The Truly Amazing Game

No football rivalry in the nation tops the contest between Jackson and Northwestern high schools. But the Soul Bowl's success could also be its ruin.

For the football players at Jackson High School, the game was a ticket to the state championship. For the thousands of Generals fans dancing in the Orange Bowl, it was bragging rights over their arch rivals, Northwestern, for the first time in twelve long years. For athletic director Jake Caldwell, it was the glorious return of Jackson to football superpower status. With only two and a half minutes left to play -- with only ten seconds left to play -- it looked like a heroic upset. The biggest win in school history.

But after it was over, after the botched play, after the fumble, after the last-second spiral floated into the end zone, Jackson's troops could do nothing but tear off their pads and hurl their green helmets to the ground, denting the turf like cannonballs. The Jackson faithful looked on, dumbstruck, while Northwestern players and fans stormed the field, reborn in ecstasy.

Caldwell returned home, dejected, to answer a phone that was already ringing.

"Goddamn stupid-ass coaches!" shouted an angry alumnus.
He answered again.
"You gotta fire that coach, Jake!" commanded a former player.

He answered again. And again. And all day Sunday and much of Monday, when he was back in his office at Jackson, on NW 36th Street in Allapattah. A few callers wanted to commiserate. Most called to assign blame, if not to Caldwell, to someone. Anyone.

"Today is a day of mourning for us here at Jackson," Caldwell intoned, attempting to put his school's one-point loss into context. "This was a traumatic experience for the youngsters and parents and alumni down the line. There are a lot of people very dissatisfied with the coaching. That's not a secret. We're going to do what we have to do to keep our program number one. We have to take care of the fallout and see what we can save."

Head coach Joseph Redmond was not saved. By Wednesday, four days after the loss, he had submitted his resignation to Caldwell. In three seasons at Jackson Redmond had turned a perennially losing team into the second-best squad in Miami-Dade County, perhaps in the state. It wasn't enough. Caldwell denied that he had ousted the coach, but Redmond publicly claimed he had been ordered to quit, primarily because of the stunning defeat.

"They are taking the loss very badly at Jackson," he told the Miami Herald after he resigned. (Redmond did not respond to interview requests from New Times.) "Perhaps it is best if I move along as a coach. I need a fresh start and so does Jackson.

"It doesn't matter that we were close [to winning]," he added. "Sometimes close is not good enough."

The game Jackson came close to winning was the Soul Bowl, the annual matchup of the two principal public high schools in Miami's black inner city. Although rivalries are common in high school football (Odessa Permian versus Midland Lee in Texas, for instance) Jackson versus Northwestern can plausibly claim the fiercest rivalry in the nation. Attendance at the Soul Bowl, held on a moist night in mid-December, topped 35,000 people. All week long fans bought T-shirts and caps from vendor tents erected on nearly every street corner in Liberty City. An estimated 220,000 people watched the game live on cable's Sunshine Network.

"Huge, huge, huge," says Caldwell of the importance of the Soul Bowl in Miami's black community. "High school athletics in general often represents a bigger population than just the players and the school. It represents the whole community."

In a world where pro athletes squabble with owners over obscene profits, and heroes attach their names to countless products, the Soul Bowl is celebrated as one of the few pure sporting events left. Alumni from around the nation arrange their schedules and travel thousands of miles to attend. Six Miami Dolphins without links to either school watched the game from the Orange Bowl sidelines. "These kids are playing for the real stuff. This game is not about money, coaches' egos, TV ratings, politics, power, [or] greed," Dolphins receiver Lamar Thomas told the Herald. "It's about pride, bragging rights, doing your best, having fun."

Oddly, though, the Soul Bowl's purity is now endangered by its very popularity. And the man leading the charge to exploit the down-home rivalry for commercial gain, quite unabashedly, is Jake Caldwell. Although his team lost the battle a month ago, he still dreams of winning the war of promotion. He envisions a contest with title sponsors, neighborhood parades, national television coverage, and a Thanksgiving Day kickoff that would draw 70,000 people to the Orange Bowl. Caldwell, who in the Seventies brought to high school sports collegiate practices such as player recruiting, hopes to transform the game into a de facto college bowl.

To put it more bluntly: He wants the Soul Bowl to sell its soul.

The game in question was actually Soul Bowl II, the rematch. This year both Jackson and Northwestern played well enough to meet in the semifinals of the state playoffs. The winner would earn a trip to the championship game in Gainesville. Soul Bowl I was the annual regular-season contest between the two. Attendance at that game: more than 46,000.

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