Surrounded by a sea of sugarcane, this poverty-ravaged town on the southeastern edge of Lake Okeechobee always has been one of the country's most fertile football areas.
It's a place where players chase rabbits from burning brush to gain speed, college coaches begin recruiting trips and Friday nights produce future NFL stars. Football is the main diversion in Belle Glade, aka "Muck City," a place so depressed it lacks a big discount store and even a movie theater.
Now football is being threatened.
When U.S. Sugar Corp. -- the nation's largest sugarcane producer -- agreed in June to sell its nearly 300 square miles of farmland to the state for $1.75 billion, the deal was touted as an environmental victory for the government's ongoing Everglades restoration project. But for the community, it's a big blow.
In what is already one of the country's poorest areas, about 1,700 U.S. Sugar employees will lose their jobs when the transfer to the state is consummated in six years. The rest of the local economy, which mostly supports U.S. Sugar and its employees, will also suffer.
"The only thing most people around here know how to do is grow sugar and play football," 70-year-old resident Jack Brown said. "Without sugar, there will be no football."
The town of about 15,000, which got its nickname from its soil's black muck, has football talent just as rich.
Jacksonville Jaguars running back Fred Taylor, Pittsburgh Steelers receiver Santonio Holmes and dozens of other current and former NFL players call Belle Glade home. The four major programs in the area -- Glades Central, Pahokee, Glades Day and Clewiston -- have combined to win 17 state championships. Glades Central, the best of the four, has won six titles.
Pahokee, eight miles north along the lake's shore, produced Arizona Cardinals receiver Anquan Boldin among others. Glades Central and Pahokee have combined to send 48 players into professional football.
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