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Florida town mourns football player's slaying

If this were any other football week, the streets of this south Florida community would be lined with banners reading "Go Blue Devils."
Captain Killed
Jackie Griffith and her granddaughter, Neshia, display photos of her son, Norman, who was shot and killed on Saturday.J. Pat Carter / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

If this were any other football week, the streets of this south Florida community would be lined with banners reading "Go Blue Devils."

Instead, the sign on the main drag speaks to a different mood: "Hey Pooh. We love you."

The slaying of Pahokee High School football captain Norman "Pooh" Griffith — the seventh young man shot recently in a couple of rival towns with only 20,000 people — has residents in this impoverished area stunned and grieving.

The football connection gives their pain a special twist.

Football has been a way out for dozens of young men from this sugarcane farming country along Lake Okeechobee, a place so poor that many people can't afford cars and merely hop rides on pickup trucks around town.

Football before a funeral
The sport is taken so seriously that the Griffith family has postponed Pooh's funeral so Pahokee can concentrate on its nationally televised game Friday night against Byrnes High School in South Carolina.

Some residents say that Pahokee's football rivalry with nearby Glades Central contributes to the violence, although police said Thursday they have no motive in Griffith's shooting.

"I want them to win this one for Pooh," said Patricia Griffith, 44, holding pictures of her son outside their home. "This game means so much to everybody. Pooh would have wanted them to play. I don't want his death to stop the game."

Pahokee, with 904 students, has won four of the last five state titles in its class. Glades Central, Belle Glade's school, has 1,140 students and is tied for the state record with six titles. Together, the schools have combined to send at least 48 players into professional football.

An 18-year-old linebacker and tight end, Griffith was shot in the head as he drove away from a postgame dance in Belle Glade early Saturday after an altercation, authorities said. Another Pahokee player was in the passenger seat but was not shot. Griffith had scholarship offers to several Division I schools, including Iowa State, Middle Tennessee State and Ball State. He also was drawing interest from West Virginia, Clemson and Pittsburgh, coaches said.

Pahokee players, coaches and friends make the eight-mile trek to the Griffith home in Belle Glade daily, dropping off crayon-colored cards and posters as condolences. Griffith attended school in Pahokee because his dad also lived there.

Talk of postponing big game
The towns' rivalry plays out annually in the Pahokee-Glades Central game, called the "Muck Bowl" after the rich soil that is the area's hallmark. It draws scores of college scouts from around the country and is considered by most locals more important than the state title game.

But already, there is talk of postponing next month's game or moving it to a Saturday morning because of fears of violence. In years past, security has been increased for that game to quell fights.

"I think sometimes people forget it's just a game," Pahokee coach Blaze Thompson said.

He's not the only one concerned.

"This rivalry can be deadly," 52-year-old Pahokee resident Willie Jones said, expressing an opinion held by many around town. "There's a lot of killing going on here."

Two weeks ago, Glades Central cornerback Byron Blake was shot in the hand. In August, five young men were shot — one was killed — within about two hours in Belle Glade. No witnesses have come forward with evidence, Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office spokeswoman Teri Barbera said.

"Every time something happens out there, nobody sees anything," Barbera said. "People are afraid to talk. Gangs control that whole area."

Youngsters say there are lines that cannot be crossed, places that can't be visited.

"You sort of know that some places you can't do certain things," said Deonte Richardson, 14, who lives in Pahokee. "Wearing a Pahokee shirt in Belle Glade or a Belle Glade shirt in Pahokee can be seen as disrespectful to the wrong people."

High poverty and AIDS infection rates
The region has some of the worst poverty and AIDS infection rates in the country. Homes are crumbling. Yards are muddy and full of weeds. Some apartment buildings have wooden boards for windows and front doors bristle with locks. Streets are often deserted and scary even for those who live there.

"Especially at night. You have to run fast if you want to get where you're going," said 15-year-old Marcus Gibson of Belle Glade.

Griffith's slaying is particularly troubling to residents. He was not a gang member, although investigators believe his killer was.

In response, authorities have restarted Operation Gangbusters, a concentrated police effort to combat gang violence. Officials in Pahokee, Belle Glade and one other town, South Bay, met Tuesday to develop a crime-prevention plan, even proposing a curfew for minors.

"Young people are dying, people are afraid to walk the streets, and kids in middle schools and elementary schools know what's going on," Belle Glade Mayor Steve Wilson said.

When Pahokee takes the field Friday night in South Carolina, Griffith's memory will be honored. Byrnes High is painting Griffith's No. 7 on the field and will hold a prayer before the game. Pahokee has invited Griffith's parents, giving them an opportunity to give a pregame speech.

"We live for football," Jones said. "We just never thought people would die for football, too."