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Home > The Bleachers(2)

The Bleachers(2)
Author: John Grisham

In the south end zone the boosters had erected a giant score-board, and mounted around it on large white placards with bold green lettering was the history of Messina football. And thus the history of the town. Undefeated seasons in 1960 and 1961, when Rake was not yet thirty years old. Then in 1964 The Streak began, with perfect seasons for the rest of that decade and into the next. A month after Neely was born in 1970, Messina lost to South Wayne in the state championship, and The Streak was over. Eighty-four wins in a row, a national record at that time, and Eddie Rake was a legend at the age of thirty-nine.

Neely's father had told him of the unspeakable gloom that engulfed the town in the days after that loss. As if eighty-four straight victories were not enough. It was a miserable winter, but Messina endured. Next season, Rake's boys went 13-0 and slaughtered South Wayne for the state title. Other state championships followed, in 74, 75, and 79.

Then the drought. From 1980 until 1987, Neely's senior year, Messina went undefeated each season, easily won its conference and playoffs, only to lose in the state finals. There was discontent in Messina. The locals in the coffee shops were not happy. The old-timers longed for the days of The Streak. Some school in California won ninety in a row and the entire town of Messina was offended.

To the left of the Scoreboard, on green placards with white lettering, were the tributes to the greatest of all Messina heroes. Seven numbers had been retired, with Neely's 19 being the last. Next to it was number 56, worn by Jesse Trapp, a linebacker who played briefly at Miami then went to prison. In 1974, Rake had retired number 81, worn by Roman Armstead, the only Messina Spartan to play in the NFL.

Beyond the south end zone was a field house that any small college would envy. It had a weight room and lockers and a visitors' dressing room with carpet and showers. It too was built by the boosters after an intense capital campaign that lasted one winter and consumed the entire town. No expense was spared, not for the Messina Spartans football team. Coach Rake wanted weights and lockers and coaches' offices, and the boosters practically forgot about Christmas.

There was something different now, something Neely had not seen before. Just past the gate that led to the field house there was a monument with a brick base and a bronze bust on it. Neely walked over to take a look. It was Rake, an oversized Rake with wrinkles on the forehead and the familiar scowl around the eyes, yet just a hint of a smile. He wore the same weathered Messina cap he'd worn for decades. A bronze Eddie Rake, at fifty, not the old man of seventy. Under it was a plaque with a glowing narrative, including the details that almost anyone on the streets of Messina could rattle off from memory-thirty-four years as Coach of the Spartans, 418 wins, 62 losses, 13 state titles, and from 1964 to 1970 an undefeated streak that ended at 84.

It was an altar, and Neely could see the Spartans bowing before it as they made their way onto the field each Friday night.

The wind picked up and scattered leaves in front of Neely. Practice was over and the soiled and sweaty players were trudging toward the field house. He didn't want to be seen, so he walked down the track and through a gate. He climbed up thirty rows and sat all alone in the bleachers, high above Rake Field with a view of the valley to the east. Church steeples rose above the gold and scarlet trees of Messina in the distance. The steeple on the far left belonged to the Methodist church, and a block behind it, unseen from the bleachers, was a handsome two-story home the town had given to Eddie Rake on his fiftieth birthday.

And in that home Miss Lila and her three daughters and all the rest of the Rakes were now gathered, waiting for the Coach to take his last breath. No doubt the house was full of friends, too, with trays of food covering the tables and flowers stacked everywhere.

Were any former players there? Neely thought not.

* * *

The next car into the parking lot stopped near Neely's. This Spartan wore a coat and tie, and as he walked casually across the track, he, too, avoided stepping onto the playing surface. He spotted Neely and climbed the bleachers.

"How long you been here?" he asked as they shook hands.

"Not long," Neely said. "Is he dead?"

"No, not yet."

Paul Curry caught forty-seven of the sixty-three touchdown passes Neely threw in their three-year career together. Crenshaw to Curry, time and time again, practically unstoppable. They had been cocaptains. They were close friends who'd drifted apart over the years. They still called each other three or four times a year. Paul's grandfather built the first Messina bank, so his future had been sealed at birth. Then he married a local girl from another prominent family. Neely was the best man, and the wedding had been his last trip back to Messina.

"How's the family?" Neely asked.

"Fine. Mona's pregnant."

"Of course she's pregnant. Five or six?"

"Only four."

Neely shook his head. They were sitting three feet apart, both gazing into the distance, chatting but preoccupied. There was noise from the field house as cars and trucks began leaving.

"How's the team?" Neely asked.

"Not bad, won four lost two. The coach is a young guy from Missouri. I like him. Talent's thin."

"Missouri?"

"Yeah, nobody within a thousand miles would take the job."

Neely glanced at him and said, "You've put on some weight."

"I'm a banker and a Rotarian, but I can still outrun you." Paul stopped quickly, sorry that he'd blurted out the last phrase. Neely's left knee was twice the size of his right. "I'm sure you can," Neely said with a smile. No harm done.

They watched the last of the cars and trucks speed away, most of them squealing tires or at least trying to. A lesser Spartan tradition.

Then things were quiet again. "Do you ever come here when the place is empty?" Neely asked.

Chapter Two

"I used to."

"And walk around the field and remember what it was like back then?"

"I did until I gave it up. Happens to all of us."

"This is the first time I've come back here since they retired my number."

"And you haven't given it up. You're still living back then, still dreaming, still the ail-American quarterback."

"I wish I'd never seen a football."

"You had no choice in this town. Rake had us in uniforms when we were in the sixth grade. Four teams-red, blue, gold, and black, remember? No green because every kid wanted to wear green. We played Tuesday nights and drew more fans than most high schools. We learned the same plays Rake was calling on Friday night. The same system. We dreamed of being Spartans and playing before ten thousand fanatics. By the ninth grade Rake himself was supervising our practices and we knew all forty plays in his book. Knew them in our sleep."

"I still know them," Neely said.

"So do I. Remember the time he made us run slot-waggle-right for two solid hours in practice?"

"Yeah, because you kept screwin' up."

"Then we ran bleachers until we puked."

"That was Rake," Neely mumbled.

"You count the years until you get a varsity jersey, then you're a hero, an idol, a cocky bastard because in this town you can do no wrong. You win and win and you're the king of your own little world, then poof, it's gone. You play your last game and everybody cries. You can't believe it's over. Then another team comes right behind you and you're forgotten."

"It was so long ago."

"Fifteen years, pal. When I was in college, I would come home for the holidays and stay away from this place. I wouldn't even drive by the school. Never saw Rake, didn't want to. Then one night in the summertime, right before I went back to college, just a month or so before they fired him, I bought a six-pack and climbed up here and replayed all the games. Stayed for hours. I could see us out there scoring at will, kicking ass every game. It was wonderful. Then it hurt like hell because it was over, our glory days gone in a flash."

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