MIAMI — Each week around the NFL, Devonta Freeman sees a familiar face from home.
The Atlanta Falcons running back was born and raised in Miami. No matter who the Falcons are playing, he’s likely to see someone he competed against or played with.
“Every team, there’s a guy from Miami. Every team,” said Freeman, who went to Miami Central High School and has made two Pro Bowls for the Falcons. “It lets you know how much talent there is from there.”
“Friday Night Lights” wasn’t based in South Florida. There might be more romanticism about high school football in Midwestern locations like Ohio, or even California. But make no mistake: South Florida, which will host Super Bowl LIV on Sunday, now rules the football world.
At the start of this season, there were more NFL players from Miami than any other city. Miami had 27 players, and only Houston (21) came close. Tied for third on that list? Nearby Fort Lauderdale, with 14. St. Thomas Aquinas High School in Fort Lauderdale has produced the most current NFL players with 13. No other high school has more than seven.
South Florida has its fingerprints all over the football world — Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson, who went to Boynton Beach High School not far from Miami, is going to be crowned NFL MVP later this week — and they don’t mind telling you all about it.
“There’s nothing to talk about. They know. We run it. We did it,” said Willis McGahee, a star running back at University of Miami who scored 70 touchdowns in a 10-year NFL career. “Texas and Cali know. They are good at track. And there are some good football players from there. But they know. It all comes from the bottom.
“We always look at everyone else as being second. That’s how we thought about it growing up.”
South Florida’s dominance started decades ago
Let’s get this straight before looking into the 305 area code’s football dominance: Don’t refer to it as “Miami.” Guys from Fort Lauderdale or “Muck City” or Palm Beach won’t appreciate it. And we won’t get into the northern part of the state, which has produced great players like Derrick Henry, Brian Dawkins and Clinton Portis. Florida as a whole had the most NFL players on opening day rosters this season with 212, significantly outdistancing California (177) and Texas (173). The most fertile ground for high-end football talent spans three counties: Dade, Broward and Palm Beach.
“You’re only talking three counties, and they compare those three counties to Texas and California,” said George Smith, who coached at St. Thomas Aquinas for 28 years and had a 279-61 record with three state championships. “It’s no contest.”
How and when did such a relatively small area become the king of American football?
Smith came to St. Thomas Aquinas in 1972. He noticed the rise in South Florida football near the end of the ’70s. That’s when Smith noticed that not just the local schools were recruiting the area, but prominent Big Ten programs were coming down too. Big Ten powers and Notre Dame had mostly recruited the Midwest or the East Coast. When the recruiting reach expanded, South Florida’s reputation grew.
“Then they figured out Florida guys are better and faster,” Smith said. “Especially Michigan and Ohio State.”
The University of Miami’s rise to power in the 1980s had an effect. When Howard Schnellenberger took over as Hurricanes coach in 1979, the program was struggling. Schnellenberger’s philosophy, as told in the 30 for 30 documentary “The U,” was to make sure Miami hoarded all the plentiful local talent. Miami became the best program in college football, winning five national championships over an 18-year span.
Football players in South Florida suddenly had a clear goal, to play for the Hurricanes.
“Of course, they were the icons of everything,” said McGahee, who had 1,753 yards and 28 touchdowns for the Hurricanes in 2002. “Everyone wanted to be a part of that.”
Florida State and Florida were producing phenomenal teams as well, and there was enough in-state talent for them all.
“Half of them who didn’t make it were better than I was in high school,” McGahee said. “They just went down the wrong path, or there would be a whole lot more than there are now.”
South Florida’s advantages
Florida has an advantage not many states have. Kids can train outside year-round due to the weather. That is a factor. Training in extreme heat and humidity in summer is a benefit too. Young players can spend all year honing their skills.
“We breathe different air, we work in different air,” Freeman said. “We work in this all the time.”
“You’ll see more speed than you’ve ever seen,” said Alonzo Highsmith, a star running back for the Hurricanes who was the third pick of the 1987 NFL draft. “You’ll see more athleticism than you’ve ever seen.”
Competition is key, too. Every new generation of players will go against other elite players their entire lives, and that starts in Pop Warner. Most areas around the country might have one or two high schools that produce multiple Division I players. In Florida, 40 high schools had multiple active NFL players this season.
“I bet there’s no better Pop Warner football played than down here,” Highsmith said. “They play against the best competition year round growing up. They’re not scared of competition. Lamar Jackson has played against the best competition all his life. When you go to college, it’s not a big shock.”
There’s a strong football culture in the area too. Kids start developing their talent in grade school. Texans have the reputation of being obsessed with football. South Floridians are the same way. There just hasn’t been an iconic television show about it.
“Football is the domain of Miami, and Dade County. You breathe it, eat it, sleep it, ” Freeman said. “Most kids grow up here knowing what they want to do, and it’s to play in the NFL. And if you come out of Miami, you actually have a pretty good shot.
“Of Plan A and Plan B, Plan B is to make sure Plan A works. It’s the energy. It’s the mood. It’s in your blood. You have to wake up with that competitiveness.”
A team of South Florida-bred players could probably beat the Miami Dolphins. Lamar Jackson, Teddy Bridgewater, Freeman, Frank Gore, Dalvin Cook, James White, Marquise Brown, Antonio Brown, T.Y. Hilton, Geno Atkins, Amari Cooper, Joey and Nick Bosa, Lavonte David, Patrick Peterson and Xavier Rhodes are just a few of the current NFL stars from South Florida, not to mention all-time greats like Michael Irvin, Andre Johnson, Chad Johnson and Devin Hester.
“Even Lee Corso, how about that?” McGahee added, referencing the “ESPN College GameDay” analyst who was a star quarterback at Miami Jackson Senior High School.
More generations of great players coming
South Florida’s grip on the football world isn’t going to fade anytime soon. Everyone seems to believe the players from there keep getting better.
“I think the youth talent is better now than it was when i was young,” Freeman said.
“The state of Texas has more high school legends; everyone is a high school legend from there,” Highsmith said. “Great players in Florida? You’re just another guy. Deion Sanders was a great high school football player, but nobody even talks about that. Because these kids are better than the last kids, and it keeps going that way.”
The guys who have made it seem genuinely pleased that the kids coming up are even better than they were. There’s a clear pride in all of the talent that comes from the area.
“There’s definitely a swag being from there,” McGahee said.
South Florida will be the focus of the football world this week as it hosts the Super Bowl. That’s fitting considering South Florida’s impact on every level of the game.
“Miami is tough, I won’t lie,” Freeman said. “But I wouldn’t want to have grown up anywhere else. I don’t know if anywhere else would have prepared me like Miami.”
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