COLLEGE PARK, Md. — There are dozens of NFL players among the Glades Central High School alumni, a school famous for its geography and its football. William Likely Sr. chose to compare his son to a mayor.
Wayne Messam is the mayor of Miramar, Fla., but he also played football at Glades Central, Florida State and briefly with the Cincinnati Bengals. William Likely III reminds his father of Messam because of his work away from the football field, and that is what made the do-it-all Maryland star stand out in “The Muck.”
“Will had a different mindset,” his father told Land of 10. “The thing Will had was he also focused on school. Wayne was academically inclined. Will has that focus, too.”
Likely grew up in Belle Glade, Fla., a small town near Lake Okeechobee surrounded by vast areas of sugar cane fields. It is a largely impoverished region, where the rates of crime, unemployment and AIDS have been dramatically higher than the national average.
The community’s rate of producing NFL and college football players over the past three decades has made it famous. Kids grow up chasing rabbits that scurry from burning cane fields to sell or eat.
Boys there believe they can be the next one to make it out and play in the NFL. They have all seen an abundance of success stories and failures. When Likely was a freshman on the varsity team, he played with Kelvin Benjamin and Clive Walford, both exciting young NFL players for the Carolina Panthers and Oakland Raiders, respectively.
He also played with Greg Dent, a 4-star recruit who was kicked out at Florida State after being arrested, and Travis Bell, who was arrested multiple times at West Virginia.
“I actually asked his dad, because I have sons, I asked, ‘What’s the blueprint?’ ” Roosevelt Blackmon, one of Likely’s high school coaches, said. “This kid was actually focused for four years of high school. He was actually able to go enroll early (at Maryland) because he did so well taking care of his academics. He was always doing the right things.”
Likely’s grandmother brought him to Glades Central games when he was younger. Blackmon noted that while the other kids his age would run around the stadium, Likely sat and watched.
Blackmon had to stress to his players to stay out of trouble, to keep their grades up. He had no such worries with Likely.
“It was my parents,” Likely said. “They told me as a young kid that you can’t really do anything, can’t play football, without good grades and a good education. It was always, if you want to do one thing, you have to do two. I couldn’t pick and choose.”
Two schools, Glades Central and Pahokee High School, play annually in the “Muck Bowl,” one of the fiercest rivalries in the country often played in front of crowds that typically surpass 10,000 despite the relatively small sizes of the towns.
Glades Central and Pahokee have produced an incredible amount of talent. Super Bowl XLVII featured six “Muck Bowl” alums, four from Glades Central and two from Pahokee. The list of NFL players includes Fred Taylor, Santonio Holmes and Anquan Boldin. Pahokee plays its home games at Anquan Boldin Stadium.
“It was one of the best times in the world for a football player, knowing the tradition there. I’ve been going to games since I was 5, 6 years old,” Likely said. “I remember just running around on the back fields as a kid saying, ‘That’s going to be me.’ To be a part of it was really something special.”
The expectations to win are intense. After Glades Central lost consecutive state championship games in Likely’s freshman and sophomore seasons, the second with Rowley at quarterback, coach Jessie Hester (an ex-NFL player and an alum) quit in part because of threats he endured for not winning a state title.
Blackmon, another ex-NFL player and Glades Central alum, replaced Hester. He added Reidel Anthony, who played with Likely’s father at Glades Central before starring at Florida and going to the NFL, as an assistant on the staff.
While Likely had to overcome all of the challenges that growing up in Belle Glade presented, he also had an incredible opportunity to learn from three former NFL players. Hester made Likely a starter as a freshman. Likely’s father said Anthony was instrumental in helping his son slow the game down.
“One of my coaches asked me what was my favorite play,” Blackmon said. “I said, ‘Are you kidding me? My favorite play is Will Likely left, Will Likely right, Will Likely all night.’ ”
Likely had offers from nearly every major program in the South, but he fell in love with Maryland. He muffed the first punt he tried to field for the Terps as a freshman in 2013, but since then has evolved into one of the most dynamic players in program history.
He is a two-time all-conference player, and was a first-team performer at both cornerback and as a returner in 2015. Likely has returned six kicks (four punts, two kickoffs) for touchdowns in his career. He also returned two interceptions for touchdowns.
“Some of the kids kind of got on me when he was in high school and I said, ‘If I had 10 more Will Likelys, we’d win every game,’ ” Blackmon said. “Then we were watching a Maryland game and they interviewed the coach and he said the same thing.”
Last season, Likely added playing on offense to his list of responsibilities. He had 11 rushing attempts and five receptions. His father said he’s a better player on offense than defense, regardless of his all-conference status at cornerback.
Maryland has a new up-tempo spread offense for the 2016 season, and Likely is expected to be featured in creative ways.
“He was playing Pop Warner and the running back got hurt,” Likely’s father said. “Will said, ‘Put me in, put me in.’ At first the coach was like, ‘You’re too small,’ but they put him in, handed him the ball, and boom, he scored. The coach was like, ‘Wait, let’s run that back,’ and Will did it again. Then he was like, ‘I guess we have a running back.’
“When he got to high school, he started to make it look like Pop Warner. When he got to college, he started to make it look like high school.”
New coach D.J. Durkin praised Likely for a willingness to leave his comfort zone and become more of a vocal leader for the Terps entering his senior season. Blackmon said Likely was a line-up-first-for-every-drill, lead-by-example type in high school.
Likely is listed at 5-foot-7 and 175 pounds. Despite all of his accolades at Maryland, he will have to prove his diminutive stature is not a problem at the next level. His ball skills on defense and dynamism in the return game will certainly earn him that chance. Blackmon, a fourth-round pick by the Green Bay Packers, said he deserves to go higher than he did.
Once one of those kids chasing rabbits and dreaming about the NFL, Likely is in a position to be the next one to actually make it.
“The thing that has surprised me is throughout all of this, he has remained humble,” Likely’s father said. “People have always been telling him how good he is or how good he did, but Will and I always would talk after games and it would be about everything that he didn’t do good or everything he could do better. He always wanted to get better.
“I really would love to take all of the credit, but I can’t. It takes a village to raise a child.”
Not every village is like the one William Likely III grew up in. Not every future NFL player who came from there was like him, either.