The sport is a never-ending commodity. Soon enough, there will be the NFL draft, free agency signings and fanciful trades and trade rumors, spring football, the NFL draft-Combine in Indianapolis, and for those tightly-wound football aficionados, the NFL summer training camps will rise in the heat of July to stare down the mid-season flux of Major League Baseball. Like it or not.
Love it or hate it, unfortunately or fortunately, the sport of football reigns supreme in this country. However, what most appeals to me is to look inside the culture of a number of sports, and especially football.
I teach a literature course at Mount St. Joseph University called “Sports in Literature.” Given that my university has several hundred athletes in various sports, it should be obvious that the nature of the course drums up some interest.
In central Florida, there’s a region that remains iconoclastic, newsworthy, and at times controversial. Football in this region is god-like. And one of the most fascinating books on football since Friday Night Lights is entitled Muck City.
I count this book of journalism every bit as significant as Friday Night Lights. Muck City is an area in south central Florida whose name originated as a result of its proximity to the Everglades. Muck City has been ground zero for battles with storms and hurricanes. It is a wide land rich in farming. The area has produced vast quantities of sugar cane. It used to be the home of U.S. Sugar Company., Inc. The author, journalist Bryan Mealer, is quick to point out that as you drive into the city of Belle Glade, you see a sign that reads, “Her Soil is Her Fortune.”
It’s an ironic entrance into Belle Glade, which notably occupies one of the most impoverished populations in the U.S. According to Bryan Mealer and his research, Belle Glade city officials estimate that unemployment among its residents has reached a statistical figure of forty to forty-five percent. This is really disheartening.
Mealer fastens a shrewd eye on Glades Central High School as it reflects the transitions affecting the community of Belle Glade. The name of the high school was initially Belle Glade High in 1948. Mealer, who lives in Texas, journeyed to Glades, Florida to check out why this area so excels in producing superior football players and championship teams, and how the school and city have managed to instill a system of winning inside noticeable economic hardships.
This struggle is multi-pronged and takes its shape in the form of gang-related tension, drugs, and a general sense of uncertainty among youth as to what school will even help them accomplish in the future – except get them some sort of athletic scholarship.
Bryan Mealer stayed well over a year to get his story. His searching and research paid off. He was able to re-create a seminal portrait of the embattled yet productive high school and community.
In spite of the poverty level which will make any population desperate, many youth – and many of their families – turn to football as an outlet. Hopefully, for many, it’s a kind of saving grace. The power of this book springs from Mealer’s skill in digging into the stories of several individuals whose lives intersect and who will not be deterred by any sense of failure or being forgotten.
Belle Glade, Florida is a tough and uncompromising place for a young person to grow up. The pressure to win at Glade Central High permeates the book. The high school careers and stories of Jamarious “Mario” Rowley, Jonteria Williams, and Kelvin Benjamin anchor Muck City. Each has his or her own trajectory. What’s unique is how all three survive deep-rooted struggles inherent in living in Belle Glade.
Mario Rowley embodies the spirit and fortitude of an athlete who plays through multiple injuries. He does so in a demonstrative way. His shoulder is a mess; he tells no one. He keeps quiet. Mario rarely complains. He decides early in his senior year that his young leadership will help energize his fellow players to set their goal for a state championship and not veer from it – no matter what.
Muck City captures the depth to which Mario Rowley shelves his own personal needs and sacrifices his body – a torn muscle in his shoulder and a bad leg – to provide the impetus the team needs to advance to the 2010 state championship game against Cocoa High School.
In 2010, current NFL player Kelvin Benjamin, star wide receiver for the Carolina Panthers, is inarguably the under-achiever of the Raiders. KB’s fellow teammates are not impressed. He is the best athlete and an undisputed star of the team, yet in spite of his injury, his lack of participation or zeal rubs the guys in a negative way. They admire him, sure; but the team realizes that it’s going to move on without Benjamin. For his part, Benjamin is looking far beyond his senior year of high school in 2010 to NCAA Division I scholarship offers and, possibly, to an NFL career.
He does have that lucrative NFL career now. But, in 2010, the “rise” of Kelvin Benjamin was depicted in a less appealing light. To his credit, today with the Panthers, KB is considered a hard worker, a generous teammate. At Glade Central in 2010, a very different KB ran the field.
My favorite student profiled is Jonteria Williams. She is an indefatigable student and cheerleader whose personal goals are anything but lofty. They’re straightforward and rather unique, actually, to Glade Central High School in 2010. Jonteria Williams wants to graduate with honors, pursue scholarship offers, and fulfill her dream of becoming a nurse. One goal is to continue to help others.
Jonteria is as an asset to the student body and the cheerleading squad. She cares that her mother, Teresa Williams, is taken care of in the short term. Teresa is a strong and pivotal character in Jonteria’s life, and she won’t let her daughter deter far from her bright goals. Jonteria also mends a relationship with her father who, at this time, has been in prison a good portion of her schooling. There’s a scene involving Jonteria and her father on Senior Night that heightens even more the book’s emotional impact.
Muck City captures far more than football.
It’s a minor classic in the way it analyzes socio-economic factors in an impoverished region that influence athletics at the high school level. Except Bryan Mealer uses one football season of one, major high school football team in one community to isolate the relationships and monumental conflicts that stem from these rugged socio-economic factors.
You cheer for these Glade Central players, the cheerleaders, the coaches, the school, and the families, while simultaneously raising your reader’s eyebrows at the sometimes harrowing heartbreak that accompanies their journeys.