Tavares Martin Jr. and Isaiah Johnson-Mack grew up in the same rural pocket of Florida known colloquially as Muck City, an area that’s produced a wildly disproportionate number of NFL players over the years, especially at the receiver positions.
They both moved 40 miles to the east at some point and attended Dwyer High in West Palm Beach, Florida.
They both drew interest from a smattering of elite football programs and wound up enrolling at Washington State.
And they’ll probably be the Cougars’ starting outside receivers in a season opener Sept. 2 against Montana State.
Some of these parallels are coincidence. Others are directly related to the bonds that Martin Jr. and Johnson-Mack have formed, especially since their high-school days, and to their shared roots in the improbable football breeding grounds of Muck City – i.e. Belle Glade, Florida, and the surrounding area.
As described in previous articles, Martin hails from the curious Muck City rabbit-hunting culture – young men darting through the sugarcane fields and catching muck rabbits for fun and profit – a culture that has been linked, at least anecdotally, to the high degree of athleticism of the area’s football players.
He was introduced to this culture through his father, Tavares Martin Sr., a onetime cane-field worker who had grown up with a number of Belle Glade athletes who would shine at the college and pro levels of football. Both father and son are convinced of the connection between this type of rabbit hunting and the development of agility and speed.
Johnson-Mack, a year behind Martin in school, was never close to his own father and never experienced the Muck City rabbit phenomenon until Martin initiated him into it years later. But Johnson-Mack is distantly related to a Belle Glade native who would become a Jacksonsville Jaguars running back, Fred Taylor. And his early role model in town was Travis Benjamin, now a Los Angeles Chargers receiver.
So he’s keenly aware of the area’s legacy of football talent – Santonio Holmes, Kelvin Benjamin, Reidel Anthony, Eddie Poole. The list goes on.
“They’re not really legends to the rest of the world, but they’re legends to us,” Johnson-Mack said Monday at Sacajawea Junior High in Lewiston, Idaho, after the Cougars’ sixth day of preseason practice. “You’re kind of born into that mind set. You just want to be great. You see all these great receivers, so that’s what you want to be, ever since I could remember.”
Now he and Martin are starting to add to the legacy.
They’re similar receivers with distinct differences. Martin, a 6-foot-1, 183-pound junior, relies heavily on vision, instinct and maneuverability. Johnson-Mack, a 6-3, 216-pound sophomore, is a big target who just gets bigger as he hones his route-running skills.
Martin was the first of the two to make the unlikely jump from Florida to the opposite corner of the country, drawn partly by the pass-laden offensive schemes of WSU coach and Florida-phile Mike Leach. He caught 16 passes as a true freshman in 2015, then relayed a message to Leach from his friend: Johnson-Mack, too, would like to make the jump.
Last year, while Martin was making 64 receptions for 728 yards as a starter at the Cougars’ X (far left) receiver position, Johnson-Mack was understudying the estimable Gabe Marks as a true freshman at the Z (far right) spot. Johnson-Mack caught 35 passes for 246 yards.
Now that Marks has graduated to the New York Jets, Martin and Johnson-Mack are likely to start together for the first time for the Pac-12 school – the Belle Glade Bookends.
They don’t pretend to see many similarities between eastern Washington and the Florida Everglades, though their roots in Belle Glade probably prepared them somewhat for the leisurely rhythms of Pullman.
“To me, it’s night and day,” Johnson-Mack said. “The only similarity I see is, you know, Pullman is surrounded by all the fields. That’s how our hometown is, just cane fields instead of wheat fields.”
The two Floridians are part of a rangy, gifted band of WSU outside receivers whose primary bond is their lack of roots to the Northwest. C.J. Dimry and Dezmon Patmon grew up in the San Diego area, and emerging true freshman Devontavean (Tay) Martin is from Louisiana.
Their skills are comparable, but their strengths and weaknesses tend to be different. On the sidelines during preseason camp, they compare notes with increasing candor and camaraderie.
“We all learn from each other,” Martin said. “That’s what our outside (meeting) room is, watching each other, taking pieces from each other’s games and making them your own.”
That’s true of the Floridians in particular. For Martin, it means “playing big” – taking note of Johnson-Mack’s ability to use his body as a shield from defenders, and trying to emulate it.
For Johnson-Mack, it means “playing fast.” He came late to rabbit-hunting, but he’s learning.