Game-changer from the Glades

IMMOKALEE, Fla. -- Around every corner here, disappointment looms.

Alongside, hope persists that this generation of children -- it's always this generation -- will find a better life. That they'll escape the fields, for too long the only option afforded families of migrant workers from Haiti and Mexico who pick America's tomatoes and oranges.

Football is their way out.

Football worked as the escape route for Edgerrin James, the four-time Pro Bowl running back and most famous son of this unincorporated community of approximately 20,000 along Alligator Alley between Miami and Naples.

Their latest hope is Mackensie Alexander, the nation's No. 4 recruit in the ESPN 150. On Wednesday, Alexander, a lockdown cornerback and potential impact freshman this fall, will sign a letter of intent in a ceremony to be telecast from Immokalee High School on ESPNU at 11:15 a.m. ET.

He is the great mystery in the Class of 2013.

Alexander is an enigma, the anti-recruit. In an age in which top prospects' every move and tweet are documented and dissected, Alexander shuns attention. He avoids interviews. He's been purposefully deceptive about his college plans.

He has confused and frustrated fans, media and college coaches alike. In the absence of information, observers have drawn conclusions about Alexander -- that he's arrogant, even unappreciative.

But peel back the layers and take the time to look. Alexander is introspective and indebted to the people inside his small circle. And his every move is skillfully calculated.

"That's one thing about Mackensie," said teammate and West Virginia commit running back Jacky Marcellus, "when he does something, he does it for a purpose."

On the eve of his anticipated college announcement, it's clear that Mackensie Alexander is misunderstood in much the same way as his impoverished hometown.

In Immokalee, the game itself inspires dreams of a better existence. Four former Immokalee High Indians, including James, have made it from the swampland's edge amid the Florida Everglades to the NFL.

They are the great minority, though. For every James and Brian Rolle, who recently signed a contract with the Steelers, dozens exist like Fred Pray, a freakishly talented athlete, according to lore, who found trouble instead of college.

On County Road 846, along the route in from the plush golf resorts and beaches of southwest Florida, a sign reminds all who pass that Immokalee means "My Home" in Seminole language.

It is the great paradox of a proud town that plagues its people, yet shapes their resilience.

Many of the men who call Immokalee home fill its parks on weeknights and weekends, playing seven-on-seven football. Their checkered pasts prevent them from serving even as volunteer coaches at the high school.

Immokalee has never lacked for great talent. Or great talent lost.

"They're guys just like me," said Alexander, one of six major-college prospects at Immokalee set to graduate this year. "Same body type. Same mindset. Same quickness. Imagine if they would have stuck with school. Imagine if they did what I'm going to do now."

Three blocks east of the football stadium sits the other structure around which Immokalee revolves. The farmer's market is not so much a structure, actually, as a collection of canopies and tents and trucks, all loaded with fruits and vegetables from the fertile grounds nearby.

To the north a few blocks, past the unfittingly named Madison Avenue, the fields beckon.

They offer a brutal existence: low wages and long hours under the Florida sun.

U.S. Census data shows that 43.9 percent of the population lives below the poverty level in Immokalee. Eighty percent of residents report a language other than English spoken at home, compared with 27 percent in Florida as a whole. Among adults, 32.3 percent graduated high school. The statewide number is 85.5 percent.

Less than 4 percent of the population reports having a bachelor's degree.

"[Football] is my only way out, as I see it," said USF commit defensive tackle Deadrin Senat, "and I'm going to take it."

Despite some conditions that border on uninhabitable, the people of Immokalee stage a lively harvest festival every April. They throw a Christmas gala and crowd around tables to eat Mexican at Lozano's. The Friday night pep rallies before a football game are a sight to behold, locals say.

But mainly, they endure.

"Immokalee made me learn how to work," said Rolle, a two-year starting linebacker at Ohio State drafted in the sixth round in 2011 by the Philadelphia Eagles.

Marcellus, the West Virginia recruit, said his mother toiled in a produce packing house for years in an attempt to support the seven children under her roof. They moved often and missed meals, he said.

Senat's mother died before his freshman year, he said, and now his father battles cancer.

"I'm just a man who's trying to make it," Senat said.

It's a common refrain.

"If you can live here," Alexander said, "you can live anywhere."

Rolle had no plans for his life after high school, he said, until convinced by former Immokalee coach John Weber to sink his energy into football after a promising freshman year in 2003.

It all, in a way, comes back to football. The Indians won a state title in 2004 under Weber and have signed 18 players with FBS programs since 2001, not including the bumper crop this year.

The fighting spirit of Immokalee does not exist without football. And the toughness of the high school team is not the same without the town's spirit. They are one and the same.

"In Naples and Fort Myers, they go to sleep on nice beds," said Bernardo Barnhart, who blocked for James as a fullback in high school and now serves as vice president at Immokalee's Florida Community Bank branch. "These kids, they go to bed on a hard floor. So when they wake up, there's already a little tension, a little anger."

Barnhart, a Florida graduate, announces the Indians' football games on radio. His father, a fifth-generation American, worked in the fields. Barnhart pursued college, he said, because he "didn't want to be a statistic."

He tells the high school kids today that they are a product of their environment.

"It's not a bad thing," Barnhart said. "That's an advantage."

Knowing all that about Immokalee, is it any wonder the people remain leery of outsiders?

"We've been used," said Tony Allen, Immokalee High School's activities director. "We've been abused. We've been taken advantage of."

When Immokalee played at Jackson High School of Miami, the Indians heard calls of "go pick something," according to Mackenro Alexander, Mackensie's twin brother and a fellow major-college prospect as a safety.

"Y'all from the country," Mackenro said as he recalled the memory, speaking passionately this past Tuesday at a forum assembled to discuss the merits of a new football coach to be hired this offseason. "They make fun of us. When they say Immokalee, it means struggle. It means family. Real world. That's all we need."

Jerrod Ackley, Immokalee's coach of the past three years, resigned in January after a group of residents grew discontented with him. He led the Indians to an 11-4 mark in 2012 and a berth in the Florida 5A title game, which it lost, 21-20, to Tallahassee Godby.

Allen, a former Immokalee football star, moved to town in 1976 from Miami as the son of a preacher. The church his parents established, Glendale Baptist, stands on Main Street. Allen's father, Howard, still leads the congregation. Tony preaches once a month.

He's the kind of person Mackensie Alexander trusts. Not a reporter who wants to know his favorite schools or a college coach who struts into Immokalee on a recruiting visit.

"I don't enjoy that," Mackensie said.

Earlier that day, incidentally, Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen and two MSU assistants had visited Mackensie at the school.

"I don't like all the attention, to be honest with you," he said. "I would rather stay away from all that, but they keep coming. I understand it. It's a process that is going to be over pretty soon."

Alexander said he knows people misread him. He doesn't much care. In fact, it's his preference. He'd rather worry about his workouts or academics. Alexander passed the ACT early in his junior year.

He committed to Tennessee in January 2012 but reneged when secondary coach Terry Joseph left for Nebraska two months later. Alexander visited Texas A&M and Clemson in the fall, then Mississippi State and Auburn in January.

The twin brothers, once considered a surefire package deal, look just as likely now to sign with separate schools.

Mackenro made trips to Kentucky, Mississippi State, West Virginia and Auburn.

Mackensie, with one official visit unused, stayed home this past weekend. He had reached his decision a week ago -- perhaps much earlier -- and felt comfortable with it, although he wouldn't offer a clue.

What else is new?

"I talk to a lot of people," Mackensie said, "but I really don't let them in my business. I have an older brother, and I don't really tell him too much. That lets you know how I do things. Doesn't mean I don't like people."

Par for the course in Immokalee, where the environment forces everyone to stay humble and allows some to quickly read the intentions of an outsider. It's like a sixth sense, said Immokalee High algebra teacher Jori Mason, who arrived four years ago from Ohio and has worked closely with many of the football players.

"They see right through you," Mason said. "They know if you want to be here and if you care."

Mackensie Alexander, when asked about his parents, is an open book.

"I love them to death," he said.

Gene Alexander has worked in the fields for more than 20 years. He came here from Haiti, like so many in search of a better life. Marie Cadet worked in the fields, too, before she shifted into a packing house. Not much better.

Physical problems have restricted her in the past year, so now she sells crafts from a stand on the street.

Gene and Marie understand little English. They speak Creole. Mackensie and Mackenro live with their parents in a sturdy home on the northwest edge of Immokalee among a community of residences built by Habitat for Humanity, a nonprofit ministry organization primarily composed of volunteers.

They moved in about a decade ago, Mackenro said. An old minivan sits in the driveway.

Inside, the accommodations are modest, smaller than many apartments. Mackenro said they lived in trailers and moved often before settling in this home. If not for the money saved, he said, the twins likely could not have afforded to play youth football.

"If I can play hard in practice or 60 minutes in a game just for them, I'll do it," Mackenro said. "They've been doing it 19 years for me, so why not 60 minutes for them?"

Mackensie has big dreams of helping his mom and dad.

"They're paying my bills right now so I can pay their bills later," Mackensie said. "I want to take care of my parents one day. That's why I'm so driven."

He's driven, all right. Ackley, the former coach, said his staff drilled Immokalee players to the point of exhaustion in offseason workouts. Hours later, Ackley said, he would drive past the school to see Mackensie on the field alone, completing a workout plan he found independent of the coaches.

"This young man has a focus," Allen said, "has a direction, has a vision for his life, and he's going to do everything in his power to reach that vision. He's not going to let anything sidetrack it."

Marie, through Mackenro's interpretation, said she was surprised by all the attention the family has received from recruiters in recent weeks. Many coaches have visited their home.

Like most mothers, Marie said she wants to hear about the education before football opportunities.

She said she understands that Mackensie and Mackenro might have to "go different paths to achieve different goals." Marie would support their decisions, she said, but she hopes they stay together.

"I love making my mom happy," Mackenro said. "I love the smile on her face because you never know, any given day, she could get taken away from me."

Last fall, Gene Alexander fell ill. He lost weight, Mackensie said, and struggled to get out of bed. Mackensie worried his father would die, he said.

The ordeal scared Mackensie. But, much like a personal setback or hardships posed by the Immokalee conditions, his father's illness drove Mackensie to gain more focus.

"It motivated me that much more," he said. "I really kept it to myself, but it was something big that happened. Recruiting was getting even harder, and I would just still focus on football."

It ranks as perhaps his greatest attribute -- the ability to grow stronger in the face of adversity.

On Wednesday, we will learn which college program has landed the nation's No. 4 recruit. With him comes the prospect of stardom, the hope of an immediate game-changing roster addition.

But something else lingers: How did it happen? How did a college coach -- an outsider -- penetrate Immokalee's walls to reach the unreachable Mackensie Alexander, to earn his trust?

Remember the algebra teacher, Jori Mason, the woman from Ohio? She did it first, before any recruiter. Let her explain. Mason came to Immokalee in 2009. Then, she was Jori Pfeister, a 26-year-old Ohio State graduate, ready for her first full-time teaching job as a math-resource instructor at a school with students who needed help -- lots of help.

She had followed Kyle Mason to Florida -- the new baseball coach, economics and government teacher at Immokalee. He's now her husband.

Jori Mason looked nothing like her students. She talked nothing like them. She and Kyle got married in Key West. Key West, to the kids in Immokalee, might as well be the Wild West.

She didn't know their problems. But soon, she learned.

"I showed them that I cared," Mason said. "I showed that I was here to stay. Seeing someone like me, their first thought is that we're going to be here for a very short time, then we're going to go to Naples. We're going to go where it's easier, where it's nicer, where there's not all the hard work."

Mason worked with her students outside of class time. She helped Mackensie and Mackenro, among others, get to their doctor appointments. She made it her mission to get all of them in position academically to attend college.

"These kids, seeing the hardships they've been through in life and the outlook they still have, I think it is beyond amazing," Mason said. "The way they wake up every day and still come to school and go face all the obstacles in their lives with a smile on their face, it's just something I want to be around."

When Mackenro Alexander earned his passing ACT score, Mason called him at 7 a.m. from Ohio on the day after Christmas to deliver the news as soon as the results posted online.

"I got the score," he said over and over into the phone.

Mason has heard the talk from the people who don't understand Mackensie Alexander -- those who don't take the time to try to peel back the layers. They say that he's aloof, that he's cold or that he's simply a bad kid.

It's the easy explanation.

"I think that's crap," Mason said.

Often, she gets asked why she came here.

"Kyle was the reason I came," Mason said. "The boys are the reason I stayed."

For Mackensie Alexander, who is about to leave, the next chapter begins Wednesday.

The great recruiting mystery of 2013, he knows what he needs to do to get where he wants to be in life, Mason said. And no matter their paths, she will keep watch for the football star from the edge of the swamp, his twin brother and their band of teammates, the latest to wage battle against the Immokalean odds.