IMMOKALEEStanding outside Lozano’s Restaurant on Newmarket Road, the smell of Mexican food permeates the air.Cecil Howell, wearing a camouflage trucker cap, blue jeans and a button-down blue shirt, prepares to enter the restaurant and order his favorite entree, a taco salad.
“I’ve been waiting for this sucker for 54 years,” Howell says.Howell isn’t talking about the taco salad, which arrives within five minutes.
Instead, Howell is referring to the talk of the town: the Immokalee High School football team’s first chance to win a state championship.Immokalee (10-2) will play Madison County (12-0) at 1 p.m. Friday at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium in Gainesville for the Class 2A state title. The Indians could be just the second team from Southwest Florida to win an outright state championship in football. Naples won the Class 5A title in 2001.Howell, who played for the Indians for four years in the late 1960s and has been a member of Immokalee’s chain gang since 1973, plans to be in the stands in Gainesville.
“I’m the back man with the down marker,” Howell said of his role on the chain gang at home games.Back in the old days, Howell had a rusty down marker, which he cranked to switch the numbers one, two, three and four.
That changed two years ago, courtesy of Indianapolis Colts running back Edgerrin James, who is also an Immokalee graduate.”Edgerrin James bought us one of those electronic ones where all you have to do is push the button,” Howell said. “Now we’ve got a big-time one. It’s pretty neat.”Howell played for Immokalee under former coach Bill Bryson.
Before Bryson arrived, Howell recalls the team finishing with a 1-9 record.After Bryson arrived, Immokalee went 8-2, 8-1-1, 9-1 and then 9-0-1 in 1968.
Howell says he enjoys watching the renewal of Immokalee’s dominance under coach John Weber, who has taken the Indians to at least the regional-championship game three times since 2000.”I just think the world of him,” Howell said. “He gets stuff out of those kids that nobody else can.”I’ll tell you what, John Weber, he’s a special man. If anybody deserves going to state, it’s that man.”
Howell helps in more ways than just being on the chain gang.When college coaches fly their charter jets into Immokalee’s airport, Howell sometimes picks them up and gives them a ride to the school.
A die-hard Florida Gator fan, Howell has in the past picked up former coach Steve Spurrier and now-fired coach Ron Zook Howell has yet to provide such a favor for Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer.”Are you kidding me?” says a smiling Howell, who nearly spills his sweetened iced tea. “Coach Fulmer’s walking as far as I’m concerned.”