The children of Belle Glade, Fla., did not pay attention to the high school football game, because they were too busy listening to the horns and the drums, pretending that every triumphant fight song was being blasted for them. Sports offered a road away from the rough area, and Will Likely knew this, so as a child he often retreated with his friends to a side field during Glades Central Raiders games, timing their touchdowns with the music of the band.
“That’s the only thing we know,” Likely said. “Just going out there to get dirty.”
The stories of Muck City are legion and legendary. Many know how residents chase rabbits through burned sugarcane fields, snatching the animals to cook or sell. Conies veer faster than football players, so increased agility is often a byproduct of this work, and the dozens of NFL stars who have emerged from Belle Glade and nearby Pahokee reflect a lasting tradition of football excellence.
At some point during their childhoods, Likely, Demetrius Evans and Davonte Allen all transitioned from wide-eyed idolaters to idols themselves, wearing the Raiders maroon and gold, worshiped by a new cycle of children playing touch football near the stadium. They will carry this legacy into Friday’s Military Bowl, where Likely, a freshman cornerback for Maryland, will face his former high school teammates, who now play wide receiver for Marshall.
“Everyone in Belle Glade is part of the whole big family,” said Evans, a senior. “That’s why every year it’s just great player, great player, great player for us. You look up to each other and push each other. It’s so competitive.”
Indoctrination happens early. Allen, now a sophomore for the Thundering Herd, remembers bolting to his aunt’s house after grade school on Fridays, impatiently waiting for a ride to the game. Cousins and brothers preceded Evans at Glades Central, and he sometimes marveled at how his “heroes” shared the same table for dinner.
When Likely gathered his friends for pickup football, they imagined themselves playing together on the big field nearby. He had grown up watching future NFL players like Travis Benjamin (Cleveland Browns) and Deonte Thompson (Baltimore Ravens), but bigger names like Santonio Holmes and Fred Taylor also cast a shadow over anyone climbing through the ranks.
Plus, there was a reputation to uphold at Glades Central, one of state championships and undefeated seasons. Anything else is “unacceptable,” Evans said.
“Everybody’s saying ‘I’m going to be a star at Glades Central,’ ” said Likely, who as a junior was named the Gatorade state player of the year. “When that time comes, you’re like, ‘Wow.’ You look back on the things you did and said, and it’s right in front of your face.”
This fall, Evans and Allen possess modest statistics — 19 catches, 134 yards for the former, eight catches, 137 yards for the latter, three touchdowns between them — while Likely developed into one of the ACC’s most dangerous returners, started 10 games at cornerback and was chosen to several freshmen all-American teams. After Likely snagged his first college interception against Syracuse, Coach Randy Edsall said he “epitomizes everything you want in a football player.”
Each former Raider authored his own path out from Belle Glade, even if two ended up at the same school. Evans only played one year of high school football because basketball was his favorite sport. Allen felt pressure to attend bigger-name programs like Miami or West Virginia — “everywhere but Marshall,” he said — but wanted to be different. The same went for Likely, who grabbed a Terrapins pennant during his commitment ceremony last December, spurning the hats of LSU, Florida State and Miami that sat before him.
“Yeah I was kind of surprised, but then again I wasn’t,” Allen said of Likely. “He’s the type who builds his own legacy. He doesn’t like to follow anybody else. Nobody can tell him where else to go. He just follows his heart.”
And so heart — and a little bit of fate — led these three into bowl week, their reunion now two days away. At some point Friday afternoon, Likely will line up opposite Allen or Evans, hands poised by his side, ready to chase his former teammates like he used to chase rabbits.
There will be no trash talk, they promised, because they have been trading friendly, supportive text messages since the matchup was announced. But when a big play happens at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium and the band erupts in song, their minds might just transport back to the fields of Muck City, when they were just children dreaming of their turn in the spotlight.
Note: Quarterback/wide receiver Ricardo Young, who came to his fourth college seeking opportunity and another fresh start, was suspended for the Military Bowl for a violation of team rules, a team official said Tuesday. He did not travel with the Terrapins to the team hotel in D.C., and the status of his future with the program remains uncertain.
Young appeared in just three games during his junior season, carrying twice against both Old Dominion and Clemson. When a rash of injuries befell several wide receivers, Young spent the final weeks of the season learning to play slot receiver.