The Pouncey twins, Maurkice and Michael, are the power guys, body slammers deluxe. They're both 6-5, in the 290-pound range and they don't mind hammering their little buddies Chris Rainey and Ahmad Black every chance they get. Rainey and Black are the finesse guys that try to leap all the way across the pool like they're going over the top of a pile at the goal line. They are not above delivering a forearm to the back of someone's head. In this game in the pool, that kind of conduct won't get a 15-yard penalty. It's expected. Paul Wilson can't seem to make up his mind if he's a finesse guy or a cheap shot artist. He seems comfortable in both roles. Steven Wilks? Pure headhunter. He'll stick a shoulder under anyone's chin, elbow anyone that comes close or deliver a forearm shiver to anyone who's made the mistake of turning his back.
Form tackles are considered wimpy. Hard hits are appreciated but not nearly as much as dirty tricks and cheap shots. The game will last two hours and nobody will bother keeping score. The non-stop laughter bounces off houses and tall oak trees as it winds its way through this South Florida Avenue suburb.
"It's like this all the time," says Lisa Webster, Maurkice and Michael Pouncey's mother. "These kids just love having fun together. They're best friends and they're all good kids."
* * *
They call themselves "the family" and with good reason. The Pounceys, Rainey, Black, Wilks and Wilson are like a band of brothers. Where you find one, it isn't long before you will find the other five. Whether it is the weight room at Lakeland High School where they are the core of a 34-man senior class for Coach Bill Castle's powerhouse Dreadnaughts or hanging around at the mall, where Rainey says it's a target rich environment for good looking girls around 3 p.m. every day, they are together for long stretches of nearly every day.
They've grown up together playing sports in Lakeland since they were little guys and now they are rising seniors on a high school football team that is on the verge of legendary status. Lakeland, which is 150-18 since 1993, takes a 30-game winning streak into the 2006 season. The Dreadnaughts have won the last two state championships and they are the defending USAToday national champions.
It's been so long since they played in a losing football game that they can't remember who it was they played but all of them remember what it felt like to ride home on a quiet bus after a loss.
"Don't want to feel that way ever again," says Black, a 5-10, 170-pound cornerback that has committed to the University of Florida. He is the unquestioned leader of this group, the son of a retired Green Beret who only has to pass Senior English in the fall to graduate high school early so he can enroll at UF in January, in time to participate in offseason drills and spring football practice. Black has a quick smile that can light up a room. He walks and talks with confidence. Countless hours in the weight room have turned him into a perfect specimen where an ounce of fat has no place to hide. He may weigh only 170 but he hits like he's 225.
"We've won 30 in a row … 15 more to go here and then four undefeated years at Florida ... that's what we expect," said Rainey, a 5-9, 160-pound quicksilver running back that plays the game with unprecedented passion. The perpetual smile and electric personality overshadow an intense, burning desire to prove himself. Football almost becomes his personal game of catch me if you can. He is an electric gamebreaker that turns two-yard gains into 70-yard touchdown romps. It's 50-50 what drives him most --- the joy of playing or the pain of a home life that was gypsy-like until Rob and Lisa Webster invited him into their home where he is treated like a third son. Football is his outlet, his ultimate escape that has given him almost rock star status in Lakeland. In this town, everybody knows Chris. He always wanted to be a Gator and he will bring his myriad of speed, moves, jukesteps and game-breaking electricity to Florida in the fall of 2007.
The Pounceys are the leaders on the offensive line at Lakeland. They are only 16 years old (won't be 17 until late July), still growing and really only starting to figure out how to harness all this athletic ability, speed and strength. Only two years ago they were linebackers and now they are among the top offensive linemen in the nation. Doctors say the appear to have at least one more growth spurt left in them.
"The doctors say they're still growing so we think they'll finish up over 6-6 and they're going to weigh over 300 pounds at some point," says Rob Webster, their dad who has coached them since they were little guys and has used sports as a way to help teach them life's lessons.
Off the field, Maurkice and Michael are fun-loving, conscientious kids that will yes sir and no sir you to death. They've grown up in a home where respect is required and rule number one is homework first because bad or mediocre grades equal no play. On the field, they are a two-man wrecking crew, big, fast and mean. Get in their way and they'll bury you. They still don't know their own strength. Like Black and Rainey, they are Florida-bound. Like Black, they were diehard Seminole fans until recently. Now that they're committed to Florida, they've already thrown out all the recruiting letters from FSU and all the other schools that were after them.
Wilson's nickname is "Magic Man" because he makes impossible catches. He's the son of a former University of Georgia wide receiver. His dad has been teaching him to play the position since he was a little guy and now he is so fluid that you don't notice that he's got 4.45 (electronically timed this summer) 40 speed. He's almost 6-2 now and on his way to 6-3. He's a wiry 180-pounder that fights the metabolism battle daily. The calories are burned up almost as fast as he can consume them so weight gain isn't easy. He doesn't talk a lot but once a game gets going, the quiet demeanor gives way to an easily seen intensity. When the ball is up in the air, nothing or nobody is going to stop him from making the catch. Ask him to block and he's ready to tear somebody's head off. That's why Notre Dame wants him. So does South Carolina but it's Florida that will likely get his commitment, perhaps even in the next week or two.
Wilks is known as "Hit Man" not just because he knocks people into next week but because he has a sense of timing about him. He seems to save his biggest hits for the moment the Dreadnaughts need them the most. On the field, he plays with an assasin's mentality. He has no conscience whatsoever. He takes pride in the number of receivers and running backs he's laid out in the last two years. In the pool, he's the dirtiest and sneakiest guy out there. On the playing field, it's just hard, clean hits that separate opponents from the ball and their helmets. He's 6-3, 195 now and he hasn't even begun to fill out yet. At some point the Dreadnaughts enforcer of a safety will grow into a Kevin Greene-like linebacker of some 230 bring the thunder pounds. Iowa has offered as well as some other big time programs but his veins bleed orange and blue. He knows he has a chance for a Florida offer and when it does, he already knows the answer. Given the chance, he will fulfill a lifelong dream and be a Gator.
* * *
At the Lakeland Square Mall around 6:30 p.m. Rainey laments the lack of good looking women on the premises. His buddies say he is the total babe magnet. He says that the 3-4 p.m. window is the best time for scoping out the local lovelies which explains the slim pickings on this evening.
At Foot Locker, Wilson buys some Florida T-shirts and a new pair of Puma cleats. Wilks, who is already in a Florida T-shirt, adds another Gator shirt to his already growing collection. As Rainey checks out shoes, Wilson says, "He's got more shoes than anyone. How many do you have, Chris?"
When Rainey responds that he has 200 pairs of shoes and perhaps 10 boxes that he hasn't even opened yet, Wilks shows off a pair that he borrowed from Rainey earlier in the afternoon. Rainey is all the time getting new Nike shoes and gear from his brother Rod Smart, the Oakland Raiders running back that was known as "He Hate Me" during his year in the XFL.
At a store called X-treme, the Pounceys, Black and Rainey check out this interesting character in an oversized Miami Heat uniform that has "King Bling" in sewn-on letters on the back. "King Bling" has a shaved head except for "Heat" carved in peroxide blonde hair letters on the back side. He wears funky sunglasses, has fat fingers that are dwarfed by several oversized rings that he says are diamonds, and he says the two handbags he's carrying are packed with money.
When he tells the kids the bags are where he stashes his cash, the twins look at each other with raised eyebrows. Black and Rainey have a case of the giggles that leaves them holding their sides and gasping for breath. They aren't impressed with "King Bling." Nobody is.
The Pounceys, Black and Rainey hook up with Wilks and Wilson once again outside Foot Locker and then it's off to Spencer's, their favorite store in the mall. While they're checking out gag gifts like a finger shocking device and a fake set of boobs, this fellow strolls into the store with two giggling girls. He's in dire need of an Ab-Lounger but that hasn't stopped him from donning a pair of tight denim shorts that belong to one of the girls. He's wearing a white tank top that only highlights his bulging belly. The shorts have a hole in the back where a chunk of white flesh is trying to escape. He says he did this on a bet with the girls.
"I think this guy must go to FSU," says Michael Pouncey. His crew is already laughing uncontrollably. With this comment, mass hysteria becomes the word of the moment.
By the time everybody stops laughing, it's time to drive downtown to the radio studios of WLKF where the Pounceys, Rainey and Black are going to be the guests on Ronnie Ocean's call-in sports show.
* * *
Ocean asks the twins about their Florida commitment. Most in the Lakeland community thought they were locks to go to Florida State. Black, who was also a diehard FSU fan growing up, gets to answer the same question.
After explaining that it was nothing personal against Florida State, Maurkice Pouncey says, "Florida just felt like home to us. We felt like these coaches, the players they're bringing in, the whole situation is right for us so we followed our hearts. We're going to be Gators."
Asked if Rainey, a self-admitted lifelong Gator, had anything to do with the final choice, Michael Pouncey responded, "It had a lot to do with it. We're like family. Chris kept telling us all about Florida and we kept trying to get him to go to FSU. He got us convinced to give Florida a look and when we went to camp there, we knew it was the right place for us to be and it means we're going to be teammates the next four years. We're sticking together and that's important to us."
"That just opened my eyes to Florida and I found that it's the right place for me to be," he said. "I'm going to be a Gator."
* * *
Lisa Webster stands in the driveway of their home, saying good-bye to Wilson, Black and the Gator Country crew that has spent the day with the Lakeland kids. She hugs Black and sends him on his way, then Wilson is next. The hugs are the kind mamas give to their children.
"They're all like my own kids," she says. "I love them all just like my own."
She admits she was surprised when the call came from Michael and Maurkice from the Florida football camp about a week ago, asking her and Rob to make a quick trip up to Gainesville to check out the University of Florida. Like the boys, she was a Seminole fan and she really did like Odell Hagins, the FSU defensive line coach that had been recruiting her boys, a lot. She still likes Odell, but she admits that there's something special about Coach Urban Meyer and he gave her the sense that he will really take care of her boys.
"He seems like the kind of coach that you can trust," she said. "When we met him, we came away very impressed. All we wanted was for our boys to make the right choice. Florida is where they want to go and judging by Coach Meyer, it's a good place for them. It was surprising at first, but now that it's been a few days, they are excited about going to Florida and I'm comfortable with it. I don't have any problem at all with them going to Florida. I'm very supportive of their decision. I hear Gainesville is a nice town and we're going to be spending a lot of time there."
With four already committed from Lakeland and the likelihood that at least two more of "her boys" will be spending the next four years in Gainesville, she smiles and adds, "It's only an hour and a half or two hours away from here. We're going to be up there a lot."