From scrappy halfback Buford Long of Lake Wales in 1953 to Haines City's Derwin James becoming a Pro Bowl pick as a rookie last season, 71 players from Polk have wreaked havoc in NFL stadiums for decades.
As the National Football League opens the book on its 100th season celebration when the Green Bay Packers visit the Chicago Bears at historic Soldier Field Thursday night, know Polk County is embedded on its lavish pages.
From scrappy halfback Buford Long stretching a New York Giants jersey over his shoulder pads for the first time in 1953 to Los Angeles Chargers ultra-athletic safety Derwin James forging his way to a Pro Bowl appearance as a rookie last season, 71 players from Polk have wreaked havoc in NFL stadiums for decades.
Lakeland leads the pack with 11 players advancing to the highest level of the sport, including current players Maurkice Pouncey, a seven-time Pro Bowl selection with the Pittsburgh Steelers, his brother Mike Pouncey, four Pro Bowl appearances and now with the Chargers, and Darryl Roberts with the New York Jets.
Kathleen laid the groundwork for 10 players that landed on NFL rosters and Union Academy nurtured eight — all zooming into the league during a seven-year stretch beginning in 1963 with Minnesota Vikings guard Jim Battle. The other seven are Ken Riley, Jerry Simmons, Al Lavan, Sam Silas, Nate James, Don Smith and Major Hazelton.
“Before Lakeland, Union Academy had more pro athletes to come out than any other county around, probably Hillsborough and some other counties. It wasn't just athletics, academics was a key part of the success we had,” said Riley, who is tied for fifth place with Pro Football Hall of Fame inductee Charles Woodson on the NFL's all-time interceptions list with 65. “I don't think we knew how good we were. We won the championship just about every year. Our record speaks for itself.
“During the summer, we would call each other and say, 'Let's start working out.' We took it upon ourselves. We didn't have the (quality) weights. We had the cement weights and we were on our own. We worked on the field by Carver Recreation Center.”
Fort Meade groomed six players for the NFL, Auburndale, Bartow, Haines City and Winter Haven four, Frostproof, Lake Gibson, Lake Wales, Mulberry, Ridge Community and Rochelle three, and Jewett Academy and Roosevelt a player each.
“If I would have never come to Polk County, I would have never played football,” said Dedrick Dodge, who played eight seasons in the NFL from 1991-98, suiting up for the winning side in Super Bowl XXIX with the San Francisco 49ers and Super Bowl XXXII with the Denver Broncos. He also played for the Seattle Seahawks and San Diego Chargers.
Dodge, who grew up in New Jersey, was an avid baseball player in his youth and never played football until he moved to Polk in the 10th grade. He's now head coach for Ridge Community and was also the head coach at Mulberry and the former Evangel Christian program.
“I never played football but they talked me into it. I wanted to be a New York Yankee," Dodge said. "I would have never played football if I didn't come here. But it gave me confidence. That is why I felt I owed. You have to come back to give back, because of everything that Polk County and Mulberry has gave me."
Fort Lauderdale St. Thomas Aquinas leads Florida schools with 36 players having reached the NFL, followed by Miami Northwestern with 35 and Miami Central with 25.
“I have always been kind of bias, but I have always said Polk County football is the best throughout the state of Florida and throughout the country. That number (71 players) kind of speaks for itself,” said Ronnie Ghent, who played for Lakeland before reaching the league with the New Orleans Saints in 2007. “I am glad to be part of that tradition.
“I remember doing a story for the school newspaper asking, 'Where do you see yourself in 10 years?' And I made the comment, 'I see myself in the NFL.' To be actually able to do it, it was a dream come true."
Rest assured when the back-and-forth jawing takes place inside NFL locker rooms and players are bragging and talking smack about the caliber of play in their old stomping grounds, Polk is championed during the spiel.
“All the time, Dade County, 305, 205, Texas, Cali [California], everybody is repping where they are from. They go college first, and then they rep their neighborhood, wherever they are from,” Dodge said. “I rep Polk and then I fine-tune it to Mulberry and my neighborhood.”
Ghent concurred and never shied away from the exchanges.
“Always, when you mention Florida, a lot of people talk about Booker T. Washington, Central, St. Thomas Aquinas, but my high school speaks for itself. My high school record was 42-2 and we won state,” he said. “Pound for pound, blow for blow, they don't want us.”
NFL success has a nice ring
The Polk NFL roll call is not just lengthy, but laden with elite talent. Ray Lewis, who starred at Kathleen before becoming a two-time Super Bowl champion with the Baltimore Ravens and the Super Bowl XXXV MVP, reached the Pro Football Hall of Fame last year. Kenneth Gant, who also played at Kathleen, played safety for the Dallas Cowboys and won rings for Super Bowl XXVII and XXVIII. Alvin Harper, who played at Frostproof, was a wide receiver and won two rings with the same Cowboys teams. Albert McClellan, another Kathleen standout, won two rings, one with the Ravens in Super Bowl XLVII and the second with the New England Patriots last season in Super Bowl LIII.
Long, a Lake Wales legend, was with the Giants from 1953-55. Had he stuck around one more season, he would have been part of the 1956 NFL Championship team.
“You have to make a team to be able to go win a Super Bowl,” Dodge said. “Afterwards, that is when you really look at the accomplishment because you see how hard it is for the guys you think can get there and they don't get there. Look at Dan Marino and Jim Kelly, they've been there and don't have a Super Bowl ring. I am nowhere near those guys but I am fortunate to be part of a team that went there and was able to win.”
More Polk players that reached the Super Bowl but were not part of the winning team include Kathleen's Desmond Clark (Chicago, Super Bowl XLI), Freddie Mitchell (Philadelphia, Super Bowl XXXIX) and Ron Smith (L.A. Rams, Super Bowl XIV); Union Academy's Riley (Cincinnati, Super Bowl XVI); Lakeland's Rod Smart (Carolina, Super Bowl XXVIII); Jewett's Chuck Goodrum (Minnesota, Super Bowl XI, IX and XIII); and Frostproof's Nickell Robey-Coleman (Rams, Super Bowl LIII). Maurkice Pouncey was a rookie on the Steelers' 2010 team that reached Super Bowl XLV but lost to Green Bay, however, an ankle injury kept him out of the game.
“They say it is better to be lucky than good. You have to be at the right team at the right time,” Dodge said. “You feel like you are part of a fraternity because you are. Every year, your team is brought up at the Super Bowl and at the beginning of the season like now.”
NFL's next crop
Currently, there are 24 schools in Polk competing in prep football, and many more of its graduates are tearing up college gridirons, so it won't be long before that impressive 72 number topples 100 and keeps soaring.
“It is fantastic and it shows that there is talent here. It is tremendous," Dodge said. "It also sets a site for the younger guys and they know they can go to the highest level from here. Good football, good coaches, it is right here."
Bill Kemp can be reached at Bill.Kemp@theledger.com; follow him on Twitter @BIllKempSports