James Lee, ‘08, Muck City and A Better Belle Glade

Monday, June 28, 2010

Story provided by the Times and Democrat

Muck City doesn't sound like a welcoming place.

No, pass a sign that says "Welcome to Muck City," and you start looking for an exit pronto. Also, known as Belle Glade, Florida, Muck City's signs read "Her Soil is her Fortune." That's where the name comes from, the rich "muck" or soil that the city lies on which is known for producing sugarcane. In fact, most of the elders in the town of 17,000 make their money off what grows from that muck, working in the local sugar mill.

Aside from the sugarcane, "Muck City" is also known for its powerhouse prep football team, Glades Central, and the number of football players that have made it out of town - former Eagles safety Andre Waters, star tailback Fred Taylor, former Super Bowl MVP Santonio Holmes and former S.C. State offensive tackle and current Tampa Bay Buccaneer James Lee.

Yes, "Muck City" can also live up to the negative connotation that the name can give off. Lee, the 2007 MEAC Offensive Lineman of the Year, knows that well.

"(Growing up) it was a rough neighborhood," Lee said Monday. "Football basically ... it was every young kids' dream to get out of there and play football."

Lee did that much, escaping to Orangeburg where he prospered under Buddy Pough. But, just because he got out didn't mean he was ready to forget where he came from. Instead, Lee, who has spent the summer touring Florida speaking to children about the importance of education, has embraced "Muck City," starting his very own "Muck City Fest."

The first "Muck City Fest," went off the second weekend of June. And, what is the "Muck City Fest?"

"A free football camp for kids ages 7-to-17," Lee said. "We gave them T-shirts. Everybody got wrist bands that said ‘Muck City Fest 2010.' We gave them food, ran through some drills, had lunch and each player picked a team and we played 7-on-7 flag football."

The idea was born out of Lee's travels to work in several of his teammates football camps in their hometowns. More importantly, Lee understood what it was like to grow up in Belle Glade, and he wanted to give back to the community. And, when the "Muck City Fest" went off, Lee called out the favors. NFL players including former USC and Tampa Bay safety Emmanuel Cook, Buccaneers offensive linemen Jeremy Zuttah, Davin Joseph and Xavier Fulton, defensive lineman Roy Miller and cornerback Elbert Mack, Chiefs receiver Chandler Williams, Bills defensive tackle Rashad Duncan, Lions' defensive back Randy Phillips, Brad Banks, Willie Battle and University of Miami tailback Damien Berry all showed up to help with the camp which saw around 275 kids turn out.

"I know that the city needs it," Lee said. "We have a lot of players that come out of Belle Glade. I know that is something that they really need. For the kids, for me to bring those NFL players, for them to come run around with the kids, teach them specific drills ... it was all smiles all day long. They were just so happy. And, they got to come out and spend not one dime, and as long as it lasts, they won't have to pay one dime. It will be free everything."

The move didn't go without notice. Belle Glade Mayor Steve Wilson showed up to the "Muck City Fest" and proclaimed the second Saturday in June "James Lee Day."

"When that happened, I was just speechless," Lee said. "I didn't even see it coming."

Lee was presented with a plaque and a banner, and a promise that the city was behind the positive work that he was doing. So, Monday, as Lee spoke from Tampa Bay mini-camp -- he is working hard, has learned a lot about the game since leaving S.C. State and thinks the Buccaneers are poised to have a good season -- he was thinking as much about helping out in the future as he was about his NFL future.

"I plan on starting up my own foundation," he said. "Through that, I'm going to give back to the kids. I'm actually going to try to start a college tour, outside the state of Florida, with my foundation. And, I'm giving back with supplies for the kids when they go back to school. The ‘Muck City Fest' is going to be an annual thing. The city is 100 percent behind me. I'm going to help the family that helped me make my dreams come true."

Lee's goal is to get more kids out of "Muck City." But, his actions also show the value in coming back. Slowly but surely, the former Bulldog is determined to make Belle Glade a better place.