Home > The Bleachers(7)

The Bleachers(7)
Author: John Grisham

It took twenty minutes to gather Rabbit up and place him gently on the stretcher and shove him into an ambulance. As it drove away, ten thousand Messina fans stood and applauded with respect. The folks from Greene County, uncertain as to whether they too should applaud or boo, just sat quietly and tried to digest what they had seen. They had their touchdown, but the poor idiot appeared to be dead.

Rake, always the master motivator, used the delay to incite his troops. "Rabbit's hittin' harder than you clowns," he growled at his defense. "Let's kick some ass and take the game ball to Rabbit!"

Messina scored three touchdowns in the fourth quarter and won easily.

Rabbit survived too. His collarbone was broken and three lower veterbrae were cracked. His concussion was not severe, and those who knew him well claimed they noticed no additional brain damage. Needless to say, Rabbit became a local hero. At the annual football banquet thereafter Rake awarded a Rabbit Trophy for the Hit-of-the-Year.

The lights grew brighter as dusk came to an end. Their eyes refocused in the semi-lit darkness of Rake Field. Another, smaller group of old Spartans had materialized at the far end of the bleachers. Their voices were barely audible.

Silo opened another bottle and drained half of it.

"When was the last time you saw Rake?" Blanchard Teague asked Neely.

"A couple of days after my first surgery," Neely said, and everyone was still. He was telling a story that had never been told before in Messina. "I was in the hospital. One surgery down, three to go."

"It was a cheap shot," Couch mumbled, as if Neely needed to be reassured.

"Damned sure was," said Amos Kelso.

Neely could see them, huddled in the coffee shops on Main Street, long sad faces, low grave voices as they replayed the late hit that instantly ruined the career of their all-American. A nurse told him she had never seen such an outpouring of compassion -  cards, flowers, chocolates, balloons, artwork from entire classes of grade-schoolers. All from the small town of Messina, three hours away. Other than his parents and the Tech coaches, Neely refused all visitors. For eight long days he drowned himself in pity, aided mightily by as many painkillers as the doctors would allow.

Rake slipped in one night, long after visiting hours were over. "He tried to cheer me up," Neely said, sipping a beer. "Said knees could be rehabbed. I tried to believe him."

"Did he mention the '87 championship game?" Silo asked.

"We talked about it."

There was a long awkward pause as they contemplated that game, and all the mysteries around it. It was Messina's last title, and that alone was a source rich enough for years of analysis. Down 31-0 at the half, roughed up and manhandled by a vastly superior team from East Pike, the Spartans returned to the field at AM where thirty-five thousand fans were waiting. Rake was absent; he didn't appear until late in the fourth quarter.

The truth about what happened had remained buried for fifteen years, and, evidently, neither Neely, nor Silo, nor Paul, nor Hubcap Taylor were about to break the silence.

In the hospital room Rake had finally apologized, but Neely had told no one.

Teague and Couch said good-bye and jogged away in the darkness.

"You never came back, did you?" Jaeger asked.

"Not after I got hurt," Neely said.

"Why not?"

"Didn't want to."

Hubcap had been working quietly on a pint of something much stronger than beer. He'd said little, and when he spoke his tongue was thick. "People say you hated Rake."

"That's not true."

"And he hated you."

"Rake had a problem with the stars," Paul said. "We all knew that. If you won too many awards, set too many records, Rake got jealous. Plain and simple. He worked us like dogs and wanted every one of us to be great, but when guys like Neely got all the attention then Rake got envious."

"I don't believe that," Orley Short grunted.

"It's true. Plus he wanted to deliver the prizes to whatever college he happened to like at the moment. He wanted Neely at State."

"He wanted me in the Army," Silo said.

"Lucky you didn't go to prison," Paul said.

"It ain't over yet," Silo said with a laugh.

Another car rolled to a stop by the gate and its headlights went off. No door opened.

"Prison's underrated," Hubcap said, and everyone laughed.

"Rake had his favorites," Neely said. "I wasn't one of them."

"Then why are you here?" asked Orley Short.

"I'm not sure. Same reason you're here, I guess."

During Neely's freshman year at Tech, he had returned for Messina's homecoming game. In a halftime ceremony, they retired number 19. The standing ovation went on and on and eventually delayed the second half kickoff, which cost the Spartans five yards and prompted Coach Rake, leading 28-0, to start yelling.

That was the only game Neely had watched since he left. One year later he was in the hospital.

"When did they put up Rake's bronze statue?" he asked.

"Couple of years after they fired him," Jaeger said. "The boosters raised ten thousand bucks and had it done. They wanted to present it to him before a game, but he refused."

"So he never came back?"

"Well, sort of." Jaeger pointed to a hill in the distance behind the clubhouse. "He'd drive up on Karr's Hill before every game and park on one of those gravel roads. He and Miss Lila would sit there, looking down, listening to Buck Coffey on the radio, too far away to see much, but making sure the town knew he was still watching. At the end of every halftime the band would face the hill and play the fight song, and all ten thousand would wave at Rake."

"It was pretty cool," said Amos Kelso.

"Rake knew everything that was going on," Paul said. "Rabbit called him twice a day with the gossip."

"Was he a recluse?" Neely asked.

Chapter Seven

"He kept to himself," Amos said. "For the first three or four years anyway. There were rumors he was moving, but then rumors don't mean much here. He went to Mass every morning, but that's a small crowd in Messina."

"He got out more in the last few years," Paul said. "Started playing golf."

"Was he bitter?"

The question was pondered by the rest of them. "Yeah, he was bitter," said Jaeger.

"I don't think so," Paul said. "He blamed himself."

"Rumor has it that they'll bury him next to Scotty," Amos said.

"I heard that too," Silo said, very deep in thought.

A car door slammed and a figure stepped onto the track. A stocky man in a uniform of some variety swaggered around the field and approached the bleachers.

"Here's trouble," Amos mumbled.

"It's Mal Brown," Silo said, softly.

"Our illustrious Sheriff," Paul said to Neely.

"Number 31?"

"That's him."

Neely's number 19 was the last jersey retired. Number 31 was the first. Mal Brown had played in the mid-sixties, during The Streak. Eighty pounds and thirty-five years ago he had been a bruising tailback who had once carried the ball fifty-four times in a game, still a Messina record. A quick marriage ended the college career before it began, and a quick divorce sent him to Vietnam in time for the Tet Offensive in '68. Neely had heard stories of the great Mal Brown throughout most of his childhood. Before a game Neely's freshman year, Coach Rake stopped by for a quick pep talk. He recounted in great detail how Mal Brown had once rushed for two hundred yards in the second half of the conference championship, and he did so with a broken ankle!

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