Pride and history take a hit in Pahokee as its football team struggles, frustrating its fan base
Monday, August 29, 2011
by Jeff Greer
Blaze Thompson, shown near the end of Pahokee's loss to Glades Central last season, says he's not worried about what others might say about the Blue Devils' recent struggles. (Photo by Thomas Cordy /The Palm Beach Post)
Pahokee's massive water tower, with its blue block letters and long shadow casting over downtown, exudes tradition and strength, both symbolic of this town's greatest pride: its famous high school football team.
But with the town hit hard by economic struggles - unemployment rates have soared north of 40 percent - the people of Pahokee are losing confidence in their favorite escape.
Pahokee High football has fallen on hard times.
The once-dominant program, which won five state championships from 2003 to 2008, has become saddled with great, and perhaps unfair, expectations.
Pahokee slumped its way to a 3-7 record last season, one of the worst in school history. And that was after crashing out of the first round of the 2009 playoffs. A 27-0 thrashing at the hands of Jupiter Christian in Friday's pre-season exhibition exacerbated concerns that this season may be another arduous campaign.
"Oh, yeah," said Blaze Thompson, Pahokee's fifth-year coach, when asked if his players feel the community pressure. "They know what the expectation is. They know what their predecessors have done.
"There are high expectations for this team regardless of whether we're legitimately reduced in talent."
A ROLLER-COASTER RIDE
Thompson, 42, graduated from Pahokee and was an assistant coach for the Blue Devils for 12 years before taking over as head coach in 2007.
He led Pahokee to two consecutive state championships in his first two seasons with his teams boasting players like Janoris Jenkins, Martavious Odoms and Micanor Regis, all who went on to play BCS-level football in college.
In 2009, Pahokee still produced a school-record 10 Division I signees on national signing day despite a 6-5 record and the playoff disappointment. In his four-plus years leading the program, Thompson has sent more than 25 players to Division I programs.
Then came 2010. The Blue Devils struggled in every aspect, ending with a 58-0 drubbing by rival Glades Central in the annual Muck Bowl.
"We got beat - bad - by a lot of teams," said Thompson's dad, Don, who coached Pahokee to its first-ever state title in 1989 and now is as an assistant . "We refused to believe we were that bad. We could never put our finger on it."
Senior receiver Shaquille White and linebacker Clint Everett offered their own theories.
"It was just terrible," White said. "We had players missing practice, arguing on the field with each other. Then we got embarrassed on our field (in the Muck Bowl)."
Everett cut in, "That was the worst."
Thompson had publicly warned before last season that his team had 22 new starters and was inexperienced, but that didn't stop the Pahokee fan base from chirping about Thompson's job status.
Friday night's exhibition loss amplified the grumbling.
Social media messages flew, with fans citing a disconnect between the coaches and the fan base and a misuse of talent. Don Thompson said he'd even heard rumors about a petition that demanded the dismissal of his son.
The angst over the on-the-field struggles has been enhanced by several off-the-field problems that have plagued Pahokee in recent years.
Pahokee was involved in a brawl with Miami-Booker T. Washington at a 7-on-7 event in 2008. On the college level, several Pahokee products, including Jenkins and former Tennessee signee Nu'Keese Richardson, have run into legal trouble and are no longer at the schools to which they matriculated.
All of the buzz surrounding the program has put Thompson, whose personality and sense of humor have made him well-liked among his coaching and teaching peers, in an awkward spot. While many fans acknowledge that they like their coach as a person, they're losing patience with him as a coach.
Pahokee principal Ariel Alejo strongly defended Thompson at halftime of the Jupiter Christian game.
"He's got a full vote of confidence from me," Alejo said, praising the "work behind the scenes" that Thompson does with his players and students alike. "You have success, but then there are also times when you have to reload and start from scratch.
"Academic achievement is our No. 1 priority. Coach Thompson is one of the best math teachers that I've worked with. He excels both inside and outside the classroom.
"Look, this community, they love their football team. They're very passionate about it. Everybody wants to win, but when you are reloading your team, it's a process."
Thompson shrugged off the chatter.
"I can never go into a season worried about exterior pressures," he said.
This fall, he's been locking the gates to Anquan Boldin Stadium for practice, and his father said he's working overtime to bring back Pahokee football.
"I'm optimistic," the younger Thompson said. "Look, I'm not stupid. Obviously last year wasn't to our liking, but we're realists. All we can do is set a goal and try to achieve it."
That goal is to eventually bring back the pride and pedigree that defined Pahokee football, that once made a mightily struggling town remain confident in one thing: its football team.
"My desire for this team to win far outweighs anyone else's desire to win," Blaze said. "I don't have sleepless nights because I'm afraid of what someone might say to me."