Leaving “The Muck” for the Forest

Tucked away on the shore of Lake Okeechobee, in Palm Beach County, Fla., rests a place referred to by locals as “The Muck.” Pahokee, a city with less than 6,000 residents, earned its nickname for its rich soil. Once the “Winter Vegetable Capital of the World”, the town now grows something else: football talent.

“I come from a small town, a very rural place,” said redshirt senior cornerback Merrill Noel Jr. “It was a culture shock for me when I got here.”

Photo courtesy of John David Mercer/USA Today Sports

Photo courtesy of John David Mercer/USA Today Sports

By comparison, Winston-Salem has over 230,000 residents. Wake Forest alone, despite being the smallest school in the five power conferences, has nearly 5,000 undergraduate students enrolled.

Even though Pahokee’s population is small, former Deacons such as Alphonso Smith, D.J. Boldin and Antonio Wilson all call the South Florida town home.

NFL Hall of Famer Rickey Jackson and stars Anquan Boldin and Fred Taylor are also products of Pahokee.

Like Pahokee, Wake Forest football has struggled to find its identity since 2008, the last year Wake Forest posted a winning record. It was also the last year the Pahokee Blue Devils won the state championship and only a year removed from a span in which they won 28-straight games.

Noel graduated from Pahokee High School in 2010, a standout in football and track, recording 65 tackles, six sacks, four interceptions and registering a 10.5 in the 100m.

During Grobe’s last years at Wake Forest, the lone identity the team could cling onto was strong cornerback play, with now redshirt seniors Merrill ‘Bud’ Noel and Kevin Johnson anchoring the secondary.

However, the offensive system of choice became a revolving door, as the offense progressed from pro-style to the spread. The cornerback duo, though, achieved instant success, particularly Noel. As a redshirt freshman, he tied the national lead with 21 passes defensed and was a consensus Freshman All-America selection. Known as a playmaker on the field, Noel was still searching to find himself off it.

“I have been just finding my identity over time since the time I have been here,” Noel said.

The son of Merrill Noel Sr., Noel was raised by his mother, Frantoria Green and his grandmother, Gayle Love.

Throughout his life, the senior and junior Noel have had an inconsistent relationship.

“I just wanted to have my own identity,” Noel said. “I am named after my father and we have just had a long history of ups and downs.”

Since the beginning of the 2013 season, Noel has petitioned to have Junior put on the back of his jersey in place of Noel.

“Over the past years, being here at Wake Forest, meeting the great people, just building self-confidence and being in a totally different place along with the coaches has changed me,” Noel said. “That actually gave me the idea for how could I take a step forward in my finding myself.”

It was not, however, until the new coaching staff was in place that his request was granted.

“I had mentioned it to coaches [in the past] but Coach Clawson actually made it happen for me.” said Noel.

The team captain went so far as putting on his jersey before the Army game before he realized the symbolic change on his nameplate.

“I was putting on my uniform and [graduate student wide receiver] E.J. Scott said ‘You know you got Junior on the back of there’?” Noel said. “I was like ‘You are playing with me’ and I was grabbing my back of my jersey trying to see it.”

The change in the name on the back of Noel’s jersey surprised his mother and grandmother, but they also shared in his excitement.

“They were happy for me to hear why I put Junior on the back of my jersey because it was tough for me growing up and not having the best relationship with my father,” Noel said.

It was the culmination of a maturation process that allowed the Pahokee native to feel free on the field.

“I’m a junior but I felt like I wanted my own identity,” Noel said. “You become a man once you get to college.”

Noel’s excitement poured into halftime where Noel raised the morale of a team that was searching for optimism down 21-14 and had seen Army’s offense trample its defense for over 232 yards in the first half.

“I was just so amped for that game [versus Army] once I saw my jersey,” Noel said.

Following Noel’s “cheerful words,” the Deacs shutout Army in the second half to win 24-21.

The person, the football player and the leader that are the product of Noel’s transformation to Junior was cultivated by Wake Forest and his family.

“Coach Grobe and the coaching staff that brought me in here and gave me the opportunity,” Noel said. “My professors, Coach Jackson and the new coaching staff as well.”

Noel, who has a future in the NFL, understands the path that was created for him by past Pahokee football greats.

“I’ve looked in the mirror and asked myself what do I want out of this,” Noel said. “This great opportunity that I am presented with.”

To honor his family and area, Noel plans to continue to groove out the path to success that has helped him.

“I do everything for my mom and grandmother and my sister and brother that watch me,” Noel said. “When I dedicate stuff I do it for them because they were there for me when I did not know who else to talk to.”

While the Wake Forest and Pahokee football programs progress towards reaching the glories of the mid-2000’s, Noel has reached new heights within himself.

“My senior year, that was big for me to have my own identity and feel like myself for once,” Noel said.“It’s been a long journey.”

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Copyright 2017