From chasing rabbits in Muck City, to footballs in Buffalo, Thompson's tales are as long as his journey

October 31, 2017

Deep in the heart of Southeast Florida, on the banks of Lake Okeechobee, sits a place called Muck City.  Not an actual city.  Not a town or even a village.  Just an area with a nickname.  Muck City, known for the sugarcane that grows and can be seen for miles, and called that because of the black muck that surrounds it all.

But that’s not the only thing Muck City is known for.  Hardly.

Data shows the odds of a high school football player making it to the NFL are .09%.  That’s nine out of every 10,000 kids who put on a helmet and shoulder pads to play under the glowing lights of Friday nights.

But not the odds of making it if you grow up in Muck City.  

In the area that includes two public high schools - Glades Central (Belle Glade) and Pahokee - Muck City has produced close to sixty NFL players.  That’s SIXTY professional football players between two high schools whose combined population is roughly 2000 total students.  Both towns combine for only about 25,000 people.  

What’s the secret?  Well, of course much of it isn’t a secret at all.  It’s hard work combined with a willingness and commitment to do whatever it takes to make it as far as you can in the sport hundreds of kids grow up playing every day, in an area where football rules over every other sport in both time and emotion spent.

Also no secret - it takes athleticism.  Both God-given from birth to trained and nurtured, maybe more than some of which comes from…..chasing rabbits.  That’s what kids in Muck City do every winter when the sugarcane fields are set on fire and the rabbits come sprinting out.  

As of the census of 2000, the median income for entire family in Belle Glade was less than $27,000.  Because sugarcane is a mechanized crop, and technology has become such an integral role in its harvest, many have lost their jobs in mills over the years, and the unemployment rate in Belle Glade is estimated by some to have grown to close to 40%.  But one rabbit can fetch a young man $3.00.  It might not sound like much, but it’s a lot when you’re wondering where your next meal may come from.  And it adds up.  And chasing rabbits is what many say have allowed young men to develop the speed and agility to have an edge on the football field.

Bills’ wide receiver Deonte Thompson is one of those special athletes who made it to the NFL from Muck City.  He’s also one of the many who chased rabbits, even if he wasn’t supposed to when he started.

“It’s part of our culture, who we are,” he told me while talking in front of his locker just three days after a 107-yard receiving performance against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to help the Bills go 4-2.  Thompson recalled the very first time he ever ventured out to the fields to hunt and catch a rabbit with his bare hands.

“My first time out was with a group of friends,” he said.  “We were young.  My first time I went my mom didn’t know I went.  So I had to come back home and, mind you, you go rabbit hunting, you’re filthy.  It’s the muck, so the dirt is black.  You’re covered up in dirt because you’ve been rolling around in dirt chasing rabbits and stuff.  So I tried to hide my clothes and stuff on the back porch.  My mom seen it and was like, ‘what were you doing in the fields?’ ” 

Thompson recounts how even though he already showered to get the smell of the burned sugarcane off of him, and his mom didn’t smell it, after she saw the clothes she was upset.  “You know when you’re too young you’re not supposed to be out there yet,” he said, sounding more like a parent now than a kid chasing rabbits and dreams.

As with so many of the other players and former players who sweat through the hot summer sun during workouts in the area just north of the Florida Everglades, Thompson takes a lot of pride in his hometown.  He even wore a hat with “Muck City” embroidered on it while giving postgame interviews after last week’s win.  And like so many of those who live there, his family has roots in the business.

“My dad just passed away not too long ago,” he said with a heavy breath as he recalled his upbringing.  “He worked over forty years out there in the sugarcane.  Forty years.

“It makes you become a man fast.  You got to be a man, you grow up fast.  It’s an area full of love but also a lot of crime.  It’s a part of your environment.  Some do, some don’t.  You’ve got to watch your friends sometimes and you just got to make great decisions.  There’s a lot of guys more talented than me, even on my (high school) team.  Shoot, we had guys that are supposed to be in the NFL right now that took the wrong track.”

Talk about talent.  Just the names who did make it look like an NFL All-Pro roster.  

Santonio Holmes, Kelvin Benjamin, Reidel Anthony, former Heisman Trophy runner-up Brad Banks, Jessie Hester, Louis Oliver, Johnny Rutledge, Fred Taylor.  And those are just a small sampling on the Glades Raiders side of things.  

And many of them extended their incredible athletic abilities beyond football, of course.  Back in 1994, Taylor, Rutledge, and Anthony were three legs of one 4x100 track and field relay team.  I joked with Thompson that I could be the fourth leg of that group and we’d win a state title.  He’s quick to point out that the fourth member was a kid named James Jackson, who played five years in the NFL himself.  

Another name included in that talent-rich list is Travis Benjamin, who is currently a wideout for the Los Angeles Chargers.  But he used to be a Glades teammate of Thompson.  Imagine the look on opposing defensive coordinators’ faces when they popped on a film and saw these two guys lining up on opposite sides of one another on the same offense.

From Pahokee, names like Anquan Boldin, Ricky Jackson, Janoris Jenkins, and Andre Waters are on the alumni list.

“Belle Glade and Pahokee,” Thompson says.  “Two neighboring towns.  That all consists of Muck City.  We know everybody.  Everybody knows everybody.”

Even though they know everybody knows everybody, and guys have formed lifelong bonds through Muck City, they all took their own path to the NFL.  Many, like Benjamin, went to Miami.  Others, like Boldin, wound up at Florida State.  For Thompson, it was the Florida Gators who came calling, literally, in a way that grabbed his attention in an eye-popping way.

Thompson was a top-10 national recruit at his position.  He said he had 70-80 scholarship offers. His grades were good.  So all the schools you’d expect to be on a player like that were.  And all the big-name coaches wanted him.  Bobby Bowden at Florida State.  Jim Tressel at Ohio State.  Les Miles at LSU.  He said he was close to going all the way out to Southern California to play for Pete Carroll at USC.  But it was Urban Meyer at Florida who stole him away from the rest.  And how he did it still leaves Thompson in awe retelling the story.

As a high school senior, he said he was sitting down to watch the college football national championship game in January, 2008 between Florida and Ohio State.  He hadn’t yet decided where to play his college football.  Shortly before the game kicked off his phone rang.  On the other end was Meyer, at that time the coach of the Gators, who had just walked off the field for pregame warmups, about to give his team their final words before playing for a national title.

“He said, ‘if this doesn’t show you how much I want you, nothing will,” Thompson recalled, still with a look of astonishment on his face nine years later and playing in the NFL.  “I couldn’t believe it.  That sealed the deal.”

After a productive career at Florida and winning a bowl game ever year of his collegiate career, including a BCS national championship, Gator, Outback, and Sugar Bowl, Thompson signed with the Baltimore Ravens as an undrafted free agent in 2012.  He’s now on his fourth NFL team, counting two stints with the Bills.

This time, Thompson hopes to stick around, and not just because he’s contributing on a 5-2 team.  It goes deeper than that, and in many ways this Bills’ team reminds him of the types of bonds he formed in Muck City.

“This team’s special,” he said.  “This team right here is special.  They play with their heart.  They live by their heart in the locker room.  Everyone loves each other.  It’s a love that’s going around here, so I’m just happy to be a part of it.”

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