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Miami Northwestern is one win from a momentous state title.
By KEITH NIEBUHR, Times Staff Writer
Published December 12, 2007
Ask statewide prep football talent evaluator Larry Blustein to name the most gifted team Florida has ever produced, and he doesn't hesitate to answer.
It's not, he said, the 2005 Lakeland or 1988 Pensacola Pine Forest squads, both of which were named USA Today national champions. Nor is it the 1967 Coral Gables group that also earned a mythical national title.
It's the current team at Miami Northwestern, a squad that almost didn't play this fall because of sexual allegations, a coverup and legal charges. The scandal brought down the principal, the coaching staff and a host of others. And it almost robbed Miami's Liberty City section of something it treasures more than just about anything: Bulls football.
"Everybody was terrified (the season would be canceled)," said linebacker Sean Spence, who leads the Bulls into the 6A title game Saturday against Orlando Boone. "To a lot of us, football is our life. It would have killed school spirit. We're role models at Northwestern."
To say the past 12 months have been a whirlwind at Northwestern would be an epic understatement. Last December, two days before the 6A championship game, standout Bulls running back Antwain Easterling, an 18-year-old prized recruit, was charged with lewd and lascivious battery after police said he had sex with a 14-year-old girl.
To make matters worse, school officials hadn't reported the incident to police.
They also allowed Easterling to play.
In the final, a 34-14 win over Altamonte Springs Lake Brantley, Easterling (who was allowed to enroll in a pretrial diversionary program and now is at Southern Miss) rushed for 157 yards and a touchdown. The story became national news and several months later Northwestern principal Dwight Bernard was indicted on two felony counts of official misconduct.
As everything came to a head, Miami-Dade Superintendent Rudy Crew considered suspending the team for the year. Upon surveying the situation, Florida High School Athletic Association commissioner John Stewart said it was his understanding a superintendent had never wiped out a team's entire season, but added, "there hasn't been anything as egregious as this either."
Crew eventually ruled to allow the team to play.
But coach Roland Smith and his entire staff were dismissed.
"The punishment sounded about right," said Robert Andrew Powell, author of the book We Own This Game, which chronicles football in Miami's black community. "You don't want to cancel the season and jeopardize the kids' future. You do want to punish the school."
In Liberty City, Northwestern's plight had a major impact.
The area's love for the program "can't be overstated," Powell said. "Football is embraced as the sport that gives the community a chance to demonstrate excellence. And Northwestern is the flagship school in Liberty City. It's an extremely poor community. High crime. Drugs. You have all the ills of the inner city. In football, they're not merely competitive; they're excellent."
With Smith out, the school turned to a familiar face, Billy Rolle, who guided Northwestern to the state title in 1998 and Miami Killian to one six years later. At the time, he was coaching at Miami Central -- Northwestern's arch enemy, further adding to the plot.
"Last spring, Billy was the hated enemy," Blustein said. "It would be like Urban Meyer being at Florida in the spring and in the summer he's at FSU. These kids didn't know Billy Rolle. They weren't around when he was around."
Despite the turmoil, Rolle says the transition was smooth.
"I had no reservations," Rolle said. "I had been here before. I felt at home. We wanted to get the guys back to playing football. It was a bad situation, but I thought it would be good for me to come in and pick them back up."
The real pick-me-up came in the form of a signature win.
Playing in September on national TV in Dallas against Southlake (Texas) Carroll, which was ranked No. 1 by USA Today, the Bulls won 29-21 before 31,896 fans. Northwestern moved to No. 1 in the rankings and has been there ever since.
The Bulls haven't just been good, they've been scary.
Northwestern has scored 587 points and allowed 143. Seven of its players are ranked among the state's top 30 prospects by Flavarsity.com and six, including Spence, are University of Miami commitments.
"It's the most prospect-rich team in the history of high school football," Blustein said. "All 22 starters will have Division I-A offers."
Additionally, Rolle said, "the majority of the kids have over 2.5 GPAs."
The Bulls see Saturday as a grand opportunity. One that goes beyond football.
"There's a lot at stake," Spence said. "A win can put us on the map ... and get the bad rap off of us. We're not bad kids."
FAST FACTS: State finals
Where: Citrus Bowl, Orlando
Host: Central Florida Sports Commission, City of Orlando and Edgewater High School
Admission: $10 per game
TV: Sun Sports/FSN Florida
[Last modified December 12, 2007, 01:37:22]