PAHOKEE — Head coach Emmanuel Hendrix wasn’t sure he’d be in attendance for the first day of Pahokee’s fall camp as recently as last Wednesday.

Bright and early Monday morning, Hendrix had a surprise for his Blue Devils in a well-deserved reunion with his players ahead of another run at a state championship.

Eight months of administrative leave meant many afternoons spent driving to get a glimpse of spring training followed by “dark nights” for Hendrix. Hendrix was eventually cleared back to campus by the Palm Beach County School District and ordered to start on Monday.

Hendrix’s first stop at Anquan Boldin Stadium was the press box. There, sports legend Pahokee and game announcer Eddie Lee Rhodes waited for Hendrix as the players arrived after warm-ups at the nearby training ground.

“Test…1.2,” Rhodes’ voice yelled. “We’re preparing for the big season ahead, so we want to make sure we get that mic tuned right.”

A similar, but distorted voice shouted: “Can the players hear me, coach? Can you hear me? Say ‘yes’.”

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Caretaker manager David Simmons gestured to the midfield players to move closer to the touchline facing the press box.

Looking closer at the windows, the voice – Hendrix’s – got the “yes” it was asking for.

“Coach!” exclaimed one player from the caucus, joining his teammates in hoisting their helmets and applauding Hendrix’s comeback and, ultimately, taking a knee. Hendrix’s glee-filled laugh echoed through the pitch.

Senior defensive end DeeJay Holmes Jr. said that while he communicated with his coach via text and phone, it had been “a long time” since he had seen him in the flesh.

When Rhodes’ voice changed to a disguised version of Hendrix’s familiar drawl, Holmes and fellow Blue Devils said, “I didn’t even know who it was until I looked.”

Hendrix made his way into the stands, jumped over the door and encouraged his players to slump and applaud him.

“I’ve replayed that moment a thousand times in my head. Just coming back to you all,” Hendrix said. “I know it’s been very frustrating.”

“Without him being there, at first it was like, how are we going to move without our head coach?” Holmes said. “But now that he’s here, everything is falling into place. Everyone shows up. The team is there. Everyone is rebuilding that bond.”

“I didn’t know if I was going to be back here for Game 1,” Hendrix said, thanking Pahokee’s administration and coaching staff who worked “tirelessly” to get him back for the season – not to mention the camp.

“You are battle tested, mentally and physically, so now it’s time to do what we didn’t do last year,” Hendrix told the group.

“Now I feel really excited to be back and for him [Hendrix] be back too,” Holmes said.

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Fortunately for Holmes, Hendrix’s absence did not impact his recruitment to the university.

“It was great so far. Call of several teams. I’m trying to add another offer,” Holmes said.

In 2021, the 6-foot-3, 255-pound winger filled the stat sheet with 92 tackles, 19.5 sacks, one interception and three forced fumbles. Holmes’ breakout season led to 24 offers, including offers to Florida Atlantic, Louisville and Ole Miss on Monday.

Holmes visited UCF and Pittsburgh, the most excited sports management major prospect among school academics. But before he decides to go to college, he and the Pahokee defense have a “chip” to drop on their shoulders.

Proclaiming Pahokee the “best defense in Palm Beach County – probably in Florida,” Holmes, the Post’s Defensive Player of the Year, wants Hawthorne back, hoping to avenge the region’s 51-12 final loss l last year.

“We’re ready for them this time,” said senior teammate Jashon Benjamin. “I don’t think we were focused at the start of the game. We were making too many mistakes.”

“I have to take the team to the state championship. I couldn’t last year because I got injured, so this is the year to come back,” Benjamin said.

Jashon Benjamin of Pahokee scores a touchdown against Glades Central during the Muck Bowl in Pahokee, Florida on November 6, 2021.

Benjamin was injured for three games late in the season – a major problem considering he was the team’s leading scorer, with six rushing touchdowns and two assists. Averaging 12.7 yards per carry and 16.3 per catch, Benjamin got offers from UNC-Charlotte, FAU, Coastal Carolina, Purdue and more.

Holmes and Benjamin are just two of Pahokee’s senior starters, returning eight on offense and another eight on defense.

The Blue Devils roster is made up of seniors, but Hendrix teased having just as much talent in the underclass ranks vying for a top-string spot.

Gilmore begins to learn Pahokee’s attack

Even highly touted IMG transfer Hardley Gilmore IV was adjusting to the conditions on Monday morning.

“You get used to playing in the Muck Heat after two weeks,” quarterback Austin Simmons told Gilmore, then drenched in sweat, leaned against a goal post.

A native of Belle Glade, Gilmore’s first day of camp at his new school was filled with more instruction than the flashy plays the sophomore wide receiver became known for at Benjamin of Palm Beach Gardens in the fall. last.

Before transferring to IMG in January, Benjamin's then-freshman Hardley Gilmore IV tied for the third-most touchdowns alongside Bucs wide receiver Micah Mays and running back Chauncey Bowens.

“We’re just getting it right now,” Benjamin said. “He’s not fitting in that well right now because he’s a little nervous, but he’s going to be straight.”

Even with freshman jitters, Gilmore produced 16 receptions for 229 yards and seven touchdowns for the Bucs on their own road to the Class 3A Regional Finals, earning offers from Florida State, Syracuse, Maryland, Central Florida, Georgia, South Carolina and Tennessee.

Outside of some different plays and play calls, Gilmore called Pahokee’s offense “similar” to what he ran at Benjamin and IMG.

Gilmore also finds himself in an equally crowded reception hall with Benjamin, with new additions like Glades Day senior transfer Xavier Bryant in the slot and Glades Central junior Pierre Fertil.

Hendrix called last year’s core the “slowest” in the area, boasting 40-yard rush times between 4.7 and 4.9 seconds.

“Everybody’s got 4.5 or better now,” Hendrix said, delighted to have that signature Muck speed in both the running game and the passing game.

Gilmore thinks his work ethic can propel him into a starting position.

“He’s going to open up good lanes, big windows and passing concepts – he’s going to be a major tool for this attack,” Simmons said.

The talented QB Simmons ready for the full season

Pahokee quarterback Austin Simmons looks for an open receiver during the game against Glades Central in the Muck Bowl in Pahokee, Fla. on November 6, 2021.

Pahokee will have a guaranteed underclass starter in Simmons, the part-time baseball pitcher, part-time quarterback who made waves on social media before taking a shot with the Blue Devils.

An early suspension limited Simmons to six games last season, although his stat line may suggest otherwise.

As a rookie, the pro-style Simmons amassed a 66.2 percent completion rate for 1,684 yards for 15 touchdowns — long 67 — and threw just four interceptions on 145 pass attempts.

“I’m thrilled to have my first full season,” smiled Simmons, also relieved to have a bit of pressure on his back now that his father, David, has returned to his usual duties as defensive coordinator.

Still, Simmons let out a breath as he thought of the “big” expectations ahead for his second season and his new host of receivers.

Those goals include breaking 4,000 passing yards, incorporating scrambling into practices and adding more deals to his roster. He already holds Power 5 deals like Tennessee, Ole Miss, Texas A&M, Florida State and Penn State.

“With everything going on right now, not playing five games, still being drafted like this is a major blessing,” Simmons said, after visiting Louisville’s 502 Barbeque for football rookies and visiting baseball facilities as a perspective.

Pahokee’s schedule this season will bring even more attraction from college scouts. Despite playing three 4M opponents, two 3Ms, and local 1M powerhouses Cardinal Newman and Benjamin, Simmons doesn’t “really see that much pressure in the season.”

“They’re great teams, but I believe we’re the best team in the county,” Simmons said. “Just watch out for little Pahokee. We will come to work very soon.

Pahokee and Glades Central perform under the lights at the Muck Bowl in Pahokee, Florida on November 6, 2021.

2022 Pahoe Schedule

08/18 at the Centenary, 7 p.m.

8/26 vs. Cardinal Newman, 6:30 p.m.

9/2 vs. Benjamin, 6:30 p.m.

9/9 vs. Palm Beach Lakes, 6:30 p.m.

9/16 at Palm Beach Central, 6:30 p.m.

9/23 at Palm Beach Gardens, 6:30 p.m.

9/29 vs. Dwyer, 6:30 p.m.

10/7 against Atlantic, 6:30 p.m.

10/14 Goodbye

10/21 vs. Clewiston, 6:30 p.m.

10/28 Goodbye

11/4 at Glades Central, 6:30 p.m.