Home > The Bleachers(10)

The Bleachers(10)
Author: John Grisham


"I don't get it."

"Bragging rights. What else can they brag about?"

"No wonder they worship Rake. He put the town on the map."

"Take a bite," Paul said. A man with a dirty apron approached holding a manila file. He introduced himself as Maggie Renfrow's brother, now the chef, and he opened the file. Inside was a framed eight by ten color photo of Neely at Tech. "Maggie always wanted you to sign this," he said.

It was splendid picture of Neely in action, crouching behind the center, calling a play, ready for the snap, sizing up the defense. A purple helmet was visible in the right lower corner, and Neely realized the opponent was AM. The photo, one he'd never seen before, was taken minutes before he was injured. "Sure," he said, taking a black marker from the chef.

He signed his name across the top, and for a long moment looked into the eyes of a young, fearless quarterback, a star biding his time in college while the NFL waited. He could hear the Tech crowd that day, seventy-five thousand strong and desperate for victory, proud of their undefeated team, thrilled that they, for the first time in many years, had a bona-fide ail-American at quarterback.

Suddenly, he longed for those days.

"Nice photo," he managed to say, handing it back to the chef, who took it and immediately hung it on a nail under the larger photo of Neely.

"Let's get outta here," Neely said, wiping his mouth. He placed some cash on the table, and they began a quick exit. He nodded, smiled politely at the regulars, and managed to make an escape without being stopped.

"Why are you so nervous around these folks?" Paul asked when they were outside.

"I don't want to talk about football, okay? I don't want to hear how great I was."

They drove the quiet streets around the square, passing the church where Neely was baptized, and the church where Paul was married, and the handsome split-level on Tenth Street where Neely lived from the age of eight until he left for Tech. His parents had sold it to a certified Yankee who'd been brought down to manage the paper mill west of town. They passed Rake's house, slowly, as if they might hear the latest just by driving down the street. The driveway was crowded with cars, most with out-of-state license plates, Rake's family and close friends, they figured. They passed the park where they'd played Little League baseball and Pop Warner football.

And they remembered stories. One that was now a legend in Messina was, of course, about Rake. Neely, Paul, and a handful of their buddies were playing a rowdy game of sandlot football when they noticed a man standing in the distance, near the backstop of the baseball field, watching them closely. When they finished, he ventured over and introduced himself as Coach Eddie Rake. The boys were speechless. "You have a nice arm, son," he said to Neely, who could say nothing in response. "I like your feet too."

All the boys looked at Neely's feet.

"Is your mother as tall as your father?" Coach Rake asked.

"Almost," Neely managed to say.

"Good. You'll make a great Spartan quarterback." Rake smiled at the boys, then walked away.

Neely was eleven years old at the time.

They stopped at the cemetery.

Chapter Nine

* * *

The approach of the 1992 season caused great concern in Messina. The year before the team had lost three games, a civic disaster that had them grumbling over their biscuits at Renfrow's and rubber chicken at the Rotary lunches and cheap beer at the tonks out in the county. And there had been few seniors on that team, always a bad sign. It was a relief when weak players graduated.

If Rake felt pressure, he certainly didn't show it. By then he'd been coaching the Spartans for more than three decades and had seen everything. His last state title, number thirteen, had been in 1987, so the locals were suffering through a three-year drought. They'd been through worse. They were spoiled and wanted a hundred wins in a row, and Rake, after thirty-four years, didn't care what they wanted.

The '92 team had little talent, and everyone knew it. The only star was Randy Jaeger, who played corner and wideout, where he caught anything the quarterback could throw near him, which was not very much.

In a town the size of Messina, the talent came in cycles. On the upswing, as in 1987 with Neely, Silo, Paul, Alonzo Taylor, and four vicious loggers on defense, the scores were lopsided. Rake's greatness, however, was winning with players who were small and slow. He took thin talent and still delivered scores that were lopsided. He worked the lean ones harder, though, and few teams had seen the intensity that Rake brought to the field in August 1992.

After a bad scrimmage on a Saturday afternoon, Rake lashed out at the team and called a Sunday morning practice, something he rarely did because, in years past, it had upset the church folks. Eight o'clock Sunday morning, so that the boys would have time to attend worship, if they were able. Rake was particularly upset over what he perceived to be a lack of conditioning, a joke since every Messina team ran sprints by the hundreds.

Shorts, shoulder pads, gym shoes, helmets, no contact, just conditioning. It was eighty-nine degrees by eight o'clock, with thick humidity and a cloudless sky. They stretched and ran a mile around the track, just for a warm-up. Every player was soaked with sweat when Rake called for a second mile.

Number two on the list of dreaded tortures, just behind the Spartan Marathon, was the assault on the bleachers. Every player knew what it meant, and when Rake yelled, "Bleachers," half the team wanted to quit.

Following Randy Jaeger, their captain, the players formed a long, reluctant, single line and began a slow jog around the track. When the line approached the visitors' stands, Jaeger turned through a gate and started up the bleachers, twenty rows, then along the top rail, then down twenty rows to the next section. Eight sections on the other side, then back on the track, around the end zone to the home side. Fifty rows up, along the top rail, fifty rows down, up and down, up and down, up and down, for another eight sections, then back on the track for another loop.

After one grueling round, the linemen were drifting to the rear, and Jaeger, who could run forever, was far in front. Rake growled along the track, whistle hanging around his neck, yelling at the stragglers. He loved the sound of fifty players stomping up and down the bleachers. "You guys are not in shape," he said, just loud enough to be heard. "Slowest bunch I've ever seen," he grumbled, again, barely audible. Rake was famous for his grumbling, which could always be heard.

After the second round, a tackle fell to the grass and began vomiting. The heavier players were moving slower and slower.

Scotty Reardon was a sophomore special-teams player who weighed in that August at 141 pounds, but, at the time of his autopsy, weighed 129. During the third round of bleachers, he collapsed between the third and fourth rows on the home side, and never regained consciousness.

Since it was Sunday morning, and a no-contact session, both team trainers were absent, at Rake's instructions. Nor was there an ambulance close by. The boys would describe later how Rake held Scotty's head in his lap while they waited for an eternity to hear a siren. But he was dead in the bleachers, and he was certainly dead when he finally arrived at the hospital. Heatstroke.

Paul was telling the story as they walked through the winding, shaded lanes of the Messina Cemetery. In a newer section, on the side of a steep hill, the headstones were smaller, the rows neater. He nodded at one and Neely knelt down for a look. Randall Scott Reardon. Born June 20, 1977. Died August 21, 1992.

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