The Truly Amazing Game
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.
So convincing was Northwestern's 23-13 win in Soul Bowl I, and so heavily favored were the Bulls in the playoffs that an hour before the kickoff of Soul Bowl II, Northwestern alumni were treating the game as a formality, a kind of a preparty on the road to Gainesville. Clanking through the turnstiles at the Orange Bowl, one ticket holder speculated that a Jackson victory would cause 200 Northwestern fans to collapse from heart failure.
"Two hundred? More like 20,000," cracked Brett Perriman, who was waiting for a friend near the turnstiles. Perriman played wide receiver for the UM Hurricanes and for several NFL teams, including the Dolphins. But his strongest allegiance, by far, is to Northwestern, the school from which he graduated in 1984. "If the Bulls lose this game," he said, "I'll have a heart attack."
The fans, generally friendly toward one another, divided the stadium between the teams. Northwestern's parents, alumni, and neighborhood groupies packed the north half of the bleachers. An impromptu rhythm section similar to the ones found at international soccer games danced high in the stands, above midfield. Its tireless members pounded on drums and cowbells or initiated the shrill tweet of metal whistles.
The jubilant samba was fueled by Northwestern's undefeated record. A week earlier the team had been ranked number two in the state. That is, until they crushed the number-one team, Broward's Plantation High, in the Orange Bowl. In that game the Bulls scored an astonishing 49 points and held Plantation's celebrated quarterback, Ryan Schneider, in check.
Northwestern even had history on its side: Coming into Soul Bowl II, they had beaten Jackson twelve straight times. True, the Generals boasted a stingy defense, and an offense that had been upgraded since the teams first met. But a Jackson win? Unfathomable.
Perhaps appropriately, then, the Jackson side of the stadium was calm as the kickoff tumbled through the thick air. Most fans sat in a cluster at midfield. A second class lazed in the shadows of the top rows of the lower bowl, casually smoking sweet-smelling marijuana blunts in defiance of announcer Willy Wilcox, who repeated throughout the game: "Say no to drugs, and yes to education." Wilcox alternated this phrase with his other popular mantra: "Remember, it's not over until it's over."
Wilcox's refrain voiced a hope that, in truth, many Jackson fans quietly shared. Their team entered the game with a 12-2 record. After a season-opening defeat to Miami High, the Generals ticked off a series of dominating wins. Soul Bowl I was a setback, of course, but Jackson had marched through three rounds of the playoffs, gaining revenge on Miami High along with wins over Fort Lauderdale's Dillard High and defending state champs Miami Carol City. "I was optimistic," noted alumnus Richard Harris, an administrator with the county. "I thought there was a chance."
The first quarter bore out his prediction. Jackson's defense contained the high-powered Northwestern offense, and neither team scored.
Jake Caldwell is a tall man. And big. Not fat, mind you, but solid in the chest and imposing in the arms. His booming baritone voice suits his physical stature. He is so tall that it is an effort for him to lean over his office desk to examine the "to do" list written on a yellow legal pad. There are some 40 tasks scribbled there, and so far only 30 check marks. It's after five o'clock already, but Caldwell will not leave tonight until he gets everything done. "We have worked hard to turn this school's athletic program around," he explains. "We work late every night. I'm always here past six. That's what it takes to get it done, and that's what I am going to do."
Caldwell made his name as a basketball coach. Rather, as the basketball coach in South Florida. The Jackson boys basketball team he guided from 1970 to 1988 dominated the county, winning twelve district titles, nine regional titles, and one state championship. Miami High, long the city's best boys basketball team, lost to Caldwell's Generals twelve years in a row. He sent 51 players to college. Seven alumni were drafted in the NBA, including 1978's number-one-overall pick, Mychal Thompson.
At least some of the construction of this powerhouse, however, occurred in violation of the building code. The best team Caldwell ever fielded, in 1974, peeled off a 33-0 record, winning games by an average of 30 points. Seven members of that squad were major college signees. Four of the starters (Mychal Thompson among them) were drafted by the pros.
But more than a year after the so-called Jackson Five downed Winter Park to clinch the state title, Florida High School Activities Association (FHSAA) officials stripped the school of the championship. Four of the players were ineligible Bahamian transfers. One was too old. Another had already graduated from high school on his home island. Although four asterisks now sit next to Jackson's name in the state record book, Caldwell has yet to return the championship trophy.
As it turns out, the Jackson Five revealed Caldwell to be a pioneer. Such enrollment skullduggery is now commonplace in Miami-Dade County high school sports. Last year, in response to a New Times investigation, the FHSAA forced Miami High's boys basketball, baseball, and soccer teams to surrender every victory earned in the 1997-98 school year. The penalties cost the baseball team its district and regional titles. The basketball team surrendered a state championship. The FHSAA also determined that boosters of the basketball and baseball teams gave athletes improper inducements to play for Miami High, including housing. The soccer team had used an overage player.
In a letter to local athletic officials, Miami High principal Victor Lopez argued that the investigation of his school that led to the penalties was unfair. Miami High didn't cheat any more than many other schools, he asserted: "I will not ... allow Miami [High] to be singled out when, as you well know, the roots of this problem are widespread through the district and the state, for that matter."
For years no one cared if the problem pertained to Jackson; the school was floundering athletically. Much of the blame for the slide was attributed to an attendance-boundary change in the early Eighties that assigned many of the best athletes to other schools, principally Northwestern. The wrestling team tanked. The football team fell off the map. Though Caldwell retired as basketball coach in 1988, he stayed on at Jackson as an administrator and witnessed the slide firsthand.
In 1996 he agreed to take over as Jackson's athletic director. "I was conned into taking it," he jokes. "The whole program had fallen to the bottom. If you're at the bottom for three or four years or so, they keep digging dirt over the top of you and you think you're buried and can't come out. People told me that I couldn't resurrect it."
But Caldwell did. He started small, upgrading the weight room and the athletic equipment. He replaced the losing football coach with Redmond, a veteran college assistant. These changes played a large role in attracting talented transfers, which is the key to success in local high school sports. Caldwell insists the resurgence is a measure of his winning attitude. "To sell the program to youngsters, they need to know that the goals are set high," he stresses. "Every year that I coached the number-one goal was always winning a state championship."
In truth Jackson's comeback can be directly traced to the influx of skilled transfers. King Hall, a gifted quarterback at Norland, enrolled at Jackson prior to the start of this season. When Northwestern football head coach Willie Goldsmith was fired in 1997, Caldwell hired him as an assistant. With Goldsmith came several of Northwestern's best players, who transferred with him. After going 2-7 in 1996, Jackson was 8-0 heading into the Soul Bowl last year. (The Generals lost a heartbreaker, 6-3 in overtime. Attendance surpassed 26,000.) Their elimination from the state playoffs that year came at the hands of eventual state champion Miami Carol City.
Of course the transfers also brought more unwelcome attention from the FHSAA. Last year the association's local arm fined Jackson High $500 and placed the school's entire athletic program on probation for recruiting violations involving seven athletes on the school's football and track teams.
The second quarter began no better for Northwestern. A reverse to wide receiver Antonio Bryant lost nine yards. A subsequent drive deep into Jackson territory ended with a fumble. The offense that had decimated Plantation a week earlier failed to score even a field goal against Jackson.
Only Northwestern's special teams salvaged the first half. Pinned deep in his own end zone, Jackson's Carlos Martinez prepared to punt. On the snap, Northwestern's twin defensive ends, Jermell and Jerrell Weaver, charged in to block the kick. Understandably unnerved by the pair of six-foot-three-inch linemen thundering toward him, Martinez bobbled the snap. The ball bounced off his fingers and fell to the ground. Martinez recovered, but it was a safety for Northwestern. In the stands the rhythm section stomped a little louder. Surely the rout was on.
Or was it? Jackson's offense had done little during the game, but with two minutes remaining in the half, quarterback King Hall dropped back to his own 25-yard line. He cocked his left arm and sent a line drive into the hands of Tavares Capers, a speedy sophomore who was slicing across midfield. Capers turned toward the end zone. One Bull missed a tackle. Two more Bulls converged for a hit, but not before Capers darted between them, then past them. Sixty-eight yards later the score was 7-2. It was the first time Jackson had led Northwestern in either game.
When the halftime gun fired, Jackson players hopped on to their aluminum bench, turned to their fans, and poked their fingers in the air. For the first time in a decade Jackson boosters pondered what had long seemed impossible: The Generals could win this thing.
The halftime statistics were no illusion. Against Plantation a week earlier, Northwestern's reserve tailback, Rasheed Smith, had gained 115 yards on fifteen carries. Against Jackson in the first half, the entire Bulls team actually lost 35 yards rushing.
The Bull's opening drive in the second half moved the team deep into Jackson turf, only to end in an interception on the ten-yard line. For once, it appeared, it was Northwestern who was snakebit.
Early in the fourth quarter Northwestern's other quarterback, Burnett Godbee, dropped back to pass from deep in his own territory, intending to flick the ball to a receiver. Before he could release, though, 245-pound Jackson tackle Louis Gachelin screamed up the middle, knocking the ball loose as he dropped Godbee to the ground. Jackson recovered in the end zone. The score climbed to 14-2. The Bulls rhythm section stopped playing.
Northwestern fans began filing out of the stadium. On the other side Jackson fans were ecstatic. A woman with a leopard tattoo on her shoulder invited her neighbors to join in a victory twist. Most of the potheads vacated their bleacher seats and pressed against the front-row railing. With 2:30 remaining, the Generals faithful high-fived, swore in joy, and prepared to rush the field. Some sang the words to sport's ubiquitous victory song: "Sha na na na. Hey, hey, hey. Goodbye."
"I knew better," recalls alumnus Richard Harris. "I told [my friends] that there is too much time in this game to be celebrating. I think the fans and the players and maybe the coaches and administrators got caught up in the moment. You play till the buzzer sounds."
Harris was in the minority. By most fans' estimation Jackson's two-touchdown lead was insurmountable. It barely registered when Northwestern's offense finally came up big. Allynson Sheffield, back at quarterback for the Bulls, heaved a desperation bomb 31 yards downfield to receiver James Gerald. Although a Jackson cornerback had illegally pushed the receiver in the stomach during the play, Gerald caught the ball anyway. One step west and he was in the end zone.
The score was now 14-9. But with two minutes left, and Northwestern out of timeouts, all Jackson had to do was run out the clock. In the stands twelve years of frustration began to melt away. "The party is in Overtown tonight!" shouted a boy in a green Fubu jersey, ignoring the actual game.
The Soul Bowl rivalry began in the Forties, when Miami's two black high schools, Booker T. Washington and Dorsey, played an annual Turkey Day Game every Thanksgiving. When Booker T. Washington was phased out as a high school in the Sixties, most of its students were assigned to then all-white Jackson High. Northwestern High replaced Dorsey in 1955, and the rivalry was renewed. The Soul Bowl label appeared after integration in the late Sixties and early Seventies. In 1993 the Soul Bowl was the first high school football game ever played at Pro Player Stadium.
Although the Soul Bowl has always been important to Miami's black community, attendance didn't always reflect the level of interest. Just three years ago, for instance, attendance was so light the game was held in the 12,000-seat Traz Powell Stadium on Miami-Dade Community College's North Campus. An improved Jackson team, Caldwell admits, increased the appeal of this year's games. But he insists the main reason attendance skyrocketed was his marketing efforts. "For Soul Bowl I this year, for the first time, I added promotion, and we all saw what happened," he brags. "Forty-five thousand people is what happened."
Promotion took several forms. Caldwell persuaded 22 Church's Chicken franchises to sell tickets to the game, the first time high school tickets have been sold outside school, he says. Gospel station WMBM-AM (1490) got the word out on the AM dial. WEDR-FM (99.1) relayed the message on FM, and broadcast all night from the stadium parking lot. Both Soul Bowls were televised live on the Sunshine Network. "We had the [sponsorship] involvement of other corporate people from Dodge and Ford. Next year we'll try to sell [the game to] a corporate sponsor.
"It's like a big-time college game," he continues. "We are talking about operating just like UM-Notre Dame or anyone else. That's how you do it. That's how colleges do it. And I don't mind saying that they are paying me to do it."
Caldwell says the pay is coming from Jackson High and that promotion is part of his job as athletic director. He is less clear about who gets to keep the money the game generates. At the college level to which Caldwell aspires, bowl games generate hundreds of thousands to millions of dollars for the athletic programs of both competing schools. Most of that money comes from television contracts and title sponsors such as the FedEx Orange Bowl and the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl. Will there be a Church's Chicken Soul Bowl? Caldwell thinks so.
"We plan to continue this move toward additional excitement going on down there," says Caldwell, his mouth moving as quickly as his mind. "There will be a lot more festive things attracting a wider variety of people. We're thinking about bringing back the parades. A few years ago they played the game on Thanksgiving Day. If we had the freedom to do it, we could bust 70,000 at the Orange Bowl. I see the Soul Bowl as the equivalent of a big-time college game."
"Next year," he promises, "it will be even bigger."
For Northwestern head coach Billy Rolle the future was clear. His team needed to execute an on-side kick. And his team needed to recover it. Following that, and working without any timeouts, the Bulls needed to march some 50 yards and score a touchdown. Possible? Theoretically.
But the team's on-side kick sailed straight out of bounds.
Jackson took over at midfield with 2:22 remaining. Even Northwestern's band marched out of the stadium, resigned to defeat. All Jackson had to do was kill time. There were 142 seconds remaining and three plays to run before fourth down. Each play could burn up to 45 seconds. Coach Joseph Redmond had two options. He could try to run for a game-winning first down -- and risk a fumble. Or he could play it safe by ordering his quarterback to simply fall to the ground on each play. This would force Jackson to punt, but leave Northwestern less than ten seconds in which to score.
Redmond played it safe. On first down, King Hall backed up three yards and touched his knee to the turf. The clock ticked. At 1:41 Hall hiked the ball for second down, and again dropped to his knee. The nose of the football now rested on the Jackson 37-yard line. Redmond allowed the clock to drop to 57 seconds, prompting a delay-of-game penalty that backed the ball up five more yards. Another knee on third down (and another delay-of-game call) brought the ball to the 24 with ten seconds left. Fourth down.
Now Redmond faced another decision. With a first down virtually unobtainable, he couldn't ask Hall to drop to his knee again, because Northwestern would take over deep in Jackson territory with time enough to run one play. Jackson could punt, but Redmond worried that the kick might be blocked. Or fumbled. Or -- worst case scenario -- blocked and returned for a touchdown.
Instead Redmond called for his punter to turn tail and dash for his own end zone, run right through it, and go out of bounds, thus giving Northwestern another safety. At the very worst Northwestern would get two points and would be forced to score on the subsequent kickoff. On the other hand, the punter, in retreating, might be able to eat up the entire ten seconds. It was an unorthodox decision, to be sure, but one that seemed like a stroke of genius. On paper, anyway.
In fact, Redmond opted to play it extra safe. Instead of inserting his punter, who had already fumbled once in the end zone, he called on the sure hands of his back-up quarterback. Junior Ronnie Jones lined up ten yards behind center and waited for the ball to fly into his hands.
He didn't wait long enough. Jones, who was in for his first play of the game, began to run toward the end zone even before the ball reached his hands. As Redmond watched, mouth agape, the ball fell to the ground, where it was swarmed by players from both teams. When the pile was unknotted, Northwestern owned the ball on the ten-yard line -- with six seconds left to play.
Northwestern fans streamed back inside the stadium from the parking lot. Stupefied Jackson boosters remained pushed against the rail, still poised to rush the field. Now the game rested on one final play. But anything less than a touchdown would preserve Jackson's upset.
Northwestern's offense lined up in a tight formation. Quarterback Sheffield took the snap, stepped back two feet, planted his cleats in the turf, and lobbed a blimp toward the south corner of the end zone. Northwestern receiver Antonio Bryant raced to meet the ball while jockeying for position with two Jackson cornerbacks. Bryant, taller than both his foes, was also savvy enough to stop suddenly and position himself in front of them. The ball landed in his outstretched hands as he fell to the ground.
Northwestern fans exploded out of the bleachers. Reserve players joined them on the field. Head coach Billy Rolle ripped off his headset and sprinted toward the far end zone. An assistant raced after him, hoping to wrap him in a hug. Receiver Bryant tore into a helmetless dash across the end zone.
On the Jackson sidelines players fell to the ground in convulsions. King Hall lay on his back, facing the sky with his eyes wrenched shut. Ronnie Jones, the quarterback who had fumbled the punt, grabbed a policeman for protection against his enraged teammates. In the stands a man shouted obscenities as he kicked a concrete step with his sneaker. His companion jumped on a row of orange bleachers in a futile attempt to snap the plastic seats in half. In the men's restroom a man at a urinal pounded his skull against a cement wall, raising a red welt on his forehead. "Fourteen-to-two with two minutes left!" he cried. "Fourteen-to-fucking-two with two minutes left!"
Ten minutes after the touchdown the referees tried to inform both teams that one second remained on the clock. Northwestern still needed to kick off to Jackson, allowing the Generals a last chance to score. At least that's what was supposed to happen. But too many Generals had stripped off their equipment for Jackson to assemble a team. Huddling on the field, Jake Caldwell and Northwestern athletic director Gregory Killings agreed to call the game.
"Remember," bellowed Willie Wilcox over the P.A. system, "it's not over until it's oooooooooover."
Not less than 40 minutes passed before most of Jackson's fans had drifted out to the parking lot. One Generals assistant coach, wearing his team polo shirt, leaned against the hood of his truck, his head buried in the curve of his arm. He appeared to be crying.
A caravan formed between the stadium and the Northwestern campus on NW 71st Street. Although it was closing in on midnight, a crowd formed around the perimeter of the high school to cheer the winning team. Cars parked along both sides of Tenth Avenue, lights left on and horns honking. George Mitchell, a 28-year-old Jackson grad, made the mistake of driving his car down the gauntlet. "They have evil spirits that attack Jackson when we play them," Mitchell said as he tried to inch through. "I don't know what it is. They always win the big games."
Four school buses rolled up. A cheer erupted, even though it was not clear who was on the bus. It was the band. When the buses stopped and the doors swung open, a swarm of saxophones and trombones was released. The tubas ducked out playing the notes of the school's victory song. "I'm so glad," sang everyone, "that I wear blue and gold."
About 200 students waited to greet the team inside the school's palm-tree-and-concrete courtyard. Blue-shirted janitors watched from an alcove as two boys broke into a rap about the upcoming trip to Gainesville. When the players began trickling in, marching single file down a bone-color hallway on their way to the locker room, they were mobbed by their peers. Five boys jumped on a linebacker. Eight more surrounded a guard, then a safety, and on down an assembly line of baby-faced athletes, all of whom reeked of dirt and sweat. Allynson Sheffield received the loudest greeting. "There he go!" the crowd chanted. "There he go! There he go!"
After showering and changing the players stepped outside to a modest huddle of boosters. Players shared a platter of ham sandwiches purchased from Sam's supermarket. "I'll take one of those," said coach Billy Rolle as he moved toward the food. He held a can of grape soda in his hand. "I've never seen a game like that in my life," he said. "Never ever. What can I say about it? Maybe only that it takes a little bit of luck to win a championship."
A week later the Bulls played Bradenton Southeast for the state title in Gainesville. They won almost effortlessly, 28-0.
As Rolle and his team celebrated their state title, Northwestern's second in four years, Jake Caldwell grappled with fallout from the Soul Bowl II loss. The resignation of his head coach may have been popular with the alumni, but it was opposed, and quite publicly, by the players. Backup quarterback Ronnie Jones, whose fumble had cost his team the win, noted, "He was the best coach we ever had. Before he got here, we was nothing." Starting quarterback King Hall added, "Coach Redmond didn't lose the game. It was a mistake [by Jones]. Mistakes happen."
Caldwell has weathered the storm thus far. He is not, after all, new to controversy.
Nor is he blind to the upside of Jackson's historic loss. Like any promoter, he knows that drama, especially heartbreaking drama, is fodder for the hype machine. People will be talking about this Soul Bowl for years to come, he predicts. The anticipation for next year's contest is already strong. The game will practically sell itself.
Isn't it good, then, that Jackson lost?
"I don't know about that," Caldwell responds pensively. "I don't think losing is ever a good thing.
Get the Weekly Newsletter