FORT MYERS, Fla.—I stood on the corner of Henderson and Michigan today.
That place, site of the ramshackle, foreclosed and abandoned remains of the home once lived in by Deion Sanders, inspired me in recent years to write “Fourth Down in Dunbar.” My first book releases today on amazon.com and wherever else books are sold via the University Press of Florida.
This isn’t a book about just about Deion Sanders. Nor is it a book just about football. It’s a history book through the prism of the many NFL players, including Sanders, one community has raised. This is “Friday Night Lights”, but with more NFL players. Or it’s “The Blind Side”, but with even more compelling characters to follow.
It’s a page-turner, and it will help readers understand the challenges and obstacles faced by many NFL players. That said, I’m sticking to my thesis statement: the Dunbar community in Fort Myers is the most unique, historically segregated community in our country.
From Robert “Pompey” Green, who tried out for the Cleveland Browns in 1955, to Johnnie Wright, who played in the same backfield as Heisman Trophy winner George Rogers, to Jevon Kearse, whose father was murdered eight months before he was even born, to Buffalo Bills wide receiver Sammy Watkins, whose great grandfather also was murdered in Fort Myers, “Fourth Down in Dunbar” covers more than a dozen former NFL players.
The book profiles the most notorious crack cocaine dealer in the United States, a man who once aspired to be the Magic Johnson of Fort Myers long before the former L.A. Lakers point guard of “Showtime” developed a business acumen rivaling his playing prowess.
“Fourth Down in Dunbar” also explains how a carload of young men, almost all of them raised in the Dunbar community, plotted to burglarize former Washington Redskins safety Sean Taylor, who happened to be at home instead of in Tampa Bay because of an injury, paying the price with his life.
As Jeff Pearlman knows, writing a book can be a lonely journey with ups and downs, ins and outs. During those down times, I often would drive to 1625 Henderson, just to stand and think and reflect about how someone with so little as a youngster like Sanders was able to persevere and achieve so much.
It was usually nice and quiet there on Henderson. I never heard gunshots, as I did during my handful of times at Sammy Watkins’ house, about two miles away.
With my back to Deion’s former front door, I again saw the African-American cemetery straight ahead, with its in-the-ground tombstones. To the right, majestic granite tombstones in the white cemetery rise two-to-four feet above the ground.
Deion Sanders, more than anyone who came before or after him, had the racial dynamics of Fort Myers pulling and pushing and motivating him to succeed. He had the black people of the neighborhood resenting him for playing on the mostly-white Pop Warner team, and he had the white people of the community resenting him for the bling and Prime Time persona he developed in the NFL. He had African-Americans in Fort Myers wondering why he wouldn’t give them more of his millions. He had Caucasian Americans in (Robert E.) Lee County jealous he even made millions.
Once proclaimed the most segregated city in the United States of America and also the birth place in the mid-1980s of the crack cocaine epidemic, Fort Myers is, in terms of racial dynamics in school, almost right back where it started prior to 1969, when schools were segregated. In 2003, the court order to desegregate schools expired, and guess what? The new Dunbar High School once again has a vast majority of African-American students enrolled in it despite being in a city that’s just 15 percent African-American.
As I enter my 20th season of covering high school football in Fort Myers, I have grown to both love and loathe it here. I love the amount of love, sheer determination and desire of the athletes I see rising out of the community known as Dunbar. I also loathe all of the forces – the single-parent homes, the low incomes, the drug deals, and, most disturbingly, the lack of hope – that I see in this same collection of neighborhoods.
I wrote “Fourth Down in Dunbar” for a number of reasons. Two of the biggest contain, just as Dunbar does, a big dose of irony.
I want the youth of Fort Myers to realize there are more paths to success than striving to reach the NFL. At the same time, I want to applaud and pay tribute to those who were able to avoid the perils of these dangerous streets and reach their promised land of the National Football League. I believe I did so in “Fourth Down in Dunbar.”