State of Florida Clearly Has a Handle on Football
Monday, January 29, 2007
MIAMI -- Standing in full pads on the edge of a neatly manicured football field awaiting the start of an all-star practice, Eain Smith, a slender, fleet-footed safety from a private Catholic high school just north of Miami, cannot suppress a grin. He earned a full ride to West Virginia University next fall, so he is feeling good. He recalls his supporters, their fervor. They jammed the stands to watch him play, holding "Go Eain!" signs adorned with his No. 6 and photos of him. They cheered like crazy.
And that, he said, was back in pee-wee football. When he was 4 years old.
When the Indianapolis Colts and Chicago Bears meet in Super Bowl XLI on Sunday to determine the NFL champion, the event will offer merely a more hyped and glamorous version of a typical winter weekend in South Florida.
The region's football tradition might be the richest in the country. Miles from the glittering Art Deco buildings on South Beach and almost forgotten amid statistics that declare metropolitan Miami a mix of transplants, immigrants and outsiders, there are hard-scrabble, close-knit neighborhoods. And in those neighborhoods, easy to get in, difficult to leave, boys have long invested their futures in football.
For many youngsters in South Florida, particularly in the mostly black, inner-city communities, the Super Bowl seems less a glitzy one-time event than a realistic long-term goal. The region provides the largest pipeline to the NFL in the nation. More current NFL players, 42, attended the University of Miami than any other school. Florida State University, in Tallahassee, is second with 41, and the University of Florida, in Gainesville, is seventh with 35.
And of the six high schools that boasted five graduates on opening day NFL rosters, three are located in South Florida: Blanche Ely, Dillard and Miami Senior high schools. A week into the season, Miami Senior High's total went to six.
"Everybody has a chance to go," said Joshua Stanley, a towering offensive lineman from Ely, wearing an extra-large jersey over a hefty midsection as he, Smith and other all-stars prepared for practice just a few miles south of Dolphin Stadium, the Super Bowl site. "At our school, the spring game, we had over 30 or 40 Division I scouts out to our facility. They know where the talent's at."
Stanley says pickup football games often break out on local basketball courts. "That's all we do down here," he said. "It's a football state."
Miami, which is more than 50 percent Latino, defies any singular description. If it's a football town, it's also another dozen things, no label more apt than the next. Gleaming hotels, celebrities and beaches attract tourists. But postcards don't depict the flat expanse between the ocean and Everglades that is jammed with people, congested roadways and precious little green space. And it is replete with football stadiums.
Kids take up the sport as toddlers in youth leagues whose games draw dozens, if not hundreds of family members, friends and bystanders. High school championships attract tens of thousands. The year-round warm weather means players never have to retreat indoors. South Florida high schools allow a 20-day, full-pad spring season that, coaches say, effectively gives players a fifth season of experience.
And the speed that is a trademark of Florida football players is attributed in part to the plethora of inner-city track programs and to the early and consistent exposure to the game. Players don't merely have pure speed, they have game quickness, a product of playing constantly against high-caliber competition.
"Speed is the king down here," said Mark Guandolo, head coach at Chaminade-Madonna, Smith's school just north of Miami. "You grow up running. If you're not fast, you won't be playing for very long."