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For Some, Gridiron The Only Escape From 'Muck City'

Bryan Mealer is the author of <em>The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind</em>. His work has appeared in <em>Best American Travel Writing</em> and was chosen for an Overseas Press Club Award citation.
Ann Marie Healy / Crown Archetype
Crown Archetype
Bryan Mealer is the author of The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind. His work has appeared in Best American Travel Writing and was chosen for an Overseas Press Club Award citation.

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, Fla., in the NFL right now. Belle Glade, on the shore of Lake Okeechobee, is surrounded by black soil, also known as the "muck" that's renowned for growing sweet corn, vegetables and sugar cane.

Over the past generation, Belle Glade Central High School has sent 30 players onto the NFL. The school is proud of that record, but it may have come at a cost.

Bryan Mealer spent a year in the town of Belle Glade, Fla., and his new book, Muck City: Winning and Losing in Football's Forgotten Town, spotlights the stories of players, their families, their coach and a town that struggles to win a spot on the field, and life. He talked with Weekend Edition host Scott Simon about the town's story — a story that's more than just about football.

Interview Highlights

On understanding Belle Glade

"It was started, as a lot of towns in south Florida, with the draining of the Everglades. And the result was this loamy, black soil we called 'the muck.' In the '60s, the sugar industry came and would hire, instead of local labor, they started bringing in people from the Caribbean. 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 and unemployment in the Glades. Right now I think the official unemployment is about 20 percent."

On Belle Glade's football players

"[Football] has been ingrained in them from the time they were born; their dads, their uncles, their cousins — they all played football. Once there was no jobs anymore, football became the only kind of life raft away from this place that kept sinking back in time. And it's still that way today."

On Belle Glade's relationship with football

"Football has sent more kids to college in the Glade than anything else. It opens a door to a lot of these guys that they otherwise wouldn't have. At the same time, it is such a pressure-cooker environment and often it is so often prioritized above all else. Belle Glade is full of these grid-iron kings who were never able to get out.

"It's interesting this year because the [Glades Central] Raiders for the first time in their history started the season 0-4. They went four games without winning. The reason ... is I think a lot of the kids' parents are moving out. There are no jobs, the gang violence has gotten out of control and so people are getting sick of this. They're moving to the coast ... where there's more of a future for their kids. [When] the economy sort of falls apart, these schools are no longer these titans anymore. When the people move out to seek a better life, these traditions fade."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

NPR Staff