Willie Snead: Yes, You Can Go Home Again

BELLE GLADE -- For 20 miles leading into this town of 14,096, which is about two miles east of Lake Okeechobee, about all you see are the sugar cane fields that grow tall in the rich black muck. To the north, south and to the east it's nothing but cane fields, canals and occasionally a road that slices through the sea of green.

This is not the end of the earth, not even close. It is the middle of nowhere but here in this middle of nowhere there is a small town filled with caring people. This is a place where the mega-rich who own the land that produces the bulk of America's sugar crop are friendly with the poor folks whose jobs depend on the country's continued sweet tooth. This is a place where silver spoons belong only to a privileged few and if there is no silver spoon, education and sports are the only tickets out of town.

This is the place that Willie Snead escaped 21 years ago. He got out because his mother, Rosa Snead, demanded that education was his first priority. He also got out because he could run very fast and play football so well that the University of Florida offered him a scholarship. He was an early part of that Belle Glade pipeline which has over the years sent the Gators standouts such as Ray McDonald, Louis Oliver, Rhondy Weston, Reidel Anthony, Fred Taylor and current Gator star Ray McDonald Jr.

Willie Snead got his education at the University of Florida then spent a couple of years hanging on in the fringes of the National Football League before giving up that dream to pursue another. Since then he's made a steady climb up the ladder of success as a high school football coach. Some thought he had it made when he became the head coach at Blanche Ely High School in Pompano Beach, a school with size and tradition in a major metropolitan area that annually produces incredible talent but two years into that gig he got the call.

When Alabama called Bear Bryant at Texas A&M back in the 1950s, asking him to come home to Tuscaloosa to revive the football program, Bryant said it was like "Mama calling." Willie Snead understands completely. Mama called and he answered. He's back in Belle Glade, the place he worked so hard to escape 21 years ago, only this time he's the football coach. It's not "Welcome Back Kotter." It's "Mama calling." He's home where he started.

"There was no question that I would come back when they called me," Snead says. "This was something I wanted to do. This was something that in a lot of ways I prepared my whole life to do."

* * *

Growing up in Belle Glade, it's easy to see those endless miles of cane fields on the horizon and think that this is a prison without walls. Older people who have lived here all their lives working those cane fields and sugar mills know about hard times and how rare it is to have those days or years when you feel you've got a chance to come out ahead. They know how hard it is to get out of Belle Glade.

It is those same older people who have done the backbreaking work in the cane fields and in the sugar mills who have bonded together in Belle Glade. It's a very nurturing community, one where there are friends in every neighborhood and hands regularly reaching out to offer a necessary lift.

"This is a nurturing community," said Snead. "It was that way when I was growing up and for the most part, it still is. That is something I don't think has really changed all that much. It's still the kind of place where if you do something wrong, in about an hour the whole town knows about it. It's also the kind of place where if you want to do something right, you'll find people who will do anything they can to help you out."

When he was growing up in Belle Glade in a single parent family, he knew he had to be on his best behavior. There were older women who sat on their front porches in every neighborhood, keeping an eagle eye on the children who played in yards and in the streets while their parents were working. Kids understood that these older women were the eyes and ears of their parents, a tremendous deterrent.

"If I did something wrong, I knew my mother was going to hear about it," Snead said with a smile. "There was no place to hide. It's still that way. We're out here a long way from anything. There aren't many places to hide."

The lasting influence of these good people still holds close to Willie Snead's heart. He is the first to tell you that he wouldn't be where he is today if the entire community of Belle Glade hadn't been involved in shaping him from a child into a determined young man.

"You've heard that saying it takes a village to raise a kid?" he asked. "I think that's the way it was when I was growing up and I think that's the way it still is here. I think that's the real staple of the community the way people take pride in Belle Glade.

"There are a lot of people here who want to see that the young people can have their avenues out where they can have a better life. For a lot of these people, they'll never be able to leave here but they want the young people of this community to have a chance to experience all the things they'll never have the opportunity to do."

* * *

For the past 35 years the sports teams at Glades Central have been the constant that keeps the community together. The football team has won five state championships. The boys track team has won the state title seven times under Willie McDonald, Ray McDonald's dad and Ray Jr.'s grandfather. When the Raiders take the field, the stands are packed and the sidelines are a magnet for former players, back in Belle Glade to do their part in keeping tradition alive.

"It really means something to be part of that tradition," said Snead. "The kids in the program today see the great players who have been here who come back and they know they have a legacy that they have to live up to."

It is these teams steeped in such tradition that offer what Willie Snead would prefer to call "avenues" rather than escapes from Belle Glade.

Snead's avenue out was two-fold: (1) a high school transcript of good grades fueled by Rosa Snead's determination that her son would get a good education; and (2) the ability to play football at the highest level which is why the state's Big Three (Florida, Florida State and Miami) came calling. He chose Florida and it's a choice he has never regretted.

"Football and sports helped me discover the world outside of Belle Glade," he said. "Without the sports, I think it would have been a much tougher road. Sports opened doors and got me to Florida where I got a truly great education. It's one of the best choices I have ever made."

Now that he's back at Belle Glade, he is determined that sports will continue to open doors for the kids of the community.

"I'm back again and I'm back with the experience and knowledge of what it takes to get out of here and what it takes to be a success out there in the real world that is beyond Belle Glade," he said. "We can continue the tradition and we can build on it and make it stronger so more kids will get a chance like I had."

In his two years as the head coach at Ely, he showed the football team that one way to get the attention of the many college recruiters who scour South Florida for talent is to combine the athletic ability with success in the classroom. Ely's collective team grade point average was 2.1 when he became head coach. This spring, as he finishes out the school year at Ely before leaving permanently for Glades Central, the team GPA is almost 3.0.

The same formula for academic success that was applied at Ely will be applied at Glades Central.

"There will be more than one way out of here," he said. "Sports can do it. Academics can do it. For the kids who are involved in sports, the combination of sports and academics is the ultimate ticket. Good study habits and having the desire to learn is every bit as important as how well you can run with a football in your hands."

* * *

The community that he left 21 years ago has embraced him. He's comfortable being back among friends and supporters who find it exciting that one of their own has chosen to return to where it all started to help continue the traditions and perhaps take them on to newer and higher levels.

"I doubt I could even explain how excited I am," he said. "I'm back where I started, back at my old high school where I get to work with my mom and with my brother. I've got an opportunity to come home and contribute something back to a community that gave so much to me when I was a young kid coming up."

He embraces the chance to be a role model for the kids whose lives he will impact at Glades Central and in the Belle Glade community. He's happily married with three bright, charming children. He's well spoken. He's successful. He wants to be a part of the success of future generations.

"Every community needs someone to represent what's good in the community, what it stands for and the kind of success you can have if you're willing to do all the right things," he said. "I think kids today are looking for role models who live their lives right and who are the kind of role models who will demand that they live their lives right, too."

When he talks about being a role model and demanding that kids live their lives right Willie Snead sounds a lot like Urban Meyer, the University of Florida's new football coach, who is just five and a half months into the job.

"There's a connection between us," said Snead, "just as there is a connection between the University of Florida and Belle Glade. Coach Meyer stands for all the right things and he wants the Florida football program to stand for all the right things. I want that for Glades Central, too. I want our football program to stand for all the right things and I hope that kids will see that I do my best to stand for all the right things as a coach and as a person."

Meyer has opened the door for the former Gators to return to UF. It's a gesture that has touched Snead's heart, particularly since he is part of what has been a "forgotten generation" of Gator football players, those who endured the probation years of the 1980s.

"Those were some dark days at Florida," Snead said. "But it wasn't all bad because during those hard times we all stuck together. That got us through the tough times. I don't think people realize how tough it was because of the probation and the scholarship cuts, but we managed to have success in spite of the adversity in the program. For a long time, we were kind of forgotten but now I can tell you that all of us feel this is a great opportunity to be part of the football program again at the University of Florida. It's like going home."

Thomas Wolfe wrote "You Can't Go Home Again" and countless thousands have used that phrase to explain away their own difficulties in going back to the places of their youth. Willie Snead's life journey has allowed him to go home twice in the same spring --- once to Glades Central and once to the University of Florida. He will tell you that going home is not such a bad thing.

"No, it's not bad at all," he said. "For me, it's been the best thing ever."

Fightin Gators Top Stories