One of the greatest high school football programs in America, one that has supplied the NFL with an average of one prospect per year, does not have a booster club. There is no team bus or multimillion-dollar stadium in which they play. There are no parents who volunteer their time for raffle drawings and car washes, or to decorate the windows of Main Street on game days. There are no steak nights or bumper stickers, and no water tower or welcome sign along the highway that boasts of their achievements.
So it was little surprise that on a sweltering football field in Tallahassee, Florida, where the temperature soared above a hundred degrees, the Glades Central Raiders did not even have their own water.
It was early August, and the Raiders had traveled six hours north to the campus of Florida State University for an off-season “seven-on-seven” tournament against some of the best high school teams in the South. The glorified touch football games—usually twenty minutes long and played without pads—were primarily a showcase for passing offenses, which were a specialty in a state that consistently produced speedy skill players. In recent years they’d also become one of the chief exhibitions for college coaches and recruiters to eyeball the current crop of talent. For elite teams such as the Raiders, the invitations to such tournaments now filled the summer months.
That afternoon at Florida State, twelve games were scheduled in a round robin. During a lull between matchups, the boys from Belle Glade appeared exhausted. At the motel the night before, most had stayed up until dawn playing video games. They’d overslept, missed breakfast, and forced the team to arrive late, barely escaping disqualification. They’d also arrived without enough uniforms, forcing players to strip off their sweat-soaked jerseys and share.
Now, along the sidelines, they were wilted and starving. As other teams rested under giant tents bearing their school logos, enjoying sandwiches and cold Gatorade, about ten Raiders squeezed under the skinny shadow of a light pole—the only shade they could find—and split a bag of M&Ms.
For the Raiders, the tournament at FSU was only their second appearance since suffering a humiliating loss the previous season in the state 2A championship, a defeat that still hung like swamp gas over the Glades. Worse, at the end of the school year they’d graduated twenty-two seniors off the title-seeking roster, and twenty-eight the year before. For most teams, it would take years to recover a loss of that many starters. By all estimates, the Raiders entered Tallahassee a team looking for direction, testing whatever talents remained in hopes of a decent season.
But, as the saying went in Belle Glade, “The Raiders don’t rebuild, they just reload.”
That afternoon, under a cloudless sky with the sun burning white hot, the arsenal was on full display. The Raiders had entered two teams in the tournament, one of starters and one of reserves. By the end of the afternoon, the two squads were undefeated and barely missed meeting each other in the championship round.
As the Raiders’ starting seven dominated Miami’s Booker T. Washington High School, crowds of parents, coaches, and recruiters soon formed to watch the electrifying show and, in particular, a blue-chip wide receiver who’d arrived that morning one of the most heavily recruited high school athletes in the nation. Reporters had nicknamed him “Treetop.” The recruiters who routinely crowded the Glades Central practice field had their own term:
Kelvin Benjamin was a “beautiful freak.”
“KB,” as he was known in Belle Glade, stood six foot six in bare feet and weighed 220 pounds. He was half Jamaican, and his mixed blood gave his skin a light, feverish complexion. He was broad-chested and wrapped in muscle and carried a curvy, feline frame like a dancer. His face had the delicate bone structure of a woman’s, so that whenever he pulled off his helmet and tied back his long braids, lips parting to reveal a mouthful of gold teeth, he evoked the picture of an androgynous warrior. The girls in Belle Glade called him “pretty.”
The official team roster inflated Benjamin’s size to six foot eight, which is basketball territory. At first glance at the numbers, many recruiting coaches pegged him as a tight end, bulky enough to block and break tackles and snatch up short, first-down yardage. Hearing that he ran the forty in 4.5 seconds put the glimmer in their eye, but it needed seeing to believe. Once they played the film, or watched the snap from the perimeter, they beheld a rare kind of athlete, a dream wide receiver that appeared only so often.
The paradox of Benjamin’s size and quickness shattered once he burst off the line. Your eyes followed the legs, which were massive and covered nearly two yards of field with every powerful, arching stride. Like with a distant, approaching train, it was difficult to determine his true speed until he broke on a dime and was gone. But his true gift revealed itself in coverage, the heavier the better.
Since KB towered over most receivers at his position, the same held true for the cornerbacks and safeties sent to cover him. A spry, high-flying defender could compensate for the mismatch in height. But what usually beat the coverage were KB’s hands: two mitts over nine inches long from fingertip to wrist, yet nimble and delicate instruments. The hands added to a wingspan stretching eighty inches—a mere three inches shy of Michael Jordan’s. In thick coverage, a leaping grab—usually one-handed—was enough to leave most defenders staring straight into his numbers.
“Just put it up,” he’d tell the quarterback.
“KB’s hands are his best thing,” said a coach who was relentlessly pursuing him for one of Florida’s top universities. “He can catch like a smaller receiver. He’s big, but he plays like a little man. There aint many like him in the country.”
That afternoon in Tallahassee, a cluster of assistant coaches from FSU and Auburn gathered along the sideline. Play after play, Benjamin executed cross routes and hook patterns with defensive backs trailing his hulking body like pilot fish. He’d dash to the corners of the end zone with two of them pounding at his heels, turn, leap, and reach one arm toward the sky like a giant cat stretching in the sun. With defenders swatting dead air around him, the ball would land gently in his hand, as if delivered on a velvet rope.
The coaches on the sidelines puckered their lips in awe.
“He’s a goddamn superman,” said one.
One FSU assistant whipped out his cell phone and dialed his boss, Seminoles head coach Jimbo Fisher, who was sitting in his office across campus. Fisher had already sent offers to KB on the basis of film alone, yet had never seen him up close.
“You gotta get over here right now,” the coach beckoned. “The second coming of Randy Moss has arrived.”
For Benjamin, the comparisons to NFL greats and the college letters that now filled two entire dressers at his home seemed a lifetime away from where he’d stood two years before. Raised by a mother who’d struggled to raise three children on her own and a father who was deported when Kelvin was three, the boy had fluttered like an aimless moth against the tantalizing fire of street life.
By the time he turned sixteen, he’d already served a term in juvenile prison and was searching for his way. A chance discovery by a Raiders coach at a Saturday pickup game had carried him back into football, a game he’d once played and hated, but one that suddenly provided a structure for living and success. Awkward and out of shape, but seemingly born to play, he received his first college offer after only four weeks on the team.
His sophomore and junior seasons were impressive, but not chart-topping: nearly two thousand yards receiving and seventeen touchdowns. In both years, the Raiders’ roster was loaded for bear with signature Glades receivers, so much so that a reporter once likened Benjamin to “a Lamborghini in a garage full of Ferraris.”
Now a senior, Benjamin was finally entering his crowning hour. He was the premier receiver on the Raider squad and captain of the team. Polls ranked him the number-eight receiver in the country and his name appeared on every major recruiting list, including that of gridiron oracle Tom Lemming.
Coaches from Florida, FSU, Auburn, Michigan, Notre Dame, and Miami sent upwards of two letters a week to his house, and bombarded him with text messages, faxes, phone calls, and visits to the school, to assure him of the singular threat he would pose on their teams before blowing the doors off the NFL draft. (“Definitely a first-rounder,” a recruiter told him. “Right now, if they’d let you.”)
Barring any injury or misstep, Benjamin had the physique and natural talent to be the biggest sensation ever to rise from the muck. Entering his final season as a Raider, he would have to prove to his town, his team, and especially his coach that all the commotion over the big, beautiful freak wasn’t just hype when it came down to hard work and winning.
That afternoon the facilitator of the Kelvin Benjamin Show did not fit the mold of the tall, strapping Raider quarterbacks of yesteryear, guys who’d left Glades Central to become college heroes and Heisman Trophy contenders. Nor was he one of two second-string QBs off the roster, both over six feet with rocket-fire arms.
The quarterback here stood five foot nine in cleats with stumpy legs, a bulging behind, and a gut that spilled over his shorts. The mighty, title-seeking Raiders were now under the helm of an undersized, overweight linebacker.
But Jamarious Rowley, aka Mario, was Hester’s secret weapon. As a middle linebacker his junior year, he’d recorded a hundred tackles, six sacks, and four interceptions to earn the honor of first team all-state. He had quick instincts and deceptive speed. But most of all, Mario was driven by a dark and pressing desire to win.
When he was eight years old, in a space of five months, both Mario’s mother and father suddenly passed away, leaving a bottomless well of sadness the boy would often tumble down.
His mother, Mary, was a schoolteacher; one of four children, she’d always wanted a big family of her own. But her heart was weak, and bearing six children had only made it weaker, so much so that the doctor had warned that a seventh child might kill her. She’d borne Mario anyway, then flatlined a month after leaving the hospital. Doctors had kept her alive long enough for the boy to grow and love her, and then died before he could understand that it wasn’t his fault. Mario’s grieving father followed five months later, suffering a fatal stroke while shaving.
“Mary gave her life to Mario,” Mary’s sister Gail would say. “The boy has purpose. He is here for a reason.”
For Mario, that reason was to play football, something he’d discovered to fill the gaping emptiness inside. And now in his senior year, it was to deliver his father’s dream: having a son win a championship as a Raider, a wish his three older brothers were unable to deliver.
The linebacker had been the last person to leave the field after the Raiders lost the title game the previous year. Sitting alone in the end zone, tears streaking his face, he’d looked up at Hester and told him, “We’ll be back. I’ll bring us here.”
Hester sensed a leader in his midst. When the quarterback position came open, he chose Mario, not caring that physically he was hardly quarterback material.
Like Gail, the coach had seen something undeniable.
“The will drives him,” he said.
But for Mario, leading the Raiders and fulfilling his father’s desire would take both an emotional and physical toll. And the spotlights that so often found young men in the Glades and betstowed them with renown would be elusive for the unlikely quarterback.
If Davonte Allen had a nickname, it would be “Clean.”
For him, the menacing streets of Belle Glade were the great valley of the shadow of death that he steeled himself against each morning in prayer. But his feet had never walked those streets, something that Deacon Julius Hamilton would credit as one of his greatest achievements in life.
Davonte was raised in his grandparents’ tiny church overlooking the canal, where regal men still donned bowler hats in the Everglades summer. Growing up, he’d followed a rigid course of schoolwork, Bible study, athletics, and weekend chores. Crossing these lines guaranteed swift rebuke, “for the wrath of God shall fall upon the disobedient child,” Julius liked to warn.
In a region where many children never traveled as far as the coast, Davonte’s grandparents had shown him the country and introduced him to a bigger world. They’d enrolled him at Glades Day School, a private, mostly white institution on the opposite end of town that opened in the 1960s, before integration, and boasted six state football titles of its own.
After two years as a standout receiver for the Glades Day Gators, Davonte transferred into Glades Central already a champion. The diamond-studded ring from that season now sat on a shelf in his room next to his old Bible, a display that provided both daily nourishment and inspiration. For Davonte, the move to a lesser school was the only way to prove himself on a bigger stage, to get noticed by the Miami Hurricanes, then play on Sundays with a hometown girl cheering from the skybox. That was the dream. But to achieve it, he would first have to escape the long, imposing shadow of Kelvin Benjamin.
For the 96 percent of Glades Central students who did not wear the maroon and gold on Friday nights, there were no weekly faxes on Crimson Tide or Hurricanes stationery. There were no photo spreads in the Palm Beach Post, no middle-aged men in performance wear sending texts laced with promise; no eleventh-hour home visits by the head coach to seal the deal, and certainly no expense-paid tours of universities across the nation, replete with restaurant dinners, hotel rooms, and sultry coed escorts.
For the other 96 percent left in the shadow of football—and especially teenage girls, who accounted for 31 percent of all pregnancies in the Glades—getting a college scholarship was a hard-fought slog up a mountain whose peak was reached by only the most focused and diligent students. Luck could carry you only some of the way. For students like Jonteria Williams, it also helped to be fearless and never forget how to smile.
The smile was the first thing to radiate from her tiny, muscular frame, like a single pinhole pouring light through the darkness, her message to the world that said, I have chosen to shine, thank you.
The smile was front and center—on the sidelines of Effie Grear Field as she led the Raider cheerleaders through their chants; through the coursework of senior year and two college courses she attended each week to get ahead; through the corridors of the local hospital where she did her internship; through debutante practice, meetings at the Twenty Pearls sorority, and the planning committee for the prom and Senior Grad Bash. And the impulse to smile kept her eyes open another twenty hours each week at Winn-Dixie, where she stood over a cash register to help her mother pay the bills.
“Her smile is the smile,” said Theresa Williams. “Everyone always asks, ‘Is that your little girl in Winn-Dixie? She smiles all the time.’ ”
When Jonteria was eleven years old, Theresa sat her two daughters down and explained that their father was not coming home. John Williams, the competent, hardworking sole provider, had been arrested in Georgia and was serving a ten-year sentence. The man was gone in an instant. The girls were on their own.
That same year, watching her mother work two jobs to fill the gap, Jonteria announced she would become a doctor. Right away, mother and daughter formed an alliance in pursuit of this goal, because if Theresa knew anything, it was this: for a girl to make it out of the Glades and into medical school—poor, black, with a single parent and nary a connection—she would need a long and running start.
To understand where our characters and story begin, to feel the isolation of the far-flung Glades, first you must drive.
You begin in Palm Beach along Worth Avenue, “the Rodeo Drive of Florida,” where a parakeet caws from a coconut palm outside the Hermès store and a woman in tea-saucer shades keeps a limousine waiting. After three quick turns, you enter Southern Boulevard and keep your wheels pointed west, past Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago Club and the shopping malls of Wellington, until the land unfurls into a green carpet of sawgrass and sugarcane, and heatwaves dance along the bend of the earth. The plunge into wilderness is so sudden it brings to mind what you know about that road: how gators can cross at night and send a car careening into the canal, how the cane fires in autumn can jump the blacktop, and how, every spring, swarms of mating flies crossing the plain explode against the windshield like fat, yellow rain.
Forty minutes after leaving one of the wealthiest enclaves in America, you enter one of the poorest. The welcome sign that greets visitors to Belle Glade reads, her soil is her fortune, but any profits produced by the black, loamy muck have long eluded those still living there. The region was once known as the “Winter Vegetable Capital of the World.” But many of those fields and the jobs they produced were engulfed long ago by Big Sugar and the machines that now turned its fortunes. In 2009, the per-capita income in Belle Glade was just $14,018. Official unemployment stood at 25 percent, although city officials estimated it was closer to 40. The crumbling, sun-blasted apartment blocks in the migrant ghetto more resembled the outskirts of Kampala or Nairobi than any rural American town. It was a place so removed from modern society that some families had resorted to catching rainwater to survive.
In a farming town of 17,467 people, there were more than a dozen gangs that preyed on young men and saturated the downtown streets with cocaine. In 2003, Belle Glade had the third-highest violent crime rate in the country. Shootings remained near-weekly occurrences. AIDS had left its indelible scar and lingering stigma. If you stayed long enough, there came a time when you felt as if everyone you spoke with had been touched by some sort of tragic episode—so that even along Main Street, with its fast-food restaurants and sleek Bank of America branch, and within the quiet, middle-class neighborhoods, Belle Glade carried the aura of a trauma zone.