Hunting in Belle Glade, Florida, is an act of survival, not sport — though killing a rabbit in the town on the shores of Lake Okeechobee is a feat of unparalleled athleticism.
Tavares Martin, now a starting wide receiver for the Washington State football team, was in first grade when his father, Tavares Martin Sr., first took him hunting for hares.
“My dad used to have a garden right next to this canal and I was walking home from school and I saw my daddy cleaning an alligator,” Martin said. “He was cleaning a gator and asked me if I wanted to go hunting. Being a kid, having my father in my life was something I always wanted. So when he asked I said yeah, and after that day on, I just fell in love with it.”
The 6-year-old and his father would crouch by the edge of the sugar cane fields that grow throughout Belle Glade, positioning themselves downwind of where they thought the rabbits were. Eventually, the farmers would set the field ablaze to remove the post-harvest debris that otherwise stops the sun from heating the soil, which prevents the growth of harmful fungi and plant-killing diseases.
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The fires would lick the air, and the smoke — nostalgic to locals, acrid to outsiders — would fill the fields. While the field burned, tractors moved in. That’s when the rabbits would dart out of the sugar cane and toward the boy and his dad.
“Either they going to come straight to you, or some will make you run for them. And when they make you run for them, you run behind them. A lot of zigzagging, but you just anticipate that move,” Martin said. “We run behind them and hit them with a stick or catch them with our hands.”
Stop for a second. You catch rabbits with your bare hands?
Have you personally caught one with your hands? “Yep.”
Even coach Mike Leach, whose travels and spirit of adventure are well documented, is bewildered by this.
“They will literally catch rabbits, run after them and see if they can catch them,” said a wide-eyed Mike Leach. “Can you imagine?”
LIFE IN BELLE GLADE
Belle Glade’s motto, “Her soil is her fortune,” adorns the signs greeting visitors at the various entrances to town. The soft, nutrient-rich soil is known locally as “The Muck” and has defined life for people in the area since it was first settled.
Belle Glade and the neighboring town of Pahokee share a football rivalry and a name: Muck City. Folks in these parts catch rabbits and snap their necks to put food on the table, and because it’s a lucrative industry.
According to Martin Jr., a rabbit can fetch as much as $4.
The Muck has given Belle Glade industry, but the soil has brought little fortune to the area. A 2009 study found that 85 percent of children still received free or reduced price school lunches, 40 percent of residents receive food stamps, and 40 percent of people were out of work, including those who had given up seeking jobs.
Throughout much of the 20th century, a trail of migrant workers began in Belle Glade and ended in Washington or Oregon. The workers stood outside juke joints all day, waiting for a bus to take them to some low paying job or another.
The poverty led to crime. According to the FBI, in 2003 Belle Glade had the second-highest violent crime rate in the country. For a time in the mid-80s, it had the nation’s highest rate of AIDS infections per capita (37 cases out of about 19,000 inhabitants).
“Me having my father in my life, he always taught me and kept me away from the streets. My mom as well,” Martin Jr. said. “Having sisters and me taking care of them and having them in my life always steered me away. I saw no value in the streets, seeing my friends dying left and right.”
A PATH OUT OF THE MUCK
Yet Martin was unable to stay entirely out of trouble, getting arrested and charged with unarmed burglary of an unoccupied dwelling after breaking into a home in an attempt to steal a TV in 2014. The misstep cost him a football scholarship at West Virginia.
But plenty of programs lined up to give the speedy, 6-foot-1 receiver a second chance. Alabama offered him after his arrest. The Cougars gave him a second chance, and he took it.
Martin might be a long way from Belle Glade, but he’s still found many of the trappings of home. He has found teammates who like to hunt and fish.
On the field, quarterback Luke Falk and Martin have a co-dependent relationship. But on the lake, it’s every man for himself.
“Luke’s a good fisherman, but I beat him,” Martin said. “Luke likes catching small fish,” he adds wryly.
Martin made it out of Belle Glade. But in that sense, he is hardly unique.
It is hard being poor, and perennial scarcity produces hopelessness in many. But the destitution instills motivation in others, and Belle Glade has produced a surprising number of millionaires.
More specifically, millionaire football players — those athletes best equipped to survive life in the Muck by catching rabbits or the people most likely to escape its cycle of poverty.
Though Martin went to Dwyer High in nearby Palm Beach Gardens, the more local Glades Central High has produced NFL players such as Santonio Holmes, Fred Taylor and, most recently, Kelvin Benjamin. Nearby Pahokee has an enrollment of just 900 students but has sent players like Anquan Boldin, Rickey Jackson and Janoris Jenkins off to the NFL.
Martin hopes to join their ranks, and he’s off to a good start. As a sophomore, he is No. 2 on the team in receiving yards with 257 through four games.
Because of his superior athleticism and the inner drive that has honed his skills to make him an impact Pac-12 player as an underclassman, Martin has a chance to join the ranks of professional football players to come up from The Muck.
“A lot of places have great athletes, but these are particularly tough athletes,” Leach said. “I think it has a lot to do with what their families do and what their parents do. Belle Glade’s a wild place, and it’s not an accident so many football players come out of there.”