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Home > The Bleachers(15)

The Bleachers(15)
Author: John Grisham

The stories kept coming back as Neely watched the practice field. Having no desire to relive them, he left.

* * *

A man delivering a fruit basket to the Rake home heard the whispers, and before long the entire town knew that the Coach had drifted away so far that he would never return.

At dusk the gossip reached the bleachers, where small groups of players from different teams in different decades had gathered to wait. A few sat alone, deep in their own memories of Rake and glory that had vanished so long ago.

Paul Curry was back, in jeans and a sweatshirt and with two large pizzas Mona had made and sent so the boys could be boys for the night. Silo Mooney was there with a cooler of beer. Hubcap was missing, which was never a surprise. The Utley twins, Ronnie and Donnie, from out in the county had heard that Neely was back. Fifteen years earlier they had been identical 160-pound linebackers, each of whom could tackle an oak tree.

When it was dark, they watched as Rabbit made his trek to the Scoreboard and flipped on the lights on the southwest pole. Rake was still alive, though barely. Long shadows fell across Rake Field, and the former players waited. The joggers were gone; the place was still. Laughter rose occasionally from one of the groups scattered throughout the home bleachers as someone told an old football story. But for the most part the voices were low. Rake was unconscious now, the end was near.

Nat Sawyer found them. He had something in a large carrying case. "You got drugs there, Nat?" Silo asked.

"Nope. Cigars."

Chapter Twelve

Silo was the first to light up a Cuban, then Nat, then Paul, and finally Neely. The Utley twins neither drank nor smoked.

"You'll never guess what I found," Nat said.

"A girlfriend?" Silo said.

"Shut up, Silo." Nat opened the case and removed a large cassette tape player, a boom box.

"Great, some jazz, just what I wanted," Silo said.

Nat held up a cassette tape and announced, "This is Buck Coffey doing the '87 championship game."

"No way," Paul said.

"Yep. I listened to it last night, first time in years."

"I've never heard it," Paul said.

"I didn't know they recorded the games," Silo said.

"Lotta things you don't know, Silo," Nat said. He put the tape in the slot and began fiddling with the dials. "If it's okay with you guys, I thought we'd just skip the first half."

Even Neely managed a laugh. He'd thrown four interceptions and fumbled once in the first half. The Spartans were down 31-0 to a wonderfully gifted team from East Pike.

The tape began and the slow, raspy voice of Buck Coffey cut through the stillness of the bleachers.

Buck Coffey here at halftime, folks, on the campus of AM, in what was supposed to be an evenly matched game between two unbeaten teams. Not so. East Pike leads in every category except penalties and turnovers. The score is thirty-one to nothing. I've been calling Messina Spartan games for the past twenty-two years, and I cannot remember being this far behind at halftime.

"Where's Buck now?" Neely asked.

"He quit when they sacked Rake," Paul said.

Nat turned up the volume slightly and Buck's voice carried even farther. It acted as a magnet for the other players from the other teams. Randy Jaeger and two of his teammates from 1992 came over. Jon Couch the lawyer and Blanchard Teague the optometrist were back in their jogging shoes, with four others from the era of The Streak. A dozen more moved close.

The teams are back on the field, and we'll pause for a word from our sponsors.

"I cut out all that crap from the sponsors," Nat said.

"Good," said Paul.

"You're such a smart boy," Silo said.

I'm looking at the Messina sideline, and I don't see Coach Rake. In fact, none of the coaches are on the field. The teams are lining up for the second half kickoff, and the Spartan coaches are nowhere to be seen. This is very strange, to say the least.

"Where were the coaches?" someone asked.

Silo shrugged but didn't answer.

And that was the great question that had been asked and left unanswered for fifteen years in Messina. It had been obvious that the coaches boycotted the second half, but why?

East Pike is kicking to the south end zone. Here's the kick. It's short and taken by Marcus Mabry on the eighteen, zigs one way back the other, cuts upfield, has some room and is tackled at the thirty-yard line, where the Spartans will attempt to generate some offense for the first time tonight. Neely Crenshaw was just three for fifteen in the first half. East Pike caught more of hispasses than the Spartans did.

"Asshole," someone said.

"I thought he was on our side."

"Always, but he liked us better when we were winning."

"Just wait," Nat said.

Still no sign of Eddie Rake or the other coaches. This is very bizarre. Spartans break huddle and Crenshaw sets his offense. Curry wide right, Mabry is the I-back. East Pike has eight men in the box, just daring Crenshaw to throw the ball. Here's the snap, option right, Crenshaw fakes the pitch, cuts upfield, sees some daylight, hit hard, spins, breaks a tackle, and he's loose at the forty, the forty-five, the fifty, and out of bounds at the East Pike forty-one, a pickup of twenty-nine yards! The best play of the game for the Spartan offense. Maybe they're coming to life.

"Man, those guys hit," Silo said quietly. "They had five Division One signees," Paul said, reliving the nightmare of the first half. "Four on defense." "You don't have to remind me," Neely said.

This Spartan team is finally awake. They're yelling at each other as they huddle, and the sideline is really fired up now. Here they come, Crenshaw points to his left and Curry spreads wide. Mabry in the slot, now in motion, the snap, quick pitch to Mabry, who scoots around left end for six, maybe seven yards. And the Spartans are really wired now. They're yanking each other off the turf, slapping each other on the helmets. And of course Silo Mooney is jawing with at least three of the East Pike players. Always a good sign.

"What were you saying, Silo?"

"I was telling them that they were about to get their asses kicked."

"You were down thirty-one points."

"Yep," Paul said. "It's true. We heard him. After that second play, Silo started the trash-talking."

Second and three. Crenshaw in the shotgun. The snap, a quick draw to Mabry, who hits hard, spins, turns upfield to the thirty, the twenty, and out of bounds at the East Pike sixteen! Three plays, fifty-four yards! And the Spartan offensive line is really moving people off the ball. First down Spartans - in the first half they had only five, and only forty-six yards rushing. Crenshaw is calling his own plays now, nothing from the sideline because there are no coaches over there. Slot left with Curry wide, Mabry in the I, Chenault in motion, option right, the fake, the pitch to Mabry, who's hit at the line, runs over the linebacker, and slams down to the ten-yard line. Clock is ticking, ten-oh-five left in the third quarter. Messina is ten yards from a touchdown and a thousand miles from a state title. First and goal, Crenshaw drops back to pass, a draw to Mabry, who's hit in the backfield, shakes loose, scoots wide to the right. There's nobody there! He's gonna score! He's gonna score! And Marcus Mabry dives in for the first Messina touchdown! Touchdown Spartans! The comeback has begun!

Jon Couch said, "When we scored, I remember thinking, 'Nice to have a touchdown, but there's no way we can come back on these guys.' East Pike was too good."

Nat turned the volume down and said, "They fumbled the kickoff, didn't they?"

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