Pahokee, FL Football and its Mentors

by Louis Bayer

Pahokee, FL., is a dot at the southeast shore of Lake Okeechobe situated in the scrub lands of south Florida. It is home to mostly African Americans.

The Community is a Mecca of elite high school football players. The football team routinely sends its players to the country’s top college football programs. While this rural village is unknown to Florida’s teeming tourists, it is as known to college football coaches as Hollywood is to movie industry executives; there are years when all the senior starting players are offered football scholarships to colleges across America.

Driving down Main Street–where you must keep your eyes on the road at all times to avoid potholes–through the center of town, you see and feel the poverty of Pahokee. The annual per family income is about $20,000.00. Most residents work in the hot sun of the nearby sugarcane fields which require back breaking labor.

The streets are littered with fast food wrappers. The town’s Walmart is at the west end of Main Street–its parking lot is the social place for the teen aged kids.

On the left side of the street, there is the lush green manicured football field which the home folks have informally named the “way out” field. Talented players use these hundred yards to escape from Pahokee’s high crime rate and devastating poverty.  It’s a “field of dreams” for the Pahokee players who pay the price to qualify for the college game. Inner cities and rural communities across America have “way out” fields and courts for talented players. Some win the lottery but most go bust, perpetuating the cycle.

Each year hundreds of college coaches from the elite college football programs find their way to Pahokee to view practices and games. They talk to Pahokee’s coaches.

On a per capita basis, Pahokee has sent more football players to colleges and the NFL than any locale in America. At last count, more than 30 Pahokee players have made it to the NFL, including Anquan Boldin, Rickey Jackson, Fred Taylor, Antoine Smith, Alfonso Smith, and Pernell McPhee. These players grew up in a town of about 6,000 residents, 32% of whom live below the Nation’s income poverty line. Most of the rest are close.

The obstacles to overcome by these gridiron warriors are not a lack of physical ability. The speed and muscle are apparent. What is not apparent are the deficiencies most of these players have as to life skills, study skills, passing grades, and the ability to leave Pahokee’s harsh environment if they don’t get that D1 scholarship–there is no meaningful future for the kids that remain behind.

Most of Pahokee’s youth accept Pahokee’s life style. They have little or no way out, and are resigned to their fate–a lifetime of labor in the harsh cane fields. Change is difficult for a “street corner” kid.

Many players who have the athletic ability to leave the Pahokees of America lack the desire, confidence, and the know-how for better lives. The life they have lived is too familiar for change.

College coaches need and want these players. The high school coaches want “their boys” to move on to campuses. The goal is to find a way to reach the street kids, and show them they can meet the challenges that come with moving upward.

The goal is simple, but difficult to accomplish. Enter the adult mentor. A mentor will help the kids, and their families understand that there is a life beyond Pahokee if the youngsters:

– will be serious about academics
– can develop a positive self-worth and desire to achieve
– will make a commitment to live within the laws of the community

Who are these mentors? Where do they live? Why are they motivated to help unknown youngsters? There is a common goal shared by the mentors, to help kids find their “way out”

Mentors have diverse backgrounds.Their neighborhoods are different.They work in white or blue collared jobs. Some have been college or pro athletes while others have never played organized sports. They do not share a common race, the same skin color, ethnicity, nationality, religion or gender. They do share the common goal, to teach their “students” to understand they can leave street gangs, poverty, and crime, and become members of an orderly society. I drove to Pahokee with a mentor to see the community, and better understand the mentors’ work. The typical mentor has been helping street kids for more than five years. They have worked with players who have become college All Americans, and moved to the next level, the National Football League.

The Pahookee players sweat in the draining sun, practice to exhaustion, and suffer injuries to reach football’s top rung. Mentors are asked to become involved by school principals, guidance counselors, or coaches. Their work is a labor of love. There is no compensation and they pay their own expenses. Their reward is the intrinsic value in seeing kids leave behind the Pehokees of America.

I met the young players–and their coaches–practicing on the “way out” field. The players’ eyes show the desire to excel and to leave the life of Pahokee. They want to play their way out of the community infested with street gangs, illegal drugs, routine crimes, and the wood shanties that are their homes. Mentors have about a 60% success rate with the young. It is hard for these kids to leave their families, and the learned life of Pahokee. If they depart for colleges across America, their families and friends are left behind to work the cane fields….

Louis Bayer played college baseball.  He saw that too many athletes grew up in troubled environments with no life skills or ambitions beyond athletics.  He has mentored high school and college athletes with the hope he could assist them along the way.


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