The Muck Bowl
The birth and history of Palm Beach County’s fiercest high school football rivalry game.
In the 22 years since Reidel Anthony played in the Muck Bowl, he has won a national championship at the University of Florida, been drafted No. 1 by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, played five years in the NFL and started a successful business career.
But Anthony, 39, still has vivid memories of the three times he played in the annual showdown between Glades Central and Pahokee. The night a lightning storm forced a two-hour delay. The night he threw a touchdown pass and had three interceptions. The three victory celebrations he shared with Glades Central teammate Fred Taylor, a buddy since childhood who went on to rush for more than 11,000 yards in the NFL.
Prior to the 2007 Muck Bowl, Pahokee's Janoris Jenkins and Antavious Wilson stand next to a sign listing all of the previous results. (Carl Kiilsgaard/The Palm Beach Post)
Palm Beach County’s fiercest high school football rivalry resumes Friday night when host Glades Central tries to extend its seven-game winning streak against Pahokee in the traditional regular-season finale. The Muck Bowl has no playoff implications – the teams are in different classes – but the winner gets bragging rights for a year in the close-knit, football-crazy Lake Okeechobee communities.
How big is it? The Muck Bowl is the subject of at least two documentaries and is featured prominently in Bryan Mealer’s 2012 book, “Muck City: Winning and Losing in Football’s Forgotten Town.” When both teams were 9-0 and defending state champions entering the 2007 game, Sports Illustrated designated it the national high school game of the week.
(Allen Eyestone/The Palm Beach Post)
How big is it? Two towns with a combined population of fewer than 25,000 have produced 12 state championships –six each – and sent more than three dozen players to the NFL. The list includes a Pro Football Hall of Famer (linebacker Rickey Jackson, Pahokee), a Super Bowl MVP (wide receiver Santonio Holmes, Glades Central), a top 20 all-time receiver (Anquan Boldin, Pahokee) and a top 20 all-time rusher (Taylor).
How big is it? At least four times, the loser of the Muck Bowl has gone on to win a state championship, leaving fans to debate which is more important.
After Dennis Hall caught the winning touchdown pass in Pahokee’s 21-17 victory over Ocala-Trinity Catholic for the Class 2B title in 2008, he said he couldn’t shake the sting of losing the Muck Bowl a month earlier.
Freshman wide receiver Dennis Hall and other Pahokee players celebrate their 28-21 victory over Glades Central in the 2006 Muck Bowl. (J. Gwendolynne Berry/The Palm Beach Post)
Pahokee's Derry Brown sits on sideline during his team's 2011 Muck Bowl loss. (Damon Higgins/The Palm Beach Post)
Don Thompson, the head coach at Pahokee from 1984 to 1992, is the resident football historian in the Glades. Thompson’s roots in the muck run deep – his family moved to Pahokee in the late 1950s and it has been his home for most of the last half-century. His son, Blaze, played for him in the 1980s and won back-to-back state championships as the Blue Devils’ head coach in 2007 and 2008.
Former Pahokee head coaches Blaze Thompson and his father Don Thompson, both of whom won state titles with the Blue Devils.
(Phil Sears/The Palm Beach Post)
Don Thompson explains how the Muck Bowl got its start: “My first season here, neither one of us (Glades Central or Pahokee) made the playoffs, so we got together and decided to play a bowl game. That’s when we came up with the name.”
Thompson, now 74, recalls that Pahokee lost to Glades Central in the regular season but came back to win the bowl game. Every year since, the regular-season meeting has been called the Muck Bowl.
Pahokee and Glades Central tangle in the 1991 Muck Bowl, won 34-28 by the Raiders. (Richard Graulich/The Palm Beach Post)
But the rivalry’s history goes back much further. Pahokee and Belle Glade High played for years before the Palm Beach County School District integrated high schools in 1971, merging all-white Belle Glade with all-black Lake Shore to create Glades Central. The Raiders won their first two state championships immediately after the merger.
“Everyone makes a fuss about the Muck Bowl, but it’s really an extension of the Pahokee-Belle Glade game,” Thompson said. “We always played on the Wednesday night before Thanksgiving, and the winner always got a trophy. It was usually pretty even.”
Former Pahokee football coach Don Thompson, circa 2008.
(Damon Higgins/The Palm Beach Post)
Thompson recalls that the teams split the first six Muck Bowls in the 1980s, each winning in alternating years. After Pahokee, which had come close to a state championship several times, finally broke through in 1989 with a 24-7 victory over Port St. Joe, the Blue Devils still had to endure an offseason of trash talk because of their Muck Bowl loss to the Raiders.
Glades Central dominated the Muck Bowl in the 1990s. Taylor and Anthony led the Raiders to three decisive victories from 1991 to 1993 before heading to Gainesville together to play for the Gators.
Glades Central's Vinnie Pierre and Randy Phillips celebrate their Muck Bowl win in 2004. (Allen Eyestone/The Palm Beach Post)
“I can promise you one thing,” Anthony said. “If Pahokee had won any of those games, they’d still be sitting around Thanksgiving dinner talking about how they beat up on Fred and Reidel.”
Glades Central’s seven-year run was interrupted in 1998 when Boldin, then a quarterback, passed for 172 yards and ran for 98 in Pahokee’s 34-14 victory. This time, it was the Raiders who went on to celebrate a bittersweet state championship. They repeated as state champs in 1999 and 2000.
Teammates hoist Anquan Boldin on their shoulders after Pahokee's win in the 1998 Muck Bowl. (Greg Lovett/The Palm Beach Post)
In the 2000s, with high school football gaining more attention from ESPN and national recruiting publications, word of the Muck Bowl began to spread far beyond Palm Beach County.
Pahokee put together one of the most successful runs in Florida history, winning five state titles (and three Muck Bowls) in a six-year span from 2003 to 2008. The high-water mark for the neighboring rivals came in 2006, when both Glades Central and Pahokee won state championships.
(Allen Eyestone/The Palm Beach Post)
“I always knew we had the greatest players in the country on that field,” Don Thompson said.
Now the rest of the country was finding out. ESPN the Magazine wrote a feature article. A crew from NFL Films spent a week in the Glades – highlights of the classic 2007 Muck Bowl still show upon the NFL Network.
The Glades Central-Pahokee rivalry has a history as rich as the soil that gave the game its nickname, but one game stands out above the rest.
In 2007, both teams entered 9-0 and ranked No. 1 in the state, Glades Central in Class 3A and Pahokee in Class 2B. Both were defending state champions. Both were loaded with Division I recruits, including a pair of future NFL stars, Glades Central wide receiver Travis Benjamin (University of Miami, Browns) and Pahokee cornerback Janoris Jenkins (University of Florida, Rams).
The game drew the attention of ESPN, Sports Illustrated and NFL Films, which sent a crew to the Glades for a week for a documentary.
Glades Central players enter the field prior to the 2007 game.
(Allen Eyestone/The Palm Beach Post)
Hours before kickoff, fans were lined up outside Glades Central’s Effie C. Grear Field, where Pahokee had not won since 1981. The overflow crowd saw the Blue Devils take control early behind a powerful running game, with Jenkins and Vincent Smith (Michigan) sharing most of the carries and Micanor Regis (Miami) anchoring the offensive line.
The Raiders rallied to cut the deficit to 27-24 on a 41-yard touchdown catch by Rantavious Wooten (Georgia) with less than four minutes remaining. Glades Central needed a stop, but Pahokee answered with a touchdown drive to win 34-24. Jenkins and Smith combined for 148 yards and four touchdowns.
(Gary Coronado/The Palm Beach Post)
Pahokee then rolled through four playoff opponents, beating Newberry 53-14 for the state championship. The Blue Devils (14-0) were ranked sixth in the nation by USA Today.
“That was the best team in Florida history,” said Don Thompson, who led Pahokee to its first state title in 1989 and watched his son, Blaze, win the 2007 championship in his first season as head coach.
“I would put that team up against anybody,” Blaze agreed.
Glades Central reached the Class 3A semifinals before losing to Naples 27-24 to finish 11-2.
Author Bryan Mealer, who had written books about war in the Democratic Republic of Congo and famine in Malawi, was drawn to the story of this small, poverty-ridden area producing college football and NFL stars at a staggering rate.
“What I saw when I went into Belle Glade was some of the worst poverty that I had ever seen in this country,” Mealer said in a 2012 interview. “It was similar to places that I’d been reporting and writing about like Uganda, Kenya and Congo. To have that just 40 miles from Palm Beach was stunning to me. … It made me fascinated with that place.”
(Allen Eyestone/The Palm Beach Post)
Mealer spent the 2010 season with the Raiders, from two-a-day practices in August to the heartbreaking 14-13 loss to Cocoa in the state championship game in December. Coach Jessie Hester, a former Glades Central star who played 10 years in the NFL, gave him full access to the players and the locker room. “Muck City” has drawn comparisons to “Friday Night Lights,” the seminal book about high school football in Texas that spawned a movie and a TV series.
After his time in Belle Glade, Mealer spoke of the “altered reality” because of the community’s obsession with high school football. “In places like the Glades, it going to be more important than anything else,” he said. “Unfortunately, for a lot of kids, there’s really nothing else.”
When Alphonso Smith Jr., Pahokee’s first-year head coach, addressed his players after a 27-0 rout of Fort Meade that clinched the District 8-1A title on Oct. 23, he reminded them that two more championship goals remained – “the Muck Bowl and the state championship.”
The Blue Devils are hoping to end a seven-year Muck Bowl drought Friday night. The streak includes the two most lopsided games in series history – 58-0 and 70-0 blowouts in 2010 and 2011 – but they have narrowed the gap the past three years.
Glades Central's Johnathant Istache is tackled by a host of Pahokee players during the 2014 Muck Bowl. (Allen Eyestone/The Palm Beach Post)
“This is a different regime,” said Smith, 30, a former Pahokee cornerback who played five years in the NFL. “Whatever happened from 2007 to 2014 is almost irrelevant.”
The Oct. 23 homecoming game against Fort Meade, the state’s top-ranked Class 1A team at the time, offered reminders of the Blue Devils’ history. Players from the state championship teams of the 2000s gathered at halftime, including Chicago Bears linebacker Pernell McPhee, who came home during his bye week. Don Thompson, the former head coach who organizes the team’s equipment and makes sure “everything is in place,” sported his six championship rings.
Coach Don Thompson shows off the six state championship rings he earned at Pahokee, plus his Southern Conference championship ring from 1960, when he played at The Citadel. (Brandon Kruse/The Palm Beach Post)
So the question remains: How big is the Muck Bowl? Is it more important than a state title?
Most coaches, players and fans dodge the question, but not Blaze Thompson, who won one Muck Bowl and two state titles in eight seasons before stepping down after the 2014 season.
“Selfishly, in the back of your mind, you put (beating) Glades Central ahead of a state championship,” Thompson said. “It’s by far the more emotional, pride-filled game.