By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By David Villano
By Jose D. Duran
By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Kyle Swenson
By Luther Campbell
Late on a Friday night in early September, Kingsland, Georgia, is a ghost town. Stores are shuttered, restaurants empty. Save for a Wal-Mart Supercenter and a mile-long strip of fast-food joints and cheap motels, the city of 15,000 is quiet and dark.
But on the edge of this suburban idyll, next to a creek singing with bullfrogs and cicadas, 10,000 people pack the bleachers of the Camden County High School football stadium. Tall, heavy folks with permanent sunburns and beat-up pickup trucks, they stomp and shout as if touched by the spirit. Blond cheerleaders in blue uniforms rise and fall to the blare of a 100-person marching band.
Below, on a forest-green field of artificial turf, the hometown Camden County Wildcats are knotted in a 42-42 tie with the second-best team in the nation: the Miami Central Rockets. With 5:27 left in the fourth quarter, Central kicks off for the eighth time. The ball hangs in the heavy Georgia air like a second moon and then plummets into the hands of Camden's kick returner. He barely has time to lift his head before three Rockets pound him with their helmets.
"Motherfucking swarming," yells Central assistant coach Tony Bryant, a monstrous six-foot-six former Oakland Raiders defensive end with a permanent scowl. But the teenagers around him don't look so confident. They expected a fight tonight, but not this. Not an all-out, seesawing slugfest. Not their national title threatened in the season's first game.
On first down, Camden's refrigerator-size running back, Hayden Boudreaux, crashes through Central's defensive line for five yards. Two plays later, Carrington Wright bursts up the middle for 29 yards, all the way to Central's 47-yard line. With four minutes left, the Wildcats are near field goal range.
Central's star running back, Devonta Freeman, paces up and down the sideline with his helmet off, his shoulder-length dreadlocks swinging, a football tucked under his arm. "Hey! Let's go, yo. Keep your heads up," he yells at his teammates. "This ain't over."
But the Wildcats — who have won two straight state championships — are relentless, grinding their way down the field while burning up the clock. On the backs of Wright and Boudreaux, they reach Central's 11-yard line with ten seconds left in the game. Wright surges forward one more time in search of a touchdown but is tackled by a half-dozen sets of hands as the clock runs down. With 2.6 seconds left, Camden County calls a time-out.
As the home team's field goal kicker trots out, Central wide receiver Durell Eskridge runs over to his team's huddle. "Coach, put me in," he begs. "Put me in. I can block it!" Eskridge, a star receiver benched with an eye injury, is tall and long-limbed like an NBA shooting guard. All night, he has watched from the sideline. Head coach Telly Lockette grabs the boy's shoulder pad and pushes him onto the field as the crowd roars.
For both teams, a win would be a first step toward a national championship. A Central victory would also help bury the demons of last season, when the Rockets fumbled away their first state title in school history.
For Freeman and Eskridge, who grew up together on the streets of Liberty City, this season is about much more than a trophy. It's a chance at an education their single mothers couldn't otherwise afford and a ticket out of one of Miami's most troubled neighborhoods — away from the gangs, drugs, shootings, and poverty that have hit their lives harder than any opposing player ever could. Yet the college degrees, fancy cars, NFL contracts, and condos for Mom ride on Central going all the way this year. And at this moment, it's looking grim.
The Camden kicker lines up and sights the uprights like a sniper taking aim. Before Camden even snaps the ball, Eskridge takes off, sprinting toward the line of scrimmage. Suddenly, a teammate drops to his knees in front of Eskridge. As the ball leaves the kicker's foot, Eskridge steps onto the teammate's back and launches into the air, arms outstretched.
"Football is like a religion at Miami Central," says Carl Hoover, a bear of a man from Chicago who taught history for ten years at the school. "The coaches take it very seriously; the kids take it very seriously; the teachers, the parents, the whole school takes it seriously."
But it wasn't always this way.
When Miami Central Senior High opened in 1959, both the school and the neighborhood were different. It was an all-white facility built to accommodate North Miami's blue-collar baby boomers. Until the county's school system was integrated in 1966, Central was the yin to the yang of nearby Northwestern, an all-black high school campus on NW 71st Street at 12th Avenue. By the early '80s, Central had become majority African-American, but the rivalry with Northwestern remained — especially on the football field.
Northwestern dominated Central on the way to winning state titles in '95 and '98. But by 2000, the playing field had leveled. The Rockets beat the Bulls for the first time that fall and soon replaced Booker T. Washington as Northwestern's biggest rival. By then, Central had begun sending kids to the pros: Six former Rockets who graduated between 2000 and 2005 made it to the NFL. Of the six, only Baltimore Ravens running back Willis McGahee became a star. But no matter how brief their professional career, each one inspired a hundred neighborhood kids to try out.