Will Likely waited patiently, for the cane fields to burn and the rabbits to run. He was wearing “playing clothes” — little-used sneakers, shorts and a T-shirt, because sometimes the rabbits veer through the mud and you don’t want to get your favorite duds dirty. It was an average sweltering day in the Muck, the south-central Florida football haven that’s produced dozens of NFL players, including Santonio Holmes, Anquan Boldin and Fred Taylor.
And Likely had some chasing to do.
Yes, the stories are true, the Maryland freshman cornerback says. Folks in the Muck, which contains the small towns of Belle Glade and Pahokee, really do chase rabbits, catch them and, if you can stomach it, snap their necks and cook them for food. Likely doesn’t partake in that last part, but it’s still easy to recognize where his speed was born.
“Just something to do,” Likely said.
In the Muck, chasing rabbits isn’t legendary. It’s a way of life. Most days, Likely said, he worked in two cane fields, expansive and iridescent, roughly the size of a football field. They start by burning cane before the harvest, which disintegrates the “trash” – dry leaves, straw and the like – and smokes out the rabbits.
“Then we’ll wait on the side and the rabbits will start running out,” Likely said. “They run to get away from the fire. While they’re running fast, we have to try to catch them.”
Rabbits, you see, don’t run straight. They zig-zag. Hop to and fro, out of the fields and through the mud. They don’t want to be caught. Often, they have no choice.
“Yeah,” Likely said, “it’s a real thing.”
The Gatorade Florida Player of the Year as a junior, Likely began to notice a difference on the field. When runners started cutting, Likely easily kept pace. What’s a football player, if not a giant, padded rabbit?
“At one point, you’re just out there doing it, but on the field, you realize that when a person cuts, you can cut back, and you trace it back to the rabbits cutting,” Likely said. “Rabbits are way quicker.”
A favorite of Coach Randy Edsall, Likely graduated early from Glades Central High School and enrolled at Maryland this spring. The former four-star defensive back had offers from Alabama, Florida, Florida State, Georgia, Louisville, Clemson, Oregon, Southern California, and LSU, among others, but chose College Park instead.
He is currently listed as Maryland’s third-string cornerback behind Jeremiah Johnson and Isaac Goins, but could easily work his way into the nickel corner role. At Monday’s inaugural preseason practice, Likely intercepted a pass by quarterback Ricardo Young and almost had another later in the one-on-one drill, diving in front of Tejiri Ehrie on an inside slant route.
“Will? I’ve liked Will since he’s gotten here,” Edsall said afterwards. “He’s just got some innate ability that you don’t coach, some instincts and knowledge of the game. I think Will’s going to be a good one for us and he’s in that mix to be a contributor this year.”
On an average day in the Muck, Likely said, he catches around five rabbits, sometimes in one cane field, sometimes in two. Players from the area don’t usually brag about their leporine exploits, which rose to prominence thanks to articles on ESPN.com and in Sports Illustrated.
Here’s Austin Murphy, in Sports Illustrated:
Local lore has it that the Muck, as this part of south-central Florida is known, produces so many fast football players because they grow up chasing rabbits. That’s an oversimplification. It’s not that they chase rabbits. It’s that they find it necessary to chase rabbits.
The estimated per capita income in Pahokee (pop. 6,598) and Belle Glade (pop. 16,681) is about $13,000. According to a study released in August by the Palm Beach County Economic Development Office, unemployment in the Glades region is running close to 40%. In these parts you can sell fresh-killed rabbits for two bucks apiece—$1.50 more if the animals are skinned and dressed. Or you can keep them and cook them yourself. When Florida coach Urban Meyer talks, as he often does, about loving players from the Glades because they’re “hungry,” he might be speaking literally.
“Hunting rabbits isn’t some hobby for a lot of people,” says Willie Jones, a former Raider who had a four-year career as an NFL offensive tackle. “It’s a way for you to eat.”
Here’s Eric Adelson, for ESPN.com’s Page 2:
So the kids learned how to face the fire, inhale the smoke and not turn away. They learned to stand downwind from the flames, squinting and coughing until it feels like their heads are melting, because that’s where the rabbits come out. They learned to wait for the tractors, watching for the last sliver of cane to crumple underneath the last thrasher blade, leaving the rabbits nowhere to hide. They learned how to outlast and outsmart their prey, to judge angles and ratchet up closing speed. They learned that a rabbit will dart at the last possible second, like a running back. They learned to dive into the muck, come up with nothing and dive again. And they learned to catch and hold onto something slick while running for more.
Except many of Likely’s teammates think it’s fake. They think it’s the stuff of legends, from a region that’s bred so many of them on the football field. But it’s not. It’s very real, and Likely takes pride in hailing from that world.
“It’s a small town,” Likely said. “Ain’t too much to do but play football. That’s all we know. It’s a great opportunity to go to college and showcase our talents.”