Pensacola, Fla. Is The College Football Hotbed You Don't Know About
By Steve Barnes
Pensacola, Fla., is nestled in the farthest northwest corner of the state. It was actually the first settlement in America, founded in 1549, but was abandoned by after a hurricane and resettled later after the establishment of St. Augustine. That town now claims the title of the oldest settlement in America, but the locals know they were first.
Another thing in which Pensacola is a trailblazer is the production of football players. Earlier this month, Derrick Brooks was enshrined into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He joined fellow Pensacola native, Emmitt Smith in the Hall, making Pensacola the only town in America with two players honored in Canton, Ohio. Brooks can also boast of being the only member enshrined that played his entire football career in the state of Florida. He played high school at Washington in Pensacola, traveled the less-than-three-hour trip to play college ball at Florida State and spent his entire NFL career with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
As unique as it is for two players from the same hometown to be in the Hall of Fame, what might be more unusual is the fact of the size of the town that spawned them.
The City has a 2014 population of 51,923 according to suburbanstats.org. But if the whole of Escambia County is factored, that figure rockets to a figure still under 300,000.
The proximity to the neighboring three counties to Pensacola's east -- Santa Rosa, Okaloosa and Walton -- should also be taken into account as from one end to the other is literally a drive that will not take two hours. The four of those counties total roughly 685,000 residents.
Compare that to Miami-Dade County which has over 2 million.
Still, Pensacola, its panhandle neighbors along with the Eastern Shore of Mobile Bay in Alabama (located about 40 miles from Pensacola) and the output of talent is impressive.
A glance at the 2014 preseason rosters of the Southeastern Conference and the four closest FBS schools, Southern Mississippi, South Alabama, Troy (Ala.) and Florida State shows the area well represented.
Fifteen players from Pensacola are listed. That number more than doubles when the number from the panhandle (16) is added. Toss in another 13 from the Eastern Shore, which features Daphne, Spanish Fort, Fairhope and Foley. Two more come from Alabama towns located on the line just outside Escambia County.
That is 46 players in a population of about the equivalent of one-fourth of Miami-Dade.
Oddly enough only two SEC schools have players from the city, and neither of them are Florida nor Auburn, the closest geographically to Pensacola. One is at Alabama and four at Missouri.
As for the other four, all but one have a player from Pensacola -- South Alabama leads the way with eight Pensacolians on its roster, but that is not surprising because of the proximity of the cities.
"After Mobile, Pensacola and the entire panhandle is a priority for us (in recruiting)," Brian Turner, recruiting coordinator for USA, located in Mobile, Ala., said. "It is not just the natural talent of the players there either; it is the level of coaching they get that makes them recruits a lot of schools want."
Even Minnesota has a player from Pensacola, one from Pace in Santa Rosa County, and one from Fort Walton Beach in Okaloosa County.
Those are just the FBS schools in the SEC and near Pensacola. Dozen of local products are also playing at the FCS, Division II, Division III, NAIA and Junior College levels.
It is not a new trait of talent coming from the area. Since 1980, each Pensacola public school except one has won a state title. Pensacola High, Escambia, Tate, Washington, Woodham (now closed) and Pine Forest have won a state championship with Pine Forest being awarded the mythical national title once. West Florida High is one of the top programs this season and it has not won a title simply because it has only been a school for about a decade.
The lone private school, Catholic, might have the most talent in all of north Florida.
By the way, none of the schools is big enough to compete in the largest classification in the Florida High School Activities Association.
The area as produced players who have played at Miami, Notre Dame, Nebraska and Penn State in past years.
The players from the area have not just made it to the college level and excelled, but moved on to the NFL. Besides Brooks and Smith, Fort Walton Beach's Danny Wuerffel won a Heisman Trophy and played pro football. Trent Richardson, Josh Sitton and Graham Gano are just three players currently representing Pensacola in the NFL. Milton has sent Cortland Finnegan and Lawrence Tynes on to pro stardom, Gulf Breeze's Doug Baldwin scored a touchdown in the Super Bowl last season for the Seattle Seahawks and Julio Jones represents Foley, Ala., with the Atlanta Falcons.
Not bad for a town with 100,000 fewer residents than its neighbor, Mobile.
Pensacola is known for its white-sandy beaches and as the home base of the U.S. Navy Flight Demonstration Team, the Blue Angels.
But per capita, perhaps it should be known as the most productive launching pad of football talent in the country.