I’ve become accustomed to a certain kind of contemporary story about high school and college sports. It involves programs where wealthy donors court spoiled players and break school and NCAA rules with impunity, where a jaded professional attitude infects even young players and every resource is put into creating stars. There are good and bad examples of this story, but it’s getting a bit familiar. In the end, I feel a little jaded after reading about another collection of athletes with disproportionately high opinions of themselves.
Muck City isn’t like those stories. It’s about Glades Central High School and a few other neighboring schools around Belle Glade, Florida, a place that is legendary for the athletes it produces on a regular basis (28 NFL players to date), but where there is no money to pour into the team. Belle Glade is a broken sugar town, a place where poverty, drugs, AIDS, violence, broken families, and unemployment are the rule, not the exception. Almost none of the players on the team have two-parent families. While Glades Central often wins or compete for state championships, its players are often in ragtag uniforms, drinking pickle juice on the sideline where other teams drink Gatorade, still playing both ways because the team can’t afford to travel a big squad.
Yes, the recruiters are after the Belle Glade kids, but Mealer’s book shows a squad driven as much by desperation as by fame. Football will be the only way out for most of these kids. Everyone in the community seems to have an opinion about how the team should be run, not just because they are sports-obsessed, but because the team is one of the few bright spots in a bleak place.
Mealer was given good access to the team and he uses it to good advantage, but focuses on half a dozen main characters. Quarterback Mario Rowley is a minor talent hiding major injuries, but through sheer force of will he competes for a college scholarship and to ease the memory of his dead parents. Jonteria Williams is a cheerleader trying to do something nobody at Glades Central does, make a better future through academics instead of football. Other players rise to the occasion, surprising their coaches and themselves, while at least one major talent falls prey to too much attention and not enough work ethic. Coach Jessie Hester, a former NFL player with his own demons, is trying to keep the team together while fending off a thousand second guesses and pressure to win at all cost.
And while other sports stories can turn into repetitive accounts of one game after another, leading inexorably to the big game that you know from the start the team will win, Mealer’s book is more about life, about what sports can solve and what they cannot solve. About the many tragedies that can befall those who live in the world’s forgotten places and the hard-won triumphs that occasionally can be scratched out. Yes, there are plenty of game accounts, but the real game here is life. That’s what makes Muck City a book not just for football fans, but for anyone who cares about the human drama.
Check the WRL catalog for Muck City