For Likely, Florida trip means visit to his old home

Terps star one of many who came out of ‘Muck City’

Baltimore Sun - - SPORTS - By Don Markus

COL­LEGE PARK — For years, Wil­liam Likely Jr. saw more than two dozen high school foot­ball play­ers from Belle Glade, Fla., and sur­round­ing ru­ral com­mu­ni­ties in western Palm Beach County near Lake Okee­chobee, reach the NFL.

The father of star Mary­land cor­ner­back Will Likely III played with a hand­ful of them at Glades Cen­tral High and watched others from neigh­bor­ing Pa­ho­kee High, in­clud­ing for­mer Ravens An­quan Boldin and Per­nell McPhee, do the same.

“The tal­ent runs deep,” the elder Likely said in a tele­phone in­ter­view this week. “The list goes on and on.”

There are dozens more who left the place ev­ery­one calls “Muck City” with more of a past than a fu­ture. That is why the elder Likely knew what it would take for his old­est child to have a chance to make it out, per­haps all the way to the NFL.

“There’s plenty of Will Likelys here. They don’t have the grades,” the elder Likely said. “That’s a stigma the area has. Out of all the play­ers, Will was the only one of two I know who did it aca­dem­i­cally and on the field. The other was Wayne Mes­sam, Fri­day, 7:30 p.m. TV: CBS Sports Net­work Ra­dio: 105.7 FM, 980 AM Line: Mary­land by 10

who played at Florida State and is now the mayor of Mi­ra­mar,” Fla.

That’s what helped at­tract then-Mary­land coach Randy Ed­sall and others to re­cruit Likely, a four-star prospect who had his own stigma to over­come when it came to play­ing ma­jor col­lege foot­ball: his size.

When the younger Likely left Belle Glade three years ago, many ques­tioned whether the 5-foot-7, 172-pound cor­ner­back and re­turn spe­cial­ist could suc­ceed on the high­est level of col­lege foot­ball.

When he re­turns for the first time to South Florida for Mary­land’s game Fri­day night against Florida In­ter­na­tional in Mi­ami, Likely will come back as an All-Big Ten cor­ner­back and an All-Amer­i­can who led the na­tion in re­turn yardage last sea­son.

Likely is not over­look­ing the home­com­ing, which also in­cludes a trip next week to Cen­tral Florida in Or­lando.

“I like away games any­way, but just go­ing back home, it’s al­ways ex­cit­ing, close to home, too,” said Likely, who ex­pects “20-plus” friends and fam­ily mem­bers at the FIU game.

Likely joked that “who­ever made that sched­ule, I love ’em for that.”

The re­turn to his home state this week could trig­ger more than a few mem­o­ries of play­ing foot­ball on hot Fri­day nights when Likely rarely, if ever, came out of games. On Fri­day against Florida In­ter­na­tional, firstyear Mary­land coach DJ Durkin plans to play his ver­sa­tile se­nior as a starter at nickel back, as a po­ten­tial starter at slot re­ceiver and as the pri­mary re­turner on kick­offs and punts.

“It was kind of weird, when I came to col­lege, it was the first time not be­ing on the field — on of­fense, de­fense, spe­cial teams,” Likely said. “That’s what I had been do­ing my whole life. To come back do­ing the same thing, it kind of brought me back to my child­hood again. Child­hoods are very fun. Just make you a kid again. Just go­ing out there, fly­ing around, hav­ing fun.”

Even be­fore he starred at Glades Cen­tral, be­com­ing the school’s first state Ga­torade Player of the Year in foot­ball as a ju­nior, Likely showed his early po­ten­tial be­hind the stands when kids of all ages lined up for a “Muck City” tra­di­tion called “Throw It Up Run­ning.”

The game in­volves one of the play­ers — usu­ally the old­est, with the big­gest arm — heav­ing an ob­ject, typ­i­cally a minia­ture foot­ball, to­ward the heav­ens. The fastest kids fight to the front, try­ing to scoop up the ball be­fore run­ning as fast as they can to the makeshift goal line.

“It’s you, no block­ers and you have to outrun eight, 10 guys that are try­ing to take your head off,” said the elder Likely, who also played it as a child. “It’s you against the world. If you can score with no blocker, what could you do with block­ing?”

Will Likely III said it’s where he learned to be “a foot­ball player” not con­sumed with play­ing a par­tic­u­lar po­si­tion. “Ev­ery­body can make plays,” Likely said. His father said that young Will made more than most.

“He would go to the game clean, but he would leave the game dirty,” his father said. “He would try to woo me with, ‘I scored this many touch­downs’ or ‘I made this move.’ That was his way of try­ing to get out of trou­ble.”

Gil­bert Grantlin, who won his own Ga­torade Player of the Year award as a track star at Glades Cen­tral in the early 1990s and played Divi­sion II foot­ball, has spent much of his adult life train­ing ath­letes in and around “Muck City,” named for the mud that is found in the sugar cane fields.

Even among the for­mer and cur­rent NFL play­ers Grantlin has trained among the 27 who came out of Glades Cen­tral and Pa­ho­kee since 1985, in­clud­ing five firstround draft picks, Likely stood out from the start. “He’ll out­work any­body,” Grantlin said. The first day they trained to­gether, when Likely was in the eighth grade, Grantlin gave the young­ster a 20-yard head start and ran along­side him, say­ing, “Is that all you got?” Grantlin re­called. “I told him that if he lis­tened to ev­ery­thing I say, he’d be one of the best ath­letes to come out of Glades Cen­tral.”

Likely also proved to be a boon to Grantlin’s grow­ing ca­reer as a trainer.

Work­ing out at a lo­cal park where the fields were sep­a­rated by rub­ber­ized fenc­ing roughly 5 feet off the ground, Likely re­al­ized that he couldn’t stop him­self at the Will Likely, be­ing tack­led by Wis­con­sin’s Jake Whalen in Novem­ber, said he still wants to show that the peo­ple who doubted he could suc­ceed in ma­jor col­lege foot­ball were wrong. end of one sprint as he quickly ap­proached the bar­ri­cade.

“He didn’t want to run through the fence. He just jumped over, didn’t even touch the fence,” Grantlin said. “One lady came out of the stands say­ing, ‘I want my son train­ing with him.’ She gave me a check for $900 and said, ‘What­ever you do with that kid I want you to do with my son.’ ”

What pushed him then is still very much part of who Likely re­mains de­spite all the recog­ni­tion he has re­ceived.

“To me, the chip grew big­ger,” he said. “I’m never sat­is­fied. I came in and peo­ple doubted me. There’s even more doubt­ing me now. At the end of the day, I’ve got to put all that to the side and fo­cus on what I’ve got to do for the team. All the other stuff is just opin­ions.”

Likely’s father said his son’s at­ti­tude comes from his up­bring­ing in “a small lit­tle town where noth­ing is given, ev­ery­thing is earned. As much praise as other peo­ple give him as a foot­ball player and star ath­lete, my job as his father to keep him hum­ble and grounded.”

The elder Likely, who played col­lege bas­ket­ball at a small school in Alabama be­fore re­turn­ing to raise a fam­ily in Belle Glade, un­der­stands that his son’s head might be a lit­tle big after hear­ing how great a ca­reer he has had so far with the Terps.

In re­al­ity, the elder Likely’s pride in what his son has ac­com­plished started when Likely left for Mary­land three years ago.

“I’m just a proud father know­ing that he made it to col­lege, com­ing from where we come from,” said Likely’s father, who works as an HVAC tech­ni­cian at a lo­cal prison. “He could have eas­ily been side­tracked. He stayed on the straight and nar­row. Some kids play it be­cause they love it. Here, they are play­ing foot­ball for sur­vival. They see it as their only way out.”

Plenty have made it out of Glades Cen­tral and nearby schools to be­come NFL play­ers. One is re­ceiver Jessie Hester, who played 10 sea­sons as a re­ceiver in the NFL be­fore re­turn­ing to Glades Cen­tral to be­come the team’s coach (he was since let go). An­other is San­to­nio Holmes, the for­mer Pitts­burgh Steel­ers re­ceiver, who was Most Valu­able Player of Su­per Bowl XLIII and who, like Hester, had le­gal prob­lems in the past decade. Boldin and McPhee played at Pa­ho­kee, as did Pro Foot­ball Hall of Famer Rickey Jack­son.

Three cur­rent NFL re­ceivers — Kelvin Ben­jamin of the Carolina Pan­thers, Travis Ben­jamin of the San Diego Charg­ers and Deonte Thompson of the Chicago Bears — also came out of Belle Glade. Grantlin be­lieves Likely will join the list of area play­ers who have had suc­cess­ful pro ca­reers.

“That’s his des­tiny,” Grantlin said. at the end of the day, there’s get­ting the job done and there’s not get­ting it done, and we’ve got the men to do it. We trust in Coach [Har­baugh], we trust in Ozzie [New­some], we’ve got the right 53 men up. Even if we’ve got some guys out, we’re go­ing to han­dle it ac­cord­ingly.”

Most eyes will be on Flacco, who showed up for his me­dia ses­sion wear­ing the knee brace he likely will wear through­out the sea­son. He looked healthy through­out train­ing camp but un­der­stand­ably played in just one of the team’s three pre­sea­son games.

“I’m re­ally ex­cited,” he said. “It’s been al­most a year, and it feels like it has been. It was def­i­nitely a tough process, watch­ing all your team­mates go out there and play. I’m re­ally ex­cited about get­ting back out there and feel­ing like part of the group and re­ally get­ting after it.”

PA­TRICK SMITH/GETTY IM­AGES

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