South Florida is known for a lot of things. Beaches, warm weather, nightlife, food and cultural diversity are a few that stand out. Then there’s football.
Scattered across NFL and top college rosters are talents from Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties. Hall of Famers, whose names are forever etched in the history of the sport, call the area home as well.
“Football in South Florida is a cultural way of life,” Fort Lauderdale St. Thomas Aquinas High School coach Roger Harriot said. “Most states around the country simply play it, while we live it. Our competitive lifestyle separates us from everywhere else.”
At the start of the last NFL season, there were more players from Miami than any other city in the United States. Miami had 27. Next on the list was Houston with 21.
Third on the list? Fort Lauderdale, which boasts 14 players — including Baltimore Ravens quarterback and reigning NFL MVP Lamar Jackson, whose face you’ll see on the cover of the football video game “Madden ‘21,” when it comes out Aug. 25. He attended Boynton Beach High School.
St. Thomas Aquinas, a national powerhouse program that has won 11 state championships, led the NFL with 13 alumni on rosters at the start of the 2019 season. These include Super Bowl champions James White and Phillip Dorsett as well as brothers Nick and Joey Bosa, who are two of the game’s most dominant pass rushers.
“Our overall success is a direct result of God’s presence and leadership,” Harriot said, “which has enabled us to cultivate a winning tradition and championship environment.”
Over the past two years, 40 St. Thomas Aquinas players have garnered football scholarships, many to Division 1 programs such as the University of Alabama, Louisiana State University, the University of Miami, the University of Florida, and the University of Oklahoma.
“I’m beyond grateful and feel blessed,” Harriot said. “Since [I was] hired in 2015, we have successfully placed 154 players into college football programs across the country.”
One key operator of the South Florida talent machine was legendary University of Miami coach Howard Schnellenberger, who led the team during its 1980s heyday. His philosophy, as described in ESPN’s 30-for-30 documentary “The U,” was to build a fence around South Florida and keep all the local talent home.
That recruiting ideology kicked off a dynasty that saw the Hurricanes claim national championships in 1987 and 1989. Miami is widely considered the team of the 1980s.
Today, three Miami high schools rank among the top 40 nationally at producing NFL talent: Carol City, Central and Northwestern. Representatives of programs from around the country usually flock to the region with hopes of plucking the best talent. Win South Florida recruiting battles and you win football games.
Alabama has been extremely successful in recruiting wide receivers. Among them: Amari Cooper, Calvin Ridley and Jerry Jeudy, who all won national titles during their time in Tuscaloosa. All went on to become first-round NFL draft picks. Dalvin Cook became the all-time leading rusher at Florida State University in just three seasons and was considered one of the top running backs in the country as a junior before being selected in the second round by the Minnesota Vikings. The Bosa brothers both attended Ohio State and were selected as top ten picks in their respective drafts.
In the current class, which includes rising high school seniors, 39 of the top 100 prospects in Florida are from Miami-Dade, Broward or Palm Beach counties. Six of the top 10 hail from Miami-Dade or Broward.Miami Palmetto High features two top-of-the-line prospects: Leonard Taylor and Jason Marshall Jr.
Taylor is rated a five-star talent, the most elite category of high school athlete. He’s considered the number-one ranked defensive tackle in the country and recently chose the University of Miami.
Marshall, also considered a five-star recruit, is rated as the number-three cornerback in America. He had offers from Alabama, Oregon, LSU and Miami, but chose the University of Florida.
“How many corners are 6-foot-2-inch, 190 pounds that can fly,” Manasco said of Marshall. “Jason is like a quiet assassin. He’s a guy that does things by example. I mean, he’s a guy that’s just going to work, work, work. He’s not going to be very vocal, but when we need him to make a play, he’s going to make that play. He’s more of the, ‘Watch me, I’m going to get it done’ type. I think kids respect that.”
As for Taylor, a 6-5, 290-pound defensive lineman, the coach believes that he will join the long list of NFL talent that has developed in the area.
“You don’t find kids with his size and athleticism in high school,” Manasco said. “The things that he can do naturally, plus with his willingness to just learn and get better. He’s just one of those kids that’s the nicest kid in the world and then he puts that helmet on and just changes when he crosses those white lines. He becomes an animal.”
Then there’s the youth football scene, which is also a breeding ground. Brandon Odoi of Football Hotbed, a South Florida football publication, has been covering youth football in the area for nearly a decade. He calls the area “a pressure cooker that produces diamonds.”
“The level of expectation of the athlete, even from six years old, is so much higher for the South Florida youth football athlete,” Odoi says. “That’s why see Lamar Jackson’s, that’s why you see Dalvin Cook’s, that’s why you see guys like [Carolina Panthers quarterback] Teddy Bridgewater, because they come into the pressure cooker at the youth level.”
Those players and others give back to the community, investing in the area’s next generation of football players, adds recruiting expert Larry Blustein who has been covering football in South Florida at all levels for over 50 years.
“An important part of it is the success that a lot of the past guys had,” Blustein said. “They will show up to anything and hang out with the guys. They don’t do that everywhere. I think that made kids feel like it’s attainable.”
Simply put, South Florida football is special. It is the perfect combination of cultural practice, exceptional talent, selfless superstars and a lot of coaches and mentors who help mold children into motivated and successful adults and football players.
“There is a zest to stay on top,” Blustein said. “The only reason is the people that continue to keep that assembly line rolling.”