- Mark Schlabach, ESPN Senior Writer
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Editor's note: Allen Bailey signed with the Miami Hurricanes on Wednesday.
SAPELO ISLAND, Ga. -- To find one of the country's most highly sought prospects, college football recruiters will need a $2 fare and well-informed guide. And be sure not to miss the boat. The Katie Underwood leaves the Georgia coast only three times a day, and you can't get to Sapelo Island by car or plane.
Sapelo Island, the small barrier island known mostly for its salt marshes, beaches and dunes, also is home to defensive end Allen Bailey, who is widely ranked among the country's top 25 high school football players. On Feb. 7, Bailey will sign a national letter of intent to play college football at either Alabama, Florida or Miami. And he will be perhaps the most unlikely signee among thousands of players across the country.
The 6-foot-3, 272-pounder with enormous hands and extremely long arms will become the first person from the close-knit Geechee community of Hog Hammock on Sapelo Island to play sports in college. Other descendants of the Gullah/Geechee Nation have made their mark off the islands: NFL Hall of Fame running back Jim Brown was born on nearby St. Simons Island, part of the same Golden Isles chain off the south Georgia coast, and U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas was born in the Geechee community of Pin Point near Savannah, Ga.
But no one from Hog Hammock has caused such a fuss in the outside world.
"This is history on Sapelo, really, because he'll be the first child to go to college and play sports," said Mary Bailey, his mother. "He's making history on the island."
Hog Hammock is on the south end of Sapelo Island, which is about 15 miles off the Georgia coast and in the center of the state's barrier islands. Bailey's ancestors were among 400 slaves who were brought to the island from West Africa and the West Indies by British planter Thomas Spalding during the 1800s to work his cotton and sugar cane plantations. When freed, the former slaves established several settlements on the island. Hog Hammock is the last one standing and has about 70 remaining land owners, a dozen of whom are Bailey's relatives.
"It's peace and quiet," Allen Bailey said. "You don't have to worry about crowds of people. You get along with everybody here. It's a nice place to live."
But Sapelo Island also is a difficult place to live for an active high school senior. Bailey spends much of his time living in Darien, Ga., which is about a 20-minute, winding ferry ride through marsh lands from the island. The last ferry leaves the mainland at 5:30 p.m., or before Bailey finishes football practice at McIntosh County Academy.
So during football season, Bailey typically spends five nights each week sleeping at a teammate's home, then returns to Sapelo Island on Saturday mornings for a weekend retreat. During basketball season, Bailey returns home only for a few hours on Sunday. It's enough time to do his laundry and eat a couple plates of his favorite meal, fried chicken, red beans and rice and pecan pie, before taking the last ferry back to the mainland.
"We've gotten used to it because he's been doing it since the eighth or ninth grade," Mary Bailey said. "It took a while to get used to it, but it's not that bad now."
One morning last week, about three dozen visitors loaded the Katie Underwood to make the 17-mile trek to Sapelo Island. If visitors don't work on the island, they must be part of an organized tour or guests of residents on the island.
Many of the daily visitors are researchers who work at the University of Georgia Marine Institute (the state of Georgia owns about 90 percent of the island; the Hog Hammock residents own only 434 of the island's 16,500 acres).
On this blustery and unseasonably cold day, contractors loaded their tools for construction of new homes in Hog Hammock, an area of concern for local residents who are struggling to keep their Geechee culture intact. Bird watchers joined a tour group, and a few Hog Hammock residents returned from jobs on the mainland and with a booty of groceries and other necessities that can't be purchased on the island.
"It would be easier living off the island," Mary Bailey said. "But I'd rather live here at home, instead of over there."
The Hog Hammock community consists mostly of small homes and trailers, several of which are in obvious need of repair. There is a small convenience store, where Bailey's older sister, Francena, works behind the cash register. There is a small bed and breakfast lodge, The Wallow, which is operated by Bailey's aunt and uncle, Cornelia and Julius Bailey. The Trough is the local night spot, and Lulu's Kitchen is the island's only restaurant. A public library recently opened on the island, and the community center has a computer lab and offers other services. The island has two churches, but its school closed in 1978.
Cornelia Bailey, the island's unofficial matriarch and historian, has written two books about her beloved Sapelo. She is a staunch advocate of preserving the Geechee/Gullah culture and way of life. The Geechee have long been known for their skills in castnet fishing and basket weaving, as well as the unique Gullah dialect, which is now spoken by only a few hundred people in the U.S.
She worries that too many young families are moving off the island for better jobs and very few ever return. Some former residents even have sold their inherited property to outsiders. Near Cornelia Bailey's home, three houses under construction, built on tall stilts to avoid possible flooding, tower over smaller homes that were built decades ago.
"If everybody would come together and say we need to keep our youth on this island and bring back the ones who left, we could have a community like we did before the Depression," Cornelia Bailey said. "It used to be a real, breathing place."
But there are very few jobs on Sapelo Island now. Alfred Bailey, the player's father, is first mate on the Katie Underwood. Mary Bailey works as a cook at the Reynolds Mansion, a sprawling mansion surrounded by live oaks. The house is sometimes rented for corporate meetings and other functions.
The Reynolds Mansion has long been the center of Sapelo Island. Spalding, a 19th-century U.S. senator and plantation owner, built the original house with slave labor in the early 1800s. The home was vandalized heavily during the Civil War, so much so that it laid in ruins until Detroit automaker Howard E. Coffin purchased all of the island (except land owned by the former slaves) for $150,000 in 1912. Coffin restored the home and re-established farming, timber cutting and seafood harvesting on the island. Former presidents Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover and aviator Charles Lindbergh were guests in the home.
During the Great Depression, Coffin sold the island to tobacco heir R.J. Reynolds, who used the home as a part-time residence for much of three decades. He consolidated the island's African-American residents into what is now Hog Hammock, and established the island's research facilities. His widow later sold nearly all of the island to the state of Georgia.
Today, there is little on the island other than the research facilities, a restored lighthouse and Hog Hammock. Some residents work for the state's Department of Natural Resources, but most have to travel to the mainland for a steady paycheck.
"There are no jobs over here," Mary Bailey said.
Nearly all of Bailey's children have left the island. Alfred Jr. joined the Marines last year and is stationed at a military base in California. Two daughters, LaShundra and Clarissa, live and work in Brunswick, about a 30-minute drive to the south from the ferry dock on the mainland. Alphonso is a junior at McIntosh County Academy, but doesn't play sports and commutes to and from the island nearly every day. Oldest son Quneton also lives and works on the island.
Growing up on Sapelo, Allen Bailey fished and hunted with his father and brothers. The island has herds of deer, wild boar and wild cattle, along with smaller game such as rabbits and raccoons. Residents often find alligators lurking in their backyard sloughs, and rattlesnakes are sometimes found under front porches.
Bailey's father has a small garden where he grows corn, tomatoes, okra and watermelons during the summer. A neighbor raises chickens, which can sometimes be bartered for vegetables. The Baileys hunt for much of their meat. When Florida defensive coordinator Charlie Strong visited Bailey in early December, he was given a taste of the local cuisine at one of the church's Christmas dinners. Strong was surprised to learn he was eating raccoon.
The 4,000 acres of salt marsh surrounding much of the island supply an abundance of seafood for Hog Hammock's residents. The marsh serves as a nursery for oysters, shrimp and crabs -- oyster shells litter many of the dirt roads in Hog Hammock. A variety of fish species can be caught off the island's two beaches. Allen Bailey never wandered far from the docks or beaches -- he never learned to swim despite being surrounded by water.
"I didn't leave the island much when I was younger," Allen Bailey said during an interview on the mainland. "I enjoy the quietness of the island. Just knowing everybody there is nice. It's not that big, so you can just walk around and be yourself. You can do things over there that you can't do over here."
Many of Hog Hammock's residents have been surprised by the attention Bailey has received during the last year. Georgia coach Mark Richt and several Bulldogs assistants have visited the island. Bailey eliminated Georgia from consideration last week because of concerns the Bulldogs wouldn't allow him to play linebacker in college. Alabama coach Nick Saban and Florida coach Urban Meyer were scheduled to visit Sapelo Island sometime this week.
Growing up in relative isolation, Bailey didn't know much about the colleges that are now recruiting him. For a long time, a pay phone was local residents' only connection to the mainland. The proliferation of satellite TV has brought the rest of the world closer to Sapelo Island in recent years.
Still, until Bailey and a McIntosh County Academy assistant coach visited about a dozen schools last spring, Bailey hadn't traveled far from the island. He visited schools such as Auburn, Clemson, Florida State, Georgia Tech and South Carolina, before eliminating each from consideration. He complained that Atlanta was too big and Georgia Tech's stadium was too small.
Nearly every major Division I-A college program gauged Bailey's interest. A Southern California assistant showed up unannounced at a football practice last fall, asking if Bailey would be interested in playing for the Trojans because coach Pete Carroll wanted to visit him. Bailey told the USC assistant that Los Angeles was too far from home. Notre Dame coach Charlie Weis received the same answer when he called to inquire about Bailey's interest in the Fighting Irish.
At times, Bailey still seems like a small-town kid overwhelmed by his enormous opportunities. Last month, an assistant coach drove Bailey to an airport in Jacksonville, Fla., so Bailey could fly to San Antonio, Texas, to play in a high school all-star game. Bailey didn't seem nervous about flying for the first time, but the coach tried to make small talk nonetheless. When the coach asked Bailey about his pending official visit to Alabama, Bailey said he was concerned about the uncertainty surrounding the Crimson Tide.
"They don't even have a coach," Bailey said.
When told that Nick Saban would soon be named the Crimson Tide's new coach, Bailey asked, "Who's Nick Saban?"
"He's as humble as can be," McIntosh County Academy coach Robby Robinson said. "None of this has affected him at all. He never grew up a fan and didn't know anything about football."
But Robinson has no doubt Bailey will be successful wherever he decides to go.
"He's as committed as any kid I've ever coached," Robinson said. "He never missed a practice and never missed a summer workout. He was there even when he had to take a ferry boat here and we had to pick him up at the dock. I'd tell him during the summer, 'You don't have to come tonight. Stay home.' He'd always say, 'No, Coach, I'm coming.' His work habits are unbelievable. His work habits and his talent are what's going to make him an NFL player."
Regardless of where Bailey ends up, whether it's Alabama, Florida or Miami and then the NFL, the tranquility of Sapelo Island will never be far away.
"After he gets his education and everything goes well, whether he turns pro or not, everybody hopes he doesn't forget home," Cornelia Bailey said. "Once you get your hands and feet dirty on Sapelo Island, it's hard to forget. Once they get off that boat, they're island people again. Allen will be the same way. He'll come home again."
Mark Schlabach covers college football and men's college basketball for ESPN.com. You can contact him at email@example.com.
Allen Bailey grew up in relative isolation, but the defensive end's talent had a host of recruiters making the journey to remote Sapelo Island, writes Mark Schlabach.