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Home > The Bleachers(11)

The Bleachers(11)
Author: John Grisham

"And they're going bury him over there?" Neely asked, pointing to a bare spot next to Scotty.

"That's the rumor," Paul said.

"This place is always good for a rumor."

They walked a few steps to a wrought-iron bench under a small elm tree, sat, and looked at Scotty's headstone. "Who had the guts to fire him?" Neely asked.

"The wrong kid died. Scotty's family had some money, from timber. His uncle, John Reardon, was elected Superintendent of Education in '89. Very highly regarded, smart as hell, smooth politician, and the only person with the authority to fire Eddie Rake. Fire him he did. The town, as you might guess, was shocked by the news of the death, and as the details came out there was some grumbling about Rake and his methods."

"Lucky he didn't kill all of us."

"An autopsy was done on Monday-a clear case of heatstroke. No preexisting conditions. No defects anywhere. A perfectly healthy fifteen-year-old leaves home at seven-thirty on a Sunday morning for a two-hour torture session, and he doesn't come home. For the first time in the history of this town people were asking, 'Why, exactly, do you run kids in a sauna until they puke?'"

"And the answer was?"

"Rake had no answers. Rake said nothing. Rake stayed at home and tried to ride out the storm. A lot of people, including many of those who played for him, thought, 'Well, Rake's finally killed a boy.' But a lot of the diehards were saying, 'Hell, that kid wasn't tough enough to be a Spartan.' The town split. It got ugly."

"I like this Reardon fellow," Neely said.

"He's tough. Late Monday night, he called Rake and fired him. Everything blew up Tuesday. Rake, typically, couldn't stand the thought of losing in any way, so he worked the phones, stirred up the boosters."

"No remorse?"

"Who knows how he felt? The funeral was a nightmare, as you might guess. All those kids bawling, some fainting. The players wearing green game jerseys. The band playing right along here at the graveside ceremony. Everybody was watching Rake, who looked quite pitiful."

"Rake was a great actor."

"And everybody knew it. He'd been fired less than twenty-four hours earlier, so the funeral had the added drama of his departure. Quite a show, and nobody missed it."

"Wish I'd been here."

"Where were you?"

"Summer of '92? Out West somewhere. Probably Vancouver."

"The boosters tried to convene a massive meeting on Wednesday in the school gym. Reardon said, 'Not on this campus.' So they went to the VFW and had an Eddie Rake revival. Some of the hotheads threatened to cut off the money, boycott the games, picket Reardon's office, even start a new school, where I guess they would worship Rake."

"Was Rake there?"

"Oh no. He sent Rabbit. He was content to stay at home and work the phones. He truly believed that he could exert enough pressure to get his job back. But Reardon wasn't budging. He went to the assistants and named Snake Thomas as the new head coach. Snake declined. Reardon fired him. Donnie Malone said no. Reardon fired him. Quick Upchurch said no. Reardon fired him."

"I like this guy more and more."

"Finally, the Griffin brothers said they would fill in until someone was found. They played for Rake in the late seventies-"

"I remember them. The pecan orchard."

"That's them. Great players, nice guys, and because Rake never changed anything they knew the system, the plays, most of the kids. Friday night rolled around, first game of the season. We were playing Porterville, and the boycott was on. Problem was, nobody wanted to miss the game. Rake's folks, who were probably in the majority, couldn't stay away because they wanted the team to get slaughtered. The real fans were there for the right reasons. The place was packed, as always, with complicated loyalties yelling in all directions. The players were pumped. They dedicated the game to Scotty, and won by four touchdowns. A wonderful night. Sad, because of Scotty, and sad because the Rake era was apparently over, but winning is everything."

"This bench is hard," Neely said, standing. "Let's walk."

"Meanwhile, Rake hired a lawyer. A suit was filed, things got ugly, Reardon held his ground, and the town, though deeply divided, still managed to come together every Friday night. The team played with more guts than I've ever seen. Years later, one kid I know said it was such a relief playing football for the sheer fun of it, and not playing out of fear."

"How beautiful is that?"

"We never knew."

"No, we didn't."

"They won the first eight games. Undefeated. Nothing but pride and guts. There was talk of a state title. There was talk of a new streak. There was talk of paying the Griffins a bunch of money to start a new dynasty. All that crap."

"Then they lost?"

"Of course. It's football. A bunch of kids start thinking they're good, and they get their butts kicked."

"Who did it?"

"Hermantown."

"No, not Hermantown! That's a basketball school."

"Did it right here, in front of ten thousand. Worst game I ever saw. No pride, no guts, just show them the next press clipping. Forget a streak. Forget a state title. Fire the Griffins. Bring back Eddie Rake. Things were sort of okay when we were winning, but that one loss ripped this town apart for years. And when we lost the next week we failed to qualify for the playoffs. The Griffins quit immediately."

"Smart boys."

"Those of us who played for Rake were caught in the middle. Everyone asked, 'Which side are you on?' No fence straddling, bud, you had to declare if you were for Rake or against him."

"And you?"

"I straddled the fence and got kicked on both sides. It turned into class warfare. There had always been a very small group of people who were opposed to spending more money on football than on science and math combined. We traveled by chartered bus while every academic club carpooled with their parents. For years the girls had no softball field, while we had not one but two practice fields. The Latin Club qualified for a trip to New York but couldn't afford it; the same year the football team took the train to watch the Super Bowl in New Orleans. The list is endless. Rake's firing made these complaints louder. The folks who wanted to deemphasize sports saw their opportunity. The football bubbas resisted; they just wanted Rake and another streak. Those of us who played, then went to college and were considered somewhat enlightened, got caught in the middle."

"What happened?"

"It smoldered and festered for months. John Reardon stood firm. He found some lost soul from Oklahoma who wanted to coach, and hired him as the successor to Eddie Rake. Unfortunately, '93 was reelection year for Reardon, so the whole mess turned into one huge political brawl. There was a strong rumor that Rake himself would run against Reardon. If he got elected, he would anoint himself Coach again and tell the whole world to go to hell. There was a rumor that Scotty's father would spend a million bucks to reelect John Reardon. And so on. The race was ugly before it started, so ugly that the Rake camp almost couldn't find a candidate."

"Who ran?"

"Dudley Bumpus."

"The name sounds promising."

"The name was the best part. He's a local real estate swinger who'd been a big mouth in the boosters. No political experience, no educational experience, barely finished college. Only one indictment, no conviction. A loser who almost won."

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