Miami Book Fair

Belle Glade: fertile ground for sugar, football stars

Bryan Mealer had heard the stories of the town at the edge of the Everglades that produced two exports: sugar and football stars.

He had heard about how the kids there ran faster, played better. How they inhabited the NFL by the dozens: 30 since 1985, with five of those drafted in the first round.

But as a freelance journalist who had covered the war in the Democratic Republic of Congo, he knew there were more to the clichés, more chapters to the story.

So Mealer chased the story all the way to Belle Glade — renting a room at the Horizon Inn on Main Street for six months, commuting monthly another six months, then writing in a tool shed-turned-studio in the back of his New York farm house for another year.

The result is a complex portrait of the community: Muck City: Winning and Losing in Football’s Forgotten Town (Crown Archetype, $25).

“I was stunned to see this kind of poverty and decay so close to the gated communities of Palm Beach and Fort Lauderdale,’’ said Mealer, author of the New York Times bestseller The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind. “I knew I wanted to know more about Belle Glade.’’

What he found was a rich story steeped in the sugar cane fields, a great legacy of football and the meaning of proud people making do.

But there is something far more compelling here: Beyond football, the people of Belle Glade are remarkably resilient, fighters who rise above the stereotypes.

The layers and layers make for authentic storytelling as Mealer introduces readers to Coach Jesse Hester, the town’s first star NFL player who returns home to coach at Glades Central High School; Kelvin Benjamin, a highly recruited receiver; Mario Rowley, a quarterback intent on winning championship for his late parents; and Jonteria Williams, a gifted student who dreams of becoming a doctor. Together, they face the 2010 school year and the next chapter of their lives.

Mealer, 37, who now lives with his family in Austin, chatted with The Miami Herald a few days before he was scheduled to make an appearance at the Miami Book Fair International.

He speaks at 4:30 p.m. Sunday at the Miami International Book Fair at Miami Dade College’s Wolfson Campus, Building 2, Room 2106 (Batten).

Q: How did you get access to the players and students of Glade Central High School?

A: I called Jesse Hester over and over. He never answered my calls. I had spoken at a Florida school about the Congo and one of the teachers there knew him and made the introduction. We finally talked and he told him I wanted to tell the story of Belle Glade through the lens of football. I told him I wanted to follow the football team. He said OK come out. He gave me total access to the players. He is a very nice guy, a good guy and friendly. I know he didn’t trust me at first, I think he was kinda waiting for me to go away. In fact, a few times, he looked at me and said, “Are you still here?”

Q: So much that is negative has been written about Belle Glade that residents are not very trusting of the media. How did you get them to open the doors?

A: People were really wary of talking to me. It’s a small town and very insular and people were like, who is this white guy from New York? Really what happened is I just stuck around. I got a room on Main Street. I would go running in the morning and soon people were blowing their horn when they saw me. I went on the gospel station and formally introduced myself and said I wanted to do this story and to try to understand the history. People eventually warmed up to me and I started getting invitations for Sunday dinner.

Q: How many people did you interview for the book?

A: I spoke with over 100 people.

Q: The book focuses on several characters. How did you make your selections?

A: I knew I needed the coach because he had a good story: NFL player comes back home to coach. I gave some attention to several of the players, going to lunch with them and talking to them and their families for hours. So I cast a line and the players sort of revealed themselves. I knew I wanted to focus on another character besides a football player. I went to the principal and said I want the smartest kid in the class, someone that has a real shot at college. They told me about Jonteria Williams.

Q: Jonteria Williams is the only character not related to football. What made her character so special?

A: She told us something else about the town, and that is that you have to be so driven in Belle Glade and towns like it because of the forces against you. You have to be so diligent and so driven and you have to have such a crystal focus on what you want to do.

Q: How did you know when the story had come to its natural end?

A: The end of the story got messy. I wish it could have been cleaner but they ended up firing the coach at the end of the season. The football season gave me a natural arc. That gave me a structure and I thought it would end with the last game of the season. But they ended up firing [Coach] Hester and then it got real messy and I had to spend a lot of time to get that part right. It took months for it to reveal itself. I didn’t even talk to Jesse Hester until after he had been fired. He was really superstitious and he didn’t want to talk until after the season.

Q: Have you kept in touch with the main characters? How are they doing now?

A: Yes, I actually texted every one of them this week. They are all excited about the book coming out. Mario dropped out of school. He ended up going to a junior college in Orlando but will be returning to North Carolina Central University in the fall. Kelvin had a slow start at Florida State but did a complete turnaround and is doing well. Jonteria is also doing well at Florida Atlantic University. And Hester is now the athletic director at Lake Worth High School.

Q: Ultimately, is football good for Belle Glade?

A: I still think football is good for Belle Glade because it’s one of the ways to get the chance to go to school and until academics take that place, I think it’s really valuable. The football culture is not always healthy as we see in the book and it’s not always fair but it still allows these guys to get out of the town and see the world, I can’t see how that is not valuable.

Q: What is the book’s greatest gift?

A: It’s the explanation of the periphery, the things that happen out of focus. It’s hard to live in that town but most everybody there wants the same thing. They want to have a good job, they want their kids to be safe, don’t want their kids to get shot or go to prison. I think focusing on that part of the story, interviewing the people with dreams and aspirations for their children and a sense of dignity, portraying them as people and not as players.