handful of teenagers get out, including Sheppard. He has only socks on his feet. "Shoes," he says, "slow me down." Then he motions for you to follow.
The kids pile back into the car, and the Caprice rides heavily down the street, past the gas station with no gas by the convenience store with no name. Shep and his friends see smoke billowing from a field up ahead, where flames leap 10 feet into the air and dark plumes reach even higher. Turning off the road, the car speeds along a dirt path toward the black tornado, leaving swirls of dust in its wake. Shep parks within a hundred feet of the flames, and his teammates follow him out of the car. Every winter, workers with big canisters and metal wicks set all of Muck City's 280,000 acres ablaze, burning off the leaves from the stalks before they harvest the cane.
The boys walk around the edge of a canal, toward the flames. Heat licks their skin as the fire crackles and snaps. More kids show up on bikes and ATVs and on foot, carrying cane stalks and baseball bats and BB guns. Some have dogs. All of them move toward the inferno, as if pulled by gravity. There is no laughter or even a trace of a grin. Shep, expressionless, marches ahead, shards of burned leaves fluttering through the air in black flurries that speckle his shirt. Smoke enters his nostrils, and he tastes the acrid soot on his tongue. He is the star quarterback, maybe the only person here who will ever leave Muck City, but he goes closer than anyone. Never breaking stride, he vanishes into the smoke. No one retreats.
One of the boys starts to yell, then another. A few of them, sticks at the ready, take off, dancing along the canal before sprinting down a dirt path through rows of cane stalks. Sheppard runs too, driving one leg after the other through the cane and into the sticky black muck, the same deep mud that's given this area its name. All eyes lock on a dark dot that shoots from the smoke. It becomes larger and larger as it bolts straight toward the boys. What is it? You freeze in fear of a terrified rabbit that weighs all of three pounds.
Colby Katz for ESPN The Magazine
That's what they're chasing.
So the kids learned how to face the fire, inhale the smoke and not turn away. They learned to stand downwind from the flames, squinting and coughing until it feels like their heads are melting, because that's where the rabbits come out. They learned to wait for the tractors, watching for the last sliver of cane to crumple underneath the last thrasher blade, leaving the rabbits nowhere to hide. They learned how to outlast and outsmart their prey, to judge angles and ratchet up closing speed. They learned that a rabbit will dart at the last possible second, like a running back. They learned to dive into the muck, come up with nothing and dive again. And they learned to catch and hold onto something slick while running for more.
Generations of Muck City kids have mastered it, heading into the fields after the final school bell to chase, then tacking the skins of their catches to the wooden post in the middle of Pahokee, where buyers from as far away as Miami and Georgia pony up three bucks apiece for the hides. Holmes did it every weekend, trying to ease the burden on his mom, who woke up at 3 a.m. to work in these same fields. When Taylor was away at Florida, he came home with Gators teammate Reidel Anthony, who also grew up here, to give it a try. A T-shirt still hangs in Taylor's closet that reads, "Dead Rabbits: Honor and Pride." The running back grins widely when he talks about the fastest man he ever met: a rabbit chaser named Gilbert Grantlin, who had calves the size of footballs because he walked on his tiptoes. He never made it to the pros, but he was so fast in high school, says Taylor, that he'd run the 100 with his right arm behind him, curling an index finger to beckon the rest of the field to come closer.
This morning, though, Shep and his teammates are not fast enough. After they watch the rabbit slip into the brush, unharmed, they pile back into the Caprice, rap music blaring, and onto another fire. As they roll farther and farther down the road, the haze clears and the flames die down to a wisp.
The next morning, Sunday, another football player wakes up at dawn in the town of Belle Glade. He rushes past the Martin Luther King Jr. portrait on the wall of his family's trailer, past the bullet shells by the sink and the Rivals.com envelope on the table. He swings open the screen door, jumps down the two wooden steps and walks out to where his dog still sleeps. Tony Walker is 17, and unlike just about everyone else in Muck City, he doesn't carry a stick or a bat into the fields: He catches rabbits with his bare hands.
Tony, a cornerback at Glades Day, is tall and wiry, with a lopsided, easy smile. He learned to chase from his dad, Charles, a round man with a gold tooth who works at the Glades Correctional Institution down the street from their $6,000 trailer. Charles chased every day as a kid, to supplement the $15,000 his mom made testing the quality of the cane stalks. Father and son go out together every weekend, on the prowl for the one catch no Walker has ever made: a cottontail.
Most of the rabbits that get chased around here are muck rabbits -- dark meat, a little fat and a little slow by local standards. Cottontails are quicker; legend has it they don't slow down until their hearts explode -- and they usually find safety in a canal long before then. Tony has been in the fields around Muck City for 10 years, and he has never come close to getting one. Now it's March. The season is ending; most of the land has been burned.
As Tony and his dad hop into the family truck, they see four fires bloom across the horizon. Picking the closest, Charles floors it, bumping along the back roads until the truck is plastered in dirt. He parks by a canal beyond the "No Trespassing" sign and gets out, staring at the distant flames as they engulf row after row. A sweet and rancid smell wafts by. Tony rips a stalk from the ground, gnaws on the end and sucks the juice from it. There are no cafés or Starbucks out here; cane juice is like Gatorade, and every rabbit hunter drinks it. The Walkers spot a brigade of trucks hauling empty cages toward another field. They hop back into their pickup and trail the rigs to where the sugar has already burned, where the tractors are busy chewing cane, where they know the rabbits will run.
As the thrashers do their work, Tony stands among the shreds of recent harvests, a few feet from the leaky, 69-year-old dike that borders Lake Okeechobee. It was built after the lake overflowed twice in the 1920s, drowning nearly 3,000 people, but the locals are still waiting for the money to come through to finish a reinforcement. Soon, prep football players will climb up and down this hill -- backward, on their toes, on one foot, on their stomachs.
Charles stands a hundred yards away in the middle of a strip of uncut cane. He taught Tony everything he knows about the hunt: how to kill a rabbit quickly with a "bop" over the head, twist its neck to loosen up its insides, squeeze its intestines out through its rear end, then pinch the fur at the legs and pull it up over its neck. He also taught his son how to pry out the spinal cord, wash away the blood, fry the rabbit in grease, then sprinkle it with Everglades Seasoning and onion powder. Above all, Charles taught his son never to kill what he didn't intend to eat.
But now Charles wonders why Tony is at the edge of the field, by the dike, peering into a canal as an alligator swims by. His son is out of position. The machines move along. Charles scans the ground. Nothing. Maybe this isn't the place. Can there be a rabbit in that tiny strip of uncut cane? The sun moves higher, the strip of cane gets thinner. Nothing. But Charles has done this too many times before. "I got generations of history on my side," he says. "I know when rabbits are around."
Suddenly, a dark shadow darts and bounds along the ground. Then another, and another. "Tony!" Charles yells as he points. A muck rabbit sits in the field, motionless. "Tony!" But his son doesn't hear him above the tractors' hum. Charles takes a deep breath. Then the 39-year-old prison guard, now 280 pounds, starts to run. As he carefully bounces from row to row, the rabbit sees him and begins its escape. Charles continues to close in, swerving and cutting, his ample gut bouncing and jiggling. The rabbit disappears easily. Charles bends over, holding his stomach, panting. He drives to West Palm for dinner once a week these days; he makes a decent living. But he can't just let food run away, not when he spends his evenings on the lake, alone in the moonlight, fishing for the next day's dinner.
Colby Katz for ESPN The Magazine
You've got to be awfully quick to catch one of these.
Tony forces the rabbit onto the dike. He knows the cottontail won't run all the way into the lake, so he waits at the bottom, stays in his crouch and tries not to blink. He knows the rabbit has to come down, and when it does, he knows it will come down fast. A split second later, the rabbit makes its move, flying down the hill -- and right at a moving hauler. Tony explodes too, his sweatpants barely hanging on, elbows crooked and head still, just like Charles taught him. The rabbit ducks under the front axle of the hauler, and suddenly Tony is running full speed at a moving vehicle. When the driver slams on the brakes, Tony leaps between the truck's cab and the trailing cage, plants one foot on the truck's bed and hurdles to the other side. The chase continues.
The rabbit has safety in sight. It scurries over a precipice and into the canal. Tony sees its tiny head bobbing in the water eight feet below, not far from where he saw the gator. He takes another step, leaves the ground, pulls his feet up under him and drops into the water. A second passes, then another, and Tony emerges, climbing out of the mire, covered in mud, grabbing firm ground with his left hand, holding the cottontail with his right. He flashes that lopsided smile. His eyes gleam.
In Muck City, the children have nervously followed their fathers and grandfathers into the mud and the fire and emerged with a fearlessness that most of us cannot understand. Soon we will gather in front of our televisions and watch receivers run over the middle and linebackers dive headfirst at loose footballs. We will tell ourselves we could do this too, if we were paid millions, or if we were famous, or if we took steroids. But we'll forget how the game of football is born out of hunger, and courage, and desperation, and community, and hope. And how sometimes it's played in spite of everything else.
The proof is tucked away, far from our malls and mansions, in the endless fields by Lake Okeechobee, where the land burns and the rabbits run.
Eric Adelson is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.