The people around Miami Gardens still remember that magical night in Tallahassee for two reasons: the cold, and The Catch.
The mercury had dipped into the 30s at Doak Campbell Stadium, turning the football into something resembling a curbstone. There were 23 seconds left on the clock and the Norland Vikings trailed Orlando Edgewater, 14-13, with the ball on their own 39. It was fourth down.
As the ball was snapped, quarterback Robert Spence backpedaled — ignoring his No. 1 receiver, a future NFL standout — and threw the ball in the direction of Sean Bailey around the Edgewater 40-yard line. The five-foot-eight, 149-pounder — who said he had never scored a touchdown, not even in Pee Wee level — reeled it in. Then, the kid nicknamed “Old Slow Feet” (though he was actually quite swift) outsprinted two defenders to the 30, to the 20, to the 10, to the 5 ...
Crossing into the end zone, he pointed skyward as he thought of his father, a construction worker who had died five years earlier. Suddenly, bedlam.
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It sounds like some Disney screenwriter’s fantasy, but it happened — 10 years ago this fall.
High school football has plenty of problems, from too-powerful head coaches to grade-fudging teachers to the sometimes wink-and-nod disregard of recruiting rules. But there is a beauty and clarity in what goes on between the sidelines, especially in South Florida. Nowhere is the quality of play higher. Perennial powers like Northwestern and St. Thomas Aquinas are conveyor belts to the major college programs. According to one study, only Los Angeles has produced more current NFL players than Miami.
And then there are the Norlands. When Norland won its championship 10 years ago with that lightning strike to Bailey, it was the school’s first state title in football — and its first of any kind in decades — magnifying its importance.
LIFE AFTER HIGH SCHOOL
After high school football, there is the rest of your life. Since that incandescent instant, members of the 2002 Vikings have carved separate paths, becoming preachers, teachers, bus drivers and businessmen. Three play in the National Football League, a remarkable bounty of talent and achievement. They have retained strong ties to each other and to their alma mater.
Not all stories are successes. A couple of teammates have gone to prison and one has died.
“That game did more for us than probably anything,” said B.J. Manley, the star running back who is now a local elementary school teacher and the team’s de facto alumni board president.
“I can go win a Super Bowl ring and make it to Pro Bowls, but I’ll always think back to that game when we won our first state,” said Antwan Barnes. “Those guys I was around, the bond we had.”
THE HIGHEST LEVEL
Barnes could truly win a Super Bowl. A quick and powerful linebacker, he is one of the three members of Norland’s ’02 team currently playing in the NFL. But his road to riches was no limo ride. Scholarship offers from big-time programs dried up during Barnes’ senior year, and so he signed with Florida International University, a doormat in those days, where he flourished. Barnes was all-conference in 2006, and the following spring, the Baltimore Ravens drafted him in the fourth round.
He struggled to find a spot on the Ravens’ stout defense, and was given even less of a chance in Philadelphia after a 2010 trade. The Eagles cut him, but that setback turned out to be a blessing. Barnes signed with the San Diego Chargers, and is now one of the league’s rising defensive stars. He tallied 11 quarterback sacks last year, fifth-most in the AFC.
Of the former Vikings, the greatest NFL success, without question, has been achieved by Dwayne Bowe, who recently inked a one-year contract with the Kansas City Chiefs worth more than $9 million. Bowe, 27, earned that windfall with a Pro Bowl year in 2010, and back-to-back seasons of more than 1,000 receiving yards.
The achievements of Bowe and Barnes are no surprise to their high school coach, Nigel Dunn. “Dwayne Bowe and Antwan Barnes were incredible,” he said.
Richard Gordon, 25, is the youngest of the three in the pros, and the latest to the party. After graduating from Norland, he enrolled at Milford Academy in New York for a year before signing with the University of Miami. An injury cost him his 2009 season, but he bounced back to win the team’s most improved player award in 2010, and the Oakland Raiders took a chance on him with a late-round pick in the 2011 draft.
Others, like Bobbie Williams, have come tantalizingly close to living their NFL dream, only to see it elude their grasp.
Williams had offers from programs in college football’s premier classification, but ultimately chose to attend Bethune Cookman, the small, historically black college in Daytona Beach.
There, the play-making safety sparkled. Williams earned all-conference and all-American honors, and had high hopes that his name would be called in the 2008 draft.
It wasn’t. Disappointed, Williams earned a month-long audition with the Detroit Lions, and put himself in position to make the team with a solid training camp. But roster spots are a finite resource — and usually go to prospects with a richer pedigree — so the Lions ultimately jettisoned Williams.
“I certainly have a sour lemon in my mouth,” said Williams, who now supports his daughter by laying concrete. “But it’s life. You’ve got to move on.”
Alexander Bostic III, a linebacker who played alongside Barnes at both Norland and FIU, knows exactly how painful that is. Bostic, 27, moved to South Dakota after graduation in pursuit of a pro football career, playing a year for the Sioux Falls Storm of the Indoor Football League.
But like Williams, there came a time when the demands of life eclipsed his desire to play. Bostic is married with two children, including son Alexander IV, in Atlanta. And he traded his helmet for a hymnal. Like his father — the longtime pastor of First Baptist Church of Bunche Park — Bostic became a minister. He also runs Right Path Program, which helps student-athletes get eligible for college, and holds a series of football camps throughout the South. Naturally, he called upon some of his high school buddies to serve as counselors, and many — including Bowe and Barnes — have complied.
Manley, the star running back, has twice been named rookie of the year, but not on the football field. Since graduating from Florida Atlantic University, where he helped the Owls reach back-to-back bowl games, Manley has dedicated his life to helping kids as an elementary school teacher in Miami-Dade County.
Twice, at two different schools, he has been named the top first-year teacher — initially at Parkway Elementary, then at Myrtle Grove.
Having grown up in the community, Manley has an affinity for the kids, and especially those with difficult home lives.
“So many of them are without fathers, so many of them, the mothers are there but they have multiple children,” Manley said. “Our boys in elementary really, really need a role model.”
SENSE OF LOSS
Manley and his Norland teammates learned early on just how fragile a life without guidance can be. Twenty-one months before the state championship game, the Vikings lost perhaps their most promising player.
Damien Miller was just 15 when a friend, Derrick Lee Cockroft, fatally shot the high school sophomore in the neck. Miller was playing video games; Cockroft was playing with a stolen gun.
Miller was one of the few underclassmen to start the previous fall. Cockroft, who was not a member of the team but Miller’s neighborhood friend, pleaded guilty to manslaughter and other charges. He was released from prison in January 2011 after serving six years.
The killing rocked the team. Bobbie Williams fainted at Miller’s funeral. Coach Dunn, who had spoken to Miller many times about the need to distance himself from the streets’ more unsavory elements, was crushed.
Three years later, Dunn and his team experienced a sickening sense of déjà vu when news spread of Donald Redding III’s death.
Redding, a burly offensive lineman who transferred to Norland the summer before the state championship season, disappeared on Dec. 21, 2003. Redding was packed to visit his parents in North Carolina the next day, but never made it home from his job at Popeye’s. Authorities discovered his pickup truck, its door ajar, parked alongside the Snake Creek Canal near where it crosses under Ives Dairy Road.
On Christmas Day, he was found in the water, dead at 19.
Authorities surmised it was a suicide, but the case remains open.
“With his character, no way he committed suicide,” Manley insisted. “He had too much to live for.”
Another death in the Norland family hit just as hard. Cindy Toussaint passed away after a brief, painful bout with breast cancer. Roughly half of the state championship team gathered for her service.
She was the mother of former Norland linebacker Vilbrun Toussaint, and also the 2002 team’s spiritual leader. Just 51 when she died, Toussaint was head of Norland’s Fellowship of Christian Athletes during her son’s high school days. “Miss Cindy” not only traveled with the team during its championship run and led the pre-game prayer, but also acted as a surrogate mom for many.
“It uplifted me, knowing that mom made an impact in their lives,” said her son, who still lives locally.
For others, life after high school football has been troubled. Kareem Williams, a senior defensive lineman on the state championship team, enrolled at Florida A&M after graduating from Norland. A year later, he was caught dabbling in check forgery and identity fraud, police say. He received probation. A subsequent arrest resulted in 16 months behind bars. Efforts to reach Williams, who was released in 2009, were unsuccessful.
Keon Braswell, a Norland cornerback who signed with Rutgers after graduation, only to get booted off the team his freshman year because of grades, has been arrested both in Tallahassee and South Florida on charges that include drugs, sexual battery and aggravated assault with a weapon in the years since. Convictions have resulted in jail stints and probation, and yet he seems to keep making the same mistakes.
Miami Gardens had Braswell, now 27, listed as a missing person for much of 2011, although he eventually surfaced — only to land in trouble again for allegedly threatening his girlfriend at gunpoint and leading police on a chase through West Broward. He awaits trial on charges of aggravated assault with a firearm and possession of a firearm by a convicted felon.
But for the most part, the 2002 Vikings are ordinary guys who shared an extraordinary bond, living productive lives with strong ties to this day to their school.
When Norland’s football team captured the school’s second state championship last fall, the stands were filled with graduates of the 2002 class. Bowe and Barnes would regularly call Athletic Director Ira Fluitt on game nights, and requested that he put them on speaker phone, so they could offer words of encouragement.
When asked his fondest recollections from his high school days, Barnes didn’t speak of Bailey’s unlikely touchdown, but of a team sleepover from earlier that year. They had all been locked in the school cafeteria the night before a regular season game, and when the lights went out, the pranks began.
“Guys were afraid to go to sleep,” Barnes said.
When Manley exchanged vows with his college sweetheart this past March, the gala was part-wedding, part-reunion.
Barnes was there. So were Garrett Brown and Rick Maxwell, former Norland wide receivers who together started a custom T-shirt business. Spence, the Vikings’ starting quarterback who still lives in the area, wouldn’t have missed it
“We’d do anything for him,” said Omar Meza, the Norland defensive back-turned-crane operator. “We’re all friends forever.”
OLDER AND WISER
Bailey was there, too. The school and friendships forged there have been a rock through a lifetime of struggle.
When Sean Sr. died before his son’s 13th birthday, Angela Page — Sean’s mom — was left as the family’s lone breadwinner. She owned a modest nail salon, and the family managed to get by until another family tragedy.
Dana Cody, his younger sister, was cooking hamburgers and fell asleep. When she awoke, the house was in flames.
Though no one was hurt, the blaze splintered the family. Mother and daughter moved to Alabama, while Sean stayed local, living with his uncle Robert within the Norland district lines. He went out for football, and was determined to play wide receiver, despite the team’s depth at that position and his diminutive stature.
But size meant nothing on that cold December night, when he raced down the field and into Norland folklore.
While that moment is immortal for Norland fans, Bailey’s life has moved on.
He enrolled at Tuskegee University the following fall, and walked onto the football team. After graduation, he opened a car wash in Alabama.
By then, his mom and sister had moved back to South Florida, and bought a house in Miami Gardens. Life was good. Then his mother was diagnosed with leukemia.
Bailey gave up his business and moved back home to care for his mom during her worst days. She died last November. Now, he lives in her house with his sister, who has taken over the nail business. Bailey uses his mom’s old cellphone — it’s still her voice on the recorded greeting.
Bailey can become emotional when discussing that cold night in Tallahassee, but insists that the catch doesn’t define him, that the real highlights of his life are ahead.
But when the subject of the 2002 Norland Vikings comes up, people still like to relive “The Catch” — “all the doggone time.”