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In a town deep in the Florida Everglades, where high school football is the only escape, a haunted quarterback, a returning hero, and a scholar struggle against terrible odds.
The loamy black muck that surrounds Belle Glade, Florida once built an empire for Big Sugar and provided much of the nation's vegetables, often on the backs of roving, destitute migrants. Many of these were children who honed their skills along the field rows and started one of the most legendary football programs in America. Belle Glades high school team, the Glades Central Raiders, has sent an extraordinary number of players to the National Football League 27 since 1985, with five of those drafted in the first round.
The industry that gave rise to the town and its team also spawned the chronic poverty, teeming migrant ghettos, and violence that cripples futures before they can ever begin. Muck City tells the story of quarterback Mario Rowley, whose dream is to win a championship for his deceased parents and quiet the ghosts that haunt him; head coach Jessie Hester, the towns first NFL star, who returns home to win kids, not championships; and Jonteria Willliams, who must build her dream of becoming a doctor in one of the poorest high schools in the nation. For boys like Mario, being a Raider is a one-shot window for escape and a college education. Without football, Jonteria and the rest must make it on brains and fortitude alone. For the coach, good intentions must battle a towns obsession to win above all else.
Beyond the Friday night lights, this book is an engrossing portrait of a community mired in a shameful past and uncertain future, but with the fierce will to survive, win, and escape to a better life. How can a small high school in one of the nations sorriest towns--a swampy Everglades burg ravaged by drugs, AIDS, crime, violence, and poverty--produce a football team thats sent dozens of players to the NFL? In Mealers gritty year-in-the-life narrative of Glades Central Highs Raiders, answering that question becomes an exploration of much more than football. The history of the Everglades, the influence of Big Sugar, Haitian immigration, and the obsessive devotion of a homegrown coach all play their part. Though Muck City covers similar turf as Friday Night Lights, Mealer makes it clear that this is not that story. The Raiders have no team bus and no booster club; student turnout for games is pathetically low. And yet, in the unlikely setting of central Floridas loamy muck, high school football was salvation itself. --Neal Thompson
Guest Review by Ben Fountain
Ben Fountain is the author of, Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk. He has received the PEN/Hemingway Award, the Barnes & Noble Discover Award for Fiction, a Whiting Writers Award, an O. Henry Prize, two Pushcart Prizes, and two Texas Institute of Letters Short Story Awards, among other honors and awards. His fiction has been published in Harper's, The Paris Review, Zoetrope: All-Story, and Stories from the South: The Year's Best, and his nonfiction has appeared in The New York Times and The New York Times Sunday Magazine, among other publications. His reportage on post-earthquake Haiti was nationally broadcasted on the radio show This American Life. He and his family live in Dallas, Texas.
Welcome to the Muck, aka Belle Glade, Florida, an impoverished farming town of 17,000 surrounded by seas of sugar cane and vegetable fields. A mere forty-minute drive from the tony streets of Palm Beach, Belle Glade is the home of Glades Central, a 99% minority high school thats the poorest in the state. Pretty much every ill that you can imagine afflicting children in 21st-century America, Glades Centrals got it: gang violence, drugs, murder, teen pregnancy, broken homes; that the school has historically abysmal test scores and dropout rates should surprise no one, and yet Glades also happens to boast one of the highest-ranked football programs in the country, one that sends an average of eight players a year to NCAA Division I programs, and has had over thirty players reach the NFL in recent years.
This place, they got speed like nowhere else, says a college coach in town on a recruiting trip. What Katherine Boo did for Mumbai in Behind the Beautiful Forevers, Bryan Mealer does right here in our own backyard with Muck City. Mealer dives headfirst into the history and culture of the muck to show not only why its one of the greatest concentrations of raw football talent in the world, but also what the sport does to the school, the community, the families, and most of all to the children who actually go to Glades Central and play the games.
Because for all their mind-boggling physical talent, thats what they are, children searching for a way out of a town that offers too little opportunity, too much temptation, and the daily prospect of violent death. Im looking to get as far away from this place as possible, says one player. My dad lived until he was twenty-one years old. If I stick around here, I probably wont even make it that long.
For generations, football has been seen as the ticket out, and over the course of the 2010 season, Mealer gives us intimate portraits of a rich cross-section of students, parents, and coaches. We get to know the beautiful freak Kelvin Benjamin, a blue-chip prospect with ungodly natural talent; Jamarious Rowley, the undersized quarterback who goes the entire season with a torn ligament in his shoulder, playing through concussions, self-doubt, and the vicious criticism of the town; and head coach Jessie Hester, ex-Glade Central star and NFL veteran who says Im not here to win championships, Im here to win kids. But what about the 96% of the student body that doesnt play football? Mealer explores this side of it too in the story of Jonteria Williams, a girl of superhuman drive whose day starts at 6 a.m. and doesnt end until midnight, all in the service of realizing her dream of becoming a doctor.
Even for the supremely talented and lucky players who make it thanks to a football scholarship, one wonders how far theyll get. Football seems a slender reed on which to pin ones hopes, and Mealers narrative is filled with players who washed out because of injury, ego, bad luck, immaturity, or simply having more obstacles in their way than any human could reasonably hope to overcome. Once, while regarding a classroom full of elementary school students, James Baldwin wondered, What will become of all this beauty? Reading Muck City, you marvel at the beauty, and despair over its prospects in an unnaturally harsh world.
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