SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
It's almost certain that during this NFL season, you'll see a player from a place that's called "Muck City." There are five graduates from Belle Glade, Florida, in the NFL right now. And over the past generation, Belle Glade Central High School has sent 30 players on to the NFL. They're proud of that record, but has it also come at a cost? Bryan Mealer spent a year in the town of Belle Glade, Florida. His new book spotlights the stories of players, their families, their coach; and a town struggle to win a spot on the field, and in life. His new book is "Muck City: Winning And Losing In Football's Forgotten Town." Bryan Mealer joins from member station KUT in Austin, Texas. Thanks so much for being with us.
BRYAN MEALER: Thanks for having me, Scott.
SIMON: And this story isn't just about a football program, but a town that struggles with very serious problems. Help us understand Belle Glade.
MEALER: Belle Glade is about 40 miles from Palm Beach, Florida - one of the wealthiest enclaves in the country. It was started, as a lot of towns in south Florida, with the draining of the Everglades. And the result was this low-mead, black soil that we call "the muck." For years, Belle Glade and surrounding areas produced most of the leafy greens that we consumed, in our country. It was once called the "Winter Vegetable Capital of the World." In the '60s, that kind of changed. The sugar industry came in and would hire - instead of local labor, they would - started bringing in people from Caribbean; these H-2 workers - that they were called. And they cut the cane year after year, until the mid-'90s, when machines could do it. Once the machines came in, we saw just chronic underemployment, chronic unemployment, in the Glades. And right now, I think the official unemployment in Belle Glade is about 25 percent, although the mayor will tell you it's about 40. And it's - the crime, the degradation and just the blight, as a result of that, is very obvious.
SIMON: As sad and even outrageous as that sounds, is there some feeling that doing without and being without, makes players from Muck City more eager yet to prove themselves?
MEALER: Absolutely. It's been ingrained in them, from the time they were born. Their dads, their uncles, their cousins, old friends - they all played football. You know, a great story about the Glades is that back in the '40s and '50s and '60s, you know, the town was racially segregated, like a lot of places in the South. The white school, Belle Glade High - they had a great football tradition there. The black students - at Lake Shore High - had that tradition as well, but they were kind of hindered in that because, you know, every year when school ended, most of those families, they would - they were migrants. And so they would pile into cars; they would pile into these Blue Bird buses. And they would go up to Northern states - Jersey, New York, Michigan - and they would pick vegetables and fruits. And so by the time they got back in October - they would trickle in, through the fall - there was no chemistry of a team.
And so one day, the Heinz company - were recruiting players from various high schools across the South and - to go up and work in their vegetable fields. And they would spend the days dragging these hampers of vegetables behind them. It was hot, but they loved it because during the day, after the work was done, they would start this football practice. And they came back, and they won every game that they played. And this kind of began that tradition, in the Glades. So once, you know, there was no jobs anymore, football became the only - kind of life raft away from this place that kept - kind of sinking back in time. And it's still that way today.
SIMON: A town hero, Jesse Hester, comes back to become the football coach. This is a man who played - I guess - 11 seasons in the NFL. He had the means to leave the town behind, but thought he might make a difference. Coach Hester said that he wasn't there to win games, though, was he?
MEALER: Right. When he first took the job, he told friends and families - like, I'm not here to win championships, I'm here to win kids; and was quickly put to the test. He, you know - his assistant coaches were constantly, you know, getting kids to counseling because during that season as well, the captain of the Hokie Blue Devils - which is the rival team, just eight miles across the cane; which has sent, you know, equal number of kids to the NFL, etc. - was murdered in Belle Glade after the Homecoming game - and the similar things had happened to players at Glade Central.
SIMON: What about the classroom? 'Cause you also provide an insight into a school that's failing, academically.
MEALER: Yeah. Glade Central High School was a perennial underperformer, in Florida. In fact, Glade Central is the poorest high school in the state of Florida. Its isolation takes a huge psychological toll on its students. And so when I got there, this principal - Anthony Anderson - had come aboard, and kind of took it upon himself to be a reformer. And there had been reformers in the past, at Glade Central. A woman named Mary Evans had come in a few years ago, and fired the football coach. She zero-based the entire staff. And in fact, the grades came up. She had - you know, disbanded the booster club, taken out the trophies from the case. And you know, the town nearly rioted, as a result.
SIMON: Mr. Miller, in the end, has football done as much for Belle Glade, as the families of Belle Glade have done for football?
MEALER: Well, football has sent more kids to college - in the Glades - than anything else. You know, some years, there were - you know, as many as 12 or 13 kids going to Division 1. It opens a door to a lot of these guys - you know - they otherwise, wouldn't have. But at the same time, you know, it is such a pressure-cooker environment and often, it is so prioritized above all else. Belle Glade is full of old gridiron teams, you know, who never were able to get out. They - in fact, you know, Glade Central is probably the only school I've ever been to, in this country, where the students are largely absent from the football games. In the stands are these men; these old - kind of old heroes who never had their chance. It was like, kind of pining over this - kind of innocence lost.
It's interesting this year because the Raiders, for the first time in their history, started the season 0 and 4. They went four games without winning a game. And what you're seeing now is, the reason they are 0 and 4, is - I think - the Palm Beach Post just ran this great story about a lot of the kids' parents are moving out. You know, there are no jobs; the gang violence has gotten so out of control. And so people are getting sick of this, and so they're moving to the coast. They're moving to West Palm Beach and Wellington, to where there's more of a future for their kids. What we're seeing in Belle Glade, I think, is probably what you saw in Pennsylvania and a lot of these steel-mining towns and stuff in, you know, earlier years; where, you know, the economy kind of falls apart and these schools, they're no longer these titans anymore. As people move out to seek a better life, these traditions fade.
SIMON: Bryan Mealer joined us from KUT, in Austin. His new book, "Muck City: Winning and Losing in Football's Forgotten Town." Thanks so much.
MEALER: Thank you, Scott. It was a pleasure.