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They're raising stars in the Sunshine State

Let me tell you about my Florida vacation. Well, I suppose it wasn't a vacation exactly, seeing as how my editor sent me down there to find out why that state is turning out so doggone many good football players. He sent me on my way with all sorts of facts and figures, about how every Division I conference except the Big Sky has at least one Floridian in its ranks. How in every year of the 1980s but one, at least two of the state's three major schools, Florida, Florida State and Miami, have been in somebody's final Top 20. And how the three guys who were arguably the best running backs in the nation last fall—Lorenzo White, Sammie Smith and Emmitt Smith—are natives of the Sunshine State.

David Wilson, the coach at little Middleburg High near Jacksonville, sounds a whole lot like that old Northeast Airlines pitchman, Jim ("Come on down!") Dooley, when he says, "You tell Texas to come on over!" And Lamar Thomas, a fairly rapid wide receiver from Gainesville who's enrolling at Miami this year, says, "Texas has had its turn. It's our turn now."

Fact is, if you subtract all the carpetbagging college recruiters who come through Florida to hunt for talent, the state's annual visitors' figure drops dramatically. Athletes like Thomas can be found all over Florida, in towns that sound like Seminole incantations (Immokalee, Chattahoochee, Loxahatchee), or the Shangri-la that your Aunt Muriel and Uncle Hubert finally found (Leisure City, Treasure Island, Frostproof). Football players are groomed at high schools that might be mistaken for pool hustlers (Tallahassee Leon, Orlando Jones, Jacksonville Lee) or that hint at Florida's position as the most far-reaching state in the South (Titusville Astronaut).

I originally thought that from time to time maybe God grabbed the nation and rapped it with His clipboard, causing the football players, who tend to be bigger and heavier, to tumble down into the receptacle at the lower-right-hand corner of the country, where recruiters could scoop them up. Now I think He works in other, more indirect ways: with sandy soil, through a beneficent climate, and with spring practice, spring practice, spring practice. And rabbits; yes, rabbits. I'll show you the slides if someone could hit the lights....

That's Rickey Jackson. He was a star at Pitt, and is now a linebacker with the New Orleans Saints. We found him in a poolroom in Pahokee, the town on Lake Okeechobee where he grew up. I didn't expect him to set aside his poker chips, invite me out to his powder-blue Mercedes, turn on the air-conditioning and tell me about the black muck, but he did.

The black muck is the outrageously rich soil in which sugarcane and vegetables grow through much of the Everglades. The muck starts as soon as you head west across the bridge from West Palm Beach, and doesn't stop until the foot of the Pahokee levee. Jake Gaither, who coached Florida A & M from 1945 to 1969, once said that Florida turns out so many fast football players because the sandy soil builds up their legs. Running in the black muck will do even more for you.

Every summer before reporting to training camp, Jackson pulls on work boots and slogs through the muck. Just about every kid growing up in the 'Glades finds himself negotiating the stuff at one time or another, and more or less as a result, says Jackson, "This town is full of fast guys. Guys are so speedy, you can't hardly get nobody to play offensive line. In the next two or three years you'll find five or six pros come from Pahokee, a town of 6,600 people. The whole city of New Orleans has about one. You can't beat that."

Start in Clewiston on the southwest shore of Okeechobee, go around the lake to Belle Glade and on up to Pahokee, and the population blackens as the soil does. Ask Antoine Russell, who coached Pahokee High for 10 years, what players the town has produced, and he demurs. "I'm afraid to start naming names," he says. "I might miss somebody." Suffice it to say that since 1985, when he became coach at Pahokee, Don Thompson has packed off 38 kids to college on scholarships that he figures are worth more than $1 million. Pahokeeans now on Division I rosters include linebacker Ellis Fuller at Florida State, defensive end Corey Lundford at Kansas and defensive back Kenny Barry at Miami. Belle Glade (HER SOIL IS HER FORTUNE reads the sign at the edge of town) has about 10 players on college rosters, including Florida's all-America safety Louis Oliver, and Clewiston ("America's Sweetest Town") has two. So you can understand why Russell nods appreciatively toward the muck. "When I first came here, I couldn't figure it out," says Russell. "It looks like God just put it in. Is it black because of the nutrients? The vitamins? I don't know. I just know it makes things grow."

This is a picture of the Thunderbird Swap Shop, which sits in the northwest corner of Fort Lauderdale, just about in the middle of the three-square-mile area bounded by the homes of Lorenzo White, Michael Irvin and the Blades brothers, Bennie and Brian. Seeing as how they were among the NFL's first 49 selections last April, you could say that the Thunderbird was the '88 draft's epicenter.

With 21 siblings among them, the four are walking advertisements for Florida's population boom. You can make jokes and call the state God's Waiting Room, but the fact is more folks are checking in than checking out, which helps account for Florida's ascendancy in producing football talent. Some 3½ million people live on the Gold Coast, the corridor from Homestead, just south of Miami, to Riviera Beach, north of West Palm. And they play every variety of football. A kid in Fort Lauderdale can borrow Velcro flags and a ball from any recreation supervisor to play pickup flag football, just the game to develop the pelvic dance steps that White showcased at Michigan State and that Irvin and the Blades brothers took to Miami.

Youth leagues (some school districts in South Florida won't spring for junior high programs because they can't afford the insurance rates) get kids playing high school rules as early as age eight. And Fort Lauderdale's Fab Four played right in front of their houses, where there were always plenty of kin to fill out a side.

Here's a shot of Marvin Pope. He graduated from Gainesville's Eastside High in June, and according to USA Today, which keeps track of these things, he was the best all-around schoolboy athlete in the state last year. Marvin, who goes 6'1" and 240 pounds, got into a little trouble at the state weightlifting meet last winter. Another lifter found it amusing that Marvin, with a chance to break the state record in the bench press, failed to make the lift at 450 pounds. The other fellow's amusement didn't sit well with Marvin, who slapped him upside the head. That got Marvin, and his tormentor, disqualified from the meet.

Marvin probably won't end up designing rocket booster seals for a living, but he does bench 450 pounds now, and cleans-and-jerks 335. Marvin was recruited by Miami and Illinois, but according to the NCAA's rules, he will have to sit out his freshman year for failing to take enough college preparatory-level courses. His SAT scores were also not up to snuff. Illinois backed off when Marvin's academic shortcomings became apparent, so he signed with I-AA Western Kentucky. But he was smart enough not to close his hand before he hit the guy who was running his mouth, and he's basically a good kid and a mean linebacker.

The point is, if Marvin had grown up in, say, Vermont, his 240 pounds might not be quite as solid as they are today. Few states offer interscholastic weightlifting, and none has as many high school kids competing in dual meets as Florida. "My little Bulgaria" is what Harvey Newton, executive director of the U.S. Weightlifting Federation, calls Florida. Unfortunately for Newton, few lifters there treat the sport as anything but a way to prepare for football.

This is Derek Brown of Merritt Island High. He's a tight end whom many considered to be the top schoolboy player in the nation last season. Brown was a tough recruit to land, and not just because he has teenage twin sisters, which made it difficult for recruiters to get through on the phone. He's 6'7", 235 pounds, runs a 4.7 in the 40 and had a GPA just shy of 3.0. Florida, Florida State and Miami hit on Brown hard, but he signed instead with Notre Dame.

Even as Florida's big-time triumvirate finishes consistently high in the national rankings, other universities are plundering Florida for skill players who can dovetail with the heavy-legged, European-surnamed linemen from the Rust Belt. Last season, the quarterbacks at both Michigan and Michigan State, Demetrius Brown of the Wolverines and the Spartans' Bobby McAllister, were from Florida. Defensive back Markus Paul of Osceola High in Kissimmee will start his senior year at Syracuse with 15 career interceptions, three short of the school record. Michael Timpson of Hialeah Springs will be Penn State's top wideout this fall. West Virginia has 17 Floridians on its roster, six of them starters or regulars, including both wide receivers, Calvin Phillips and Grantis Bell.

But Derek Brown is a rarity, because most Florida footballers who head north do so as much by necessity as by choice. The numbers tell the story. By last spring more than 250 high school seniors from the state had signed Division I letters of intent. The Gators, Seminoles and Hurricanes can offer only about 90 scholarships a year among them.

Consider Wendal Lowery from Fort Lauderdale Dillard High, a Parade All-America and the first-string quarterback on the Florida high school All-Star team this spring. He didn't get anything more than a few recruiting brochures from the three in-state biggies (Dillard coach Otis Gray says, "I don't think the Florida schools are ready for a black quarterback"), so he'll head for that other land of citrus dreams and perfect weather, Syracuse's Carrier Dome. "I get calls from other schools," says Dave Scott. Miami's recruiting coordinator. "They want to know who we're not taking."

But it hasn't always been so. Even though Miami High was winning mythical national titles as far back as the early '40s, until recently the University of Miami used to consider it a bad recruiting year if it signed as many as 15 Floridians. That was before integration. When Howard Schnellenberger took over as coach of the Hurricanes in 1979, he drew a line roughly along Interstate 4, from Tampa across the state to Daytona Beach, declaring all that lay below it "the state of Miami." Any player from within that territory, said Schnellenberger, rightfully belonged to the Hurricanes. His cartography—along with the vow of running backs Melvin Bratton (Miami Northwestern High) and Alonzo Highsmith (Miami Columbus) to go to Miami "to win a national championship"—won the Hurricanes a national title in 1983.

Miami won another one last season, with 65 Floridians, including 15 starters. In Gainesville this year, Florida's 112-man roster will have only 17 out-of-staters, just three of whom figure to start. A scant 30 of the 101 players on Florida State's '88 roster come from the Upper 49.

"When you have three major schools competing in one state, you usually have the power, the middle-of-the-road school and the doormat," says Miami assistant coach Butch Davis. "But in the five years I've been in Florida, the success of the three schools here has been amazing."

The Big Three is fixing to become Four. Central Florida coach Gene McDowell, who guided the Knights to the Division II national semifinals last season, is starting to lure a lot of the players who used to head north if they failed to get a scholarship from the Seminoles, Gators or Hurricanes. McDowell is so encouraged that he's looking to go I-AA next season, add Florida, Florida State, Tulane and Memphis State to his schedule and move up to I-A within seven years.

Better adjust the focus on this shot of Sammie Smith, the fastest guy ever to come out of Zellwood, Fla. There. Sammie's hard to catch, photographically and otherwise. He covers 100 meters in a near-world-class 10.31 seconds, and covers nonmetric distances in the fall in similarly short order, even though he's then burdened with a ball and 35 pounds of football equipment. Smith rushed for 1,230 yards last season for Florida State—7.2 yards-per-carry—and he's one of the main reasons the Seminoles just might be the best team in the country this fall.

Like so many Floridians who have played the skill positions, Smith is a child of the springtime. This isn't merely because of spring practice, which his alma mater, Apopka High, and most high schools in the state offer. Smith ran track, too, and track and football have had a Florida fling going since long before Bob Hayes starred at both for Florida A & M. "I don't know of any athlete in the NFL—a wide receiver, running back or defensive back—who wasn't involved in track and field," says Johnny Alexander, a youth-football coach who also runs the Fort Lauderdale Track Club, where kids start competing as early as age three. "There may be some, but I don't know of any."

Florida weather permits the track season to begin early and finish by the beginning of May, in plenty of time for a kid to participate in spring football. Off-season drills aren't unique to Florida. Some 11 other states and the District of Columbia allow as many as 21 days for them. But many Florida counties hold "jamborees," where four or more teams get together, with officials and a running clock, and play offense and defense for a half. "I can take 100 kids and keep pounding 'em, about grades as well as football," says Middleburg's Wilson. "We get a lot of fundamental things out of the way so we don't have to do so much hitting in the fall."

The jamborees fall neatly within the NCAA's evaluation period, and recruiters flock to them. "We took one of our coaches who normally worked the Philly area to see one jamboree," says Syracuse assistant Randy Edsel. "The thing that amazed him was the overall team speed. He never realized kids could run that well."

The speed isn't limited to the skill positions. Suddenly Florida is producing big and agile linemen—like Gator defensive tackle Rhondy Weston, who hails from Belle Glade; Sammie Smith's 305-pound escort, offensive tackle Pat Tomberlin, from Middleburg; and Miami defensive end Bill Hawkins, from Hollywood. "Now offensive line is one of the best positions we've got," says Bill Buchalter, the regional sports editor for the Orlando Sentinel. Other states are noticing, too.

Players at every position find Florida's climate a crucible for forging stamina as well as speed. Miami coach Jimmy Johnson had a chance to build a tent along the sidelines of his practice field. But Johnson has seen too many opponents wilt in the fourth quarter, and so he elected to let his players bake. And they understand why. Forget that October afternoon in Ann Arbor with the nip in the air. This, Keith Jackson, is college football weather. "You come from Florida, you have got to be in shape from sucking that stale, humid air," says Notre Dame's Brown. "In spring practice, the thermometer on the field is 115°, and that's before you put on pads and breathe that stuff."

The weather also keeps kids outdoors year-round, running and roughhousing, and even if they're not playing football, they're getting grid-ready in many subtle ways. Remember Gaither's Sandy Soil Theory? "When I was coming up in Fort Myers, we played on a sand field," says Bob Green, the former athletic director at Fort Lauderdale Dillard. "Literally, there were white lines on sand."

Today in much of the state, sand would be a luxury. Before their annual game against the Georgia all-stars in Orlando last June, several of the Florida High School All-Stars showed off some of the scars they had earned as rapscallion kids growing up playing the game wherever they could. Every wound told a story:

"I got this one from a rock."

"I got this one from a piece of glass."

"Mailboxes, man. You ever run up against a mailbox?"

"Bumpers of cars."

"When your sandlot's concrete, you don't want to get hit. So you keep running."

Throughout the 'Glades, before workers can go into the fields and harvest the sugarcane, the sharp and jagged leaves on each stalk must be burned off. When the wind is blowing just so, the field is set afire on three sides, and all manner of critters get flushed out of one end—snakes, possums, raccoons and rabbits, lots of rabbits. The youngsters, each poised with a stick, act out Elmer Fudd's fantasy. They lie in wait, knowing that they can get two or three bucks for each pelt. A halfback ain't nothing to a defensive back who has outjuked a rabbit.

Football has always come at Dwight Thomas as something close to life and death. It freed him from a farm in southeast Alabama, where he could never really tackle the game because his folks had him picking cotton for the morning half of two-a-days. Reckoning that "you can't help a hog or a cow, but kids need your help," he became a coach, most recently at Escambia High in Pensacola. In his five seasons there, he has won two state titles, sent 35 young men on to play in college and had one player die.

Those thick glasses Thomas wears don't much suit a football coach, but when he speaks, the timbre of his voice alone certifies his fitness for the job. Yet even that voice quivers a little when Thomas talks about how George Blackmon came up from the defensive backfield to make a hit in a game last season, only to have his spinal cord severed while making a tackle. Thomas is trying to use the incident to make athletic trainers mandatory at every high school in Florida, for a local trainer helped keep Blackmon alive with mouth-to-mouth resuscitation before a helicopter arrived to take him to the hospital. In places like Pensacola, football isn't to be blamed for such a tragedy. Football is considered good, and men like Thomas, teachers of its many salutary lessons.

Throughout the Panhandle, the game is so hot you have to wear a potholder to get a grasp on it. Of the 10 high schools in the greater Pensacola area alone, four have made the USA Today Top 25 at least once in the past six years. Escambia has about 1,800 students from six zip codes, from socioeconomic conditions that range, as Thomas says, "from welfare to millionaire."

Just a few catfish joints down the Redneck Riviera from Pensacola sits Fort Walton Beach's Choctawatchee High, where Thomas coached before arriving in Escambia. He went 30-12 in four seasons there, and in 1983 had 15 returning starters and the best kicker in the state. Before the season, the principal called him in. He told Thomas how badly the school needed to win a state championship. Then he told him how the Indians couldn't win one with a coach who hadn't already won one. "He wanted my resignation by 4:30," says Thomas. "He got it at 4:29. I told him I was going to find the worst team in the state and come back and kick his ass."

If Escambia wasn't the worst team in the state, it was close: it had gone 21 years without breaking .500, and over the previous three seasons it had put together a 3-27 record. The school's teams had been known as the Rebels, but that offended blacks, so they became the Patriots. But that sounded too Yankee, so in 1976 they settled on the Gators. But the school chose as its mascot "a goofy-looking old alligator," Thomas says, "and that's how they played."

Thomas had the alligator redrawn, nastier. And he laid down his three rules for his players: Be where you're supposed to be, doing what you're supposed to be doing, when you're supposed to be doing it. "Sounds simple," he says. "But it's very difficult for a teenager. If they break a rule, I don't run 'em and I don't whip 'em. I just toss 'em—that day. And they know that they're gone, so I can save the other kids. I love 'em enough to chase 'em off."

Thomas began his first practice at Escambia, in '83, with 38 seniors. Four were left at the postseason banquet. "I got called Gestapo, barbarian and all," says Thomas. Still the Gators went 7-3, thanks largely to a freshman running back, who would later become a Florida Gator, named Emmitt Smith. The state titles came the next two seasons, after which, during Smith's senior year, Escambia rode atop the national polls until a 17-10 late-season loss to Pensacola High.

Today the Escambia program is one of the most serious in the Panhandle, where the football monomania of the Bible Belt meets many of Florida's natural advantages. At the start of each season, Thomas sends hundreds of college coaches a brochure highlighting each of his seniors. A schoolwide assembly on national signing day honors every Gator who signs a letter of intent.

Thomas regularly interviews his players, getting them to list their goals and to tell him anything out of their past—"I know which ones have been abused," he says—that might be relevant to their development. Some folks point out that Thomas hasn't yet won at Escambia without Smith, who had such a wonderful freshman season last year in Gainesville that he overshadowed the other Smith over in Tallahassee. Thomas's supporters point out that he still produced five Division I-A signees last year—all of whom qualified academically—as many as any high school coach in the nation.

"Dwight's an unusual person," says Fred Rozelle (no relation to Pete), executive secretary of the Florida High School Activities Association. "There are places he couldn't do what he's doing. But if you're not out for football at Escambia, something's wrong with you. Blow a whistle there and everybody's all lined up."

FHSAA rules permit schools to conduct a summer "weight-training program for football." Thomas doesn't hide the fact that he interprets that to mean a program of total fitness, including cardiovascular training and flexibility exercises. "We're not asking them to hit sleds," he says. "We're just saying that you can't develop a totally fit kid in the weight room alone."

But Thomas wants to develop more. "At that age kids change so quickly physically, hormonally and morally," he says. "I want to know what they're doing. We lose so many kids over the summer who run with the wrong crowd. How we raise these kids affects how they'll raise their kids. It's where discipline and character are taught. Christ strove to teach those qualities, and when His people got them. He stepped back and watched them work. That's what coaches do. We step back on Friday night and watch them work."

Will someone please get the lights?