Dave George: State ruling doesn’t erase Pahokee’s memorable season


Like a beautiful new home where no one will ever be allowed to reside, the Class 1A state football championship for 2016 is forever vacant.

And like the briefest footstep inside that same imaginary home, with its high vaulted ceilings and unfinished purpose, there are echoes that seem to go on forever, too.

Pahokee High School’s 34-21 victory over Baker, the powerhouse from way up in the Panhandle? All those giddy Blue Devils boosters who made the early-December drive to Orlando for that state title game can still hear the band playing its victory march.

Thursday of this week, unfortunately, will be long remembered, too, as the day that the final note of all that brassy, sassy music died.

That’s when Pahokee and the school district decided to drop the appeals and accept the forfeiture of the state championship, as ordered by the Florida High School Athletic Association.

It all had to do with an ineligible player, a non-traditional student who was new to the program and did not attend Pahokee, but all the details and the explanations and the apologies and the request for a hardship waiver were merely footnotes in an investigation that never was going to end any other way.

The FHSAA doesn’t bend. It barely blinks, even when a parent has traveled all the way to the group’s Gainesville office to plead for understanding in a complex situation, which is what happened here.

This column comes as an epilogue, then, to a story that went from happily-ever-after to hurting-all-over in the space of a couple nasty months.

I won’t pretend to know if everything school officials did in researching each player’s eligibility was completely right, or if anything the FHSAA decided is completely wrong, but what has been lost cannot be argued. Class 1A is specifically built for small schools in rural towns, which means that every resident is awash with the glory of shared achievement whenever a banner is raised, and every resident is flattened by the dropping of a hammer like this.

“The kids are taking it — I can’t say well — but they’re high-character kids, and they’re showing their class,” Pahokee coach Orson Walkes said weeks ago, back when the words would still come.

It’s tougher getting somebody to comment anymore. What other than time, and brutal lessons learned, could make a difference now?

Maybe this will help just a little. It’s a brief retelling of the legend of the 2016 Blue Devils. A clippable segment of newsprint dedicated to what really was done, what really can’t be undone, and what will still be talked about once these kids have kids and grandkids, too.

Nov. 4, 2016: Pahokee wins Muck Bowl 27-14. That snapped an eight-game win streak for Glades Central, a streak that made it seem as if nothing would ever change.

Nov. 11: Pahokee beats Newberry in the playoff opener. The winning touchdown came in overtime. On a quarterback sneak, and on fourth down, too.

Nov. 18: Pahokee beats Trenton 47-28 in the regional finals. Trenton, the defending state champion, led the Blue Devils 21-6 at one point. Couldn’t keep them down, though.

Nov. 25: Pahokee beats Madison County 21-19 in the state semifinals. This time it was the state’s top-ranked team that the Blue Devils defeated.

Dec. 8: Pahokee wins the state title, its first since 2008 and seventh overall. The Blue Devils never trailed against Baker, ending Walkes’ first season as head coach without a loss. Walkes, a former Pahokee player, could not have asked for more from his team.

So that, for the benefit of those in coastal Palm Beach County who weren’t always paying close attention, is how it went, one giant step after another.

It was much the same for the other two teams that have had state football championship stripped away by the FHSAA over ineligible players — Armwood High School in the Tampa area in 2011 and Hastings High near St. Augustine in 1971.

You could get every coach and administrator in the state to swear on a stack of rulebooks that something like this will never happen again, but it will.

Don’t give up on Friday nights, though, and don’t tell Pahokee’s players all that extra effort and sacrifice was for nothing.

That’s the echo that needs drowning above all others, because too many teenagers have been hearing it out there for too long.



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