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Maryland star Will Likely goes back to his fertile football grounds

Will Likely played at Glades Central in an area of Florida where many players have gone on to NFL careers.

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 do the same, including former Ravens Anquan Boldin and Pernell McPhee.

"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 be one of those who made 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, who played at Florida State and is now the mayor of Miramar [Fla.] "

That's what helped attract former Maryland coach Randy Edsall and several 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 against Florida International in Miami, Likely is coming 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 that also includes a trip next week to Central Florida in Orlando.

"I like away games anyways, 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. Friday against Florida International, first-year Maryland coach DJ Durkin plans to play his versatile senior as a starter at nickel back, a potential starter at slot receiver and as the team's 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 kid 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 you could do with blocking?"

Will Likely III said that it 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 sugarcane fields.

Even among the former and current NFL players Grantlin has trained among the 27 who came out Glades Central and rival Pahokee High since 1985, including five first-round 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 of 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 five feet off the ground, Likely realized that he couldn't stop himself at the 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 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 so far with the Terps.

In reality, the pride the elder Likely has for what his son 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 a 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 Steelers receiver, who was MVP of Super Bowl XLIII and who like Hester had legal issues in the last decade. Boldin and McPhee played at Pahokee, as did NFL 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 Belle Glade. Grantlin believes Likely will join the list of area players who have had successful professional careers.

"That's his destiny," Grantlin said.

don.markus@baltsun.com

twitter.com/sportsprof56

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