* Editor’s note: This is the first in a four-part series that looks at the unique relationship between the Immokalee High School football team and the town it calls home.
IMMOKALEE — In practice and in games, they speak the same language.It’s the running, blocking, tackling language of football.
But away from the field, when the melting pot of players on the Immokalee High School football team return home, they speak English, Spanish or the Haitian language of Creole.”I’ve always joked that we’re the only team in the country that can change the play at the line of scrimmage in three languages,” Immokalee coach John Weber said. “Sometimes, when we make a defensive call, if we have to make a change, we’ll do it in Creole. Our defensive ends and our linebackers do that all the time, because they know the other team won’t understand them.”
At 1 p.m. Friday at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium in Gainesville, Immokalee will play Madison County for the Class 2A state championship. If the Indians win, they would become the second Southwest Florida high school football program to win an outright state title, following the lead of the 2001 Class 5A Naples team.Immokalee’s quest to bring home a championship has filled its players and their parents and fans with the hope of receiving statewide recognition for this farming community of about 20,000 residents.”Our team, we’re different from a lot of other schools,” said junior Javarris James, the team’s leading rusher. “Immokalee is known for the migrants. All of us see each other as brothers. Most people don’t believe it, but I’m a migrant worker.”
James and teammate John L. Hughes spent part of this past summer picking watermelons. They loaded them onto pickup trucks under the hot sun on farms in Georgia.”That was the first time he had been there,” James said of Hughes. “He said it was harder than playing football.”
For many Immokalee players, football provides an escape from their chores at home or their jobs working on farms.For others, football gives them an opportunity to earn a free college education.Since Weber arrived from Cypress Lake High in 1996, 34 Immokalee players have received college football scholarships, more than four per year. That does not include this season’s senior class.
For senior defensive back Rodelin Anthony, playing football means becoming friends with people with different backgrounds — all of whom aspire to achieve the same goal: win a championship.”The only thing we all have in common is our families still have to pay the bills,” said Anthony, who carries a 4.5 grade-point average, aspires to be a politician and won the state and national presidential elections this year for Better Education Through Achievement, a student leadership group.
Immokalee High’s ethnic breakdown almost mirrors that of the community: about 65.6 percent Hispanic, 16.8 percent Haitian, 11 percent black, 5.6 percent white and 0.8 percent Native American.That diversity is represented on the coaching staff as well. Of Weber’s assistant coaches, three are white, three are Hispanic and two are black.”The kids put it the best way,” Weber said. “On the football field, we’re all one.”
James said diversity comes in handy, especially at meal time.”When we eat, we get to try a lot of different foods,” he said, referring to the different ethnic foods available. He noted the speciality dish of teammate Kertus Clement’s mother, called Greole, which includes fried pork and cabbage.
“Man, that stuff is good,” James said.A drive down Newmarket Road in Immokalee offers a large variety of restaurants, from Haitian food to Mexican to even Chinese.Like James and his older cousin, Indianapolis Colts running back Edgerrin James, Bernardo Barnhart followed the trend of working in the fields before playing on the ones made for football.
Barnhart, 26, played alongside Edgerrin James for two seasons. Barnhart often worked on farms, making 10 cents for every bucket he filled with tomatoes.Like Javarris James, Barnhart still chooses to work the farms sometimes, so he “doesn’t forget where I came from.”
“I started doing that when I was 9 or 10 years old,” Barnhart said. “That’s what motivated me to go to school.”Barnhart attended the University of Florida, where he underwent chemotherapy and radiation treatment in the morning — he had Hodgkin’s disease, which affects the lymph nodes — before attending classes in the afternoons.Barnhart now works as a loan officer for the Florida Community Bank in Immokalee. He owns a local car wash, and he and his wife, Viridiana, are expecting their first child in March.
Barnhart said he will be thrilled to watch Immokalee compete for the state title.”This is what makes Immokalee great,” Barnhart said. “You get all of these different cultures that come together. They all get together to unite.
“It’s awesome.”Immokalee’s surge to statewide prominence — the Indians had a 1-2 record at the beginning of the season before winning nine consecutive games — has excited former players such as William Rolle.”I wish I could come to the game,” said Rolle, whose brother, Brian, starts at linebacker and fullback. William Rolle plays football at Illinois State. “I’ll probably get with somebody on a cell phone for the whole game. I want to know everything that they do.”
William Rolle said playing for a diverse team like Immokalee prepared him well for college.”Some of my best friends from high school were Haitian and spoke Creole,” said Rolle, who is black. “I had a lot of Mexican friends. I had some white friends.
“You get to experience other peoples’ lives.”And in the case of the Immokalee High School football team, it’s a bond that’s more than strong enough to carry the Indians to within a victory of a state championship.If the Immokalee wins Friday, there will be no need for an interpreter.
“When all of these players go home, most of them go home and speak their second language,” Anthony said. “But you take the languages away, and we’re all the same.”