BELL GLADE — Jesse Hester never believed he was better than anyone while growing up in the country’s most fertile region when it comes to producing football players.
Hester, the former standout wide receiver, admits that there were more talented athletes who were never All-State, who never had a chance to attend a school like Florida State and become an All-American, who never were selected in the first round of the NFL draft.
And he knows what separates many like him and others who have accomplished so much in athletics — like his fellow inductees into the first class of the Muck City Sports Hall of Fame — from those who have fallen behind simply making decisions.
“I’ve been fortunate enough to play college ball and play professionally, and I know guys better than me haven’t had that opportunity for (various) reasons like making a bad decision,” Hester said.
“We didn’t turn up in the best of circumstances, but that didn’t make me go and do the wrong things. There’s no reason for me to do that. You can go mow grass, pick up trash in people’s yards, whatever you need to do to get a few bucks in your pocket. Do it, there’s no shame in hard work. Don’t use anything as an excuse for why things go wrong. Pull yourself up by the bootstraps and go get it.”
And for many of those who do, recognition may one day come from the Muck City Sports Hall of Fame.
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Hester, who played for four NFL teams and caught 373 passes for 5,850 yards and 29 touchdowns; Pro Football Hall of Famer Ricky Jackson; Super Bowl 43 MVP Santonio Holmes; and 12-year NFL cornerback Jimmy Spencer were recognized Friday during Glades Central’s preseason game against Miami’s Booker T. Washington.
The inaugural class also includes football coach Milton Watson, basketball and track and field star Evette Liman and wrestling standout Jerry Seymour.
They were presented June 5 at the Dolly Hand Cultural Arts Center on Palm Beach State College’s Belle Glade campus.
The Muck City gym will honor athletes and contributors from Belle Glade, Pahokee, South Bay and Clewiston, four schools with a combined 20 state football titles. It was launched by the Muck City Project, which focuses on preserving and recognizing the region’s history.
The project notes that more than 80 NFL and 400 college football players once planted their cleats in the rich soil along the southern shores of Lake Okeechobee, all of them chasing rabbits forced out of cane fields during burn season. Urban Meyer once called the Glades “the fastest place in the whole country,”
Many have gone on to greatness and made their mark in small college towns and big NFL cities. And no one will forget their roots.
“The boys have been all over the world, they’ll always call out Muck just to let the world know where they’re from,” Hester said.
And a hall of fame that recognizes the best of an underserved community is about much more than names on flags and halftime ceremonies.
It transcends sports.
More than anything, this kind of recognition can be an inspiration for the seemingly endless stream of talent coming from an area where resources are limited. Success stories like Hester and Jackson, Holmes and Spencer and many more to follow can motivate future generations when they hear their stories.
“It meant more to them to go into the Muck Hall of Fame than a lot of the recognition they got on the national stage because it came from the people who knew them best and knew the living conditions and the struggle they had to go through , to be where they are today,” said Jonathan Mann, president of the Muck City Project.
The strength of this Hall of Fame will be unlike any other in a small, rural region of the country, especially one with a population of just over 40,000.
The introductory class is proof.
Name another regional Hall of Famer where Fred Taylor, Anquan Boldin, Andre Waters, Louis Oliver, Reidell Anthony or Janoris Jenkins failed to crack their induction class.
17th leading rusher in NFL history, NFL Man of the Year, four-time leading rusher for the Philadelphia Eagles, second-team All-Pro, first-round pick, pro bowler.
And the list goes on and on.
“They had to flip coins to decide who got in and who didn’t,” Hester said. “You just have such a long list of guys who could easily be there.”
One day they will.
Tom D’Angelo is a journalist at The Palm Beach Post. He can be reached at [email protected]