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Muck City: Winning and Losing in Football's Forgotten Town Hardcover – October 23, 2012
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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 that’s the poorest in the state. Pretty much every ill that you can imagine afflicting children in 21st-century America, Glades Central’s 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 it’s 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, that’s 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. “I’m 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 won’t 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 “I’m not here to win championships, I’m here to win kids.” But what about the 96% of the student body that doesn’t 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 doesn’t 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 they’ll get. Football seems a slender reed on which to pin one’s hopes, and Mealer’s 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.
“This is another version of Buzz Bissinger’s Friday Night Lights (1990), and since both are less about football than they are about family, community, and the horrific struggle to rise above poverty, each boasts a unique set of characters who are well worth knowing. A heartbreaking look at poverty in America, with some football on the side.” - Booklist (starred review)
“Muck City is like Friday Night Lights as imagined by Richard Price. It's a sad, powerful, and evocative portrait of a benighted place--and an accidental indictment of our nation's strange cultural priorities, to say the least. The people of Belle Glade have their ideal chronicler in Bryan Mealer. Go Raiders!” – Tom Bissell
“Beautifully written and expertly reported by Bryan Mealer, Muck City is like nothing I’ve ever read. Set against the backdrop of Big Sugar, in a region of muck, this is the endless story of desperation, betrayal and the will to win. Muck City turned out a legion of great football players. How they got there shatters all myths, and will shake your senses.” - Jim Dent, author of The Junction Boys and Courage Beyond The Game
“Like all great writing about football, Muck City takes the nuances of sport and succeeds in illuminating the larger life lessons. This book casts a well-trained eye on what goes on beyond the Friday night lights. Bryan Mealer is a major talent, and Muck City a tremendous accomplishment.” - Gary Myers, author of The Catch and Coaching Confidential
“Muck City takes the reader deep into the experience of football, poverty and hope.” - Gregg Easterbrook, football columnist, ESPN
“Superbly reported and deftly told, Muck City is much more than a narrative about high school football. It's an utterly compelling story that careens between triumph and tragedy, good and evil, hope and despair, a richly evocative account of the people and the culture of Belle Glade, Florida, a place of silt and sorrow and a very special football field.” - Wayne Coffey, co-author of the New York Times bestseller, Wherever I Wind Up: My Quest for Truth, Authenticity and the Perfect Knuckleball
"Mealer recounts Belle Glade’s colorful history, reports from living rooms and locker rooms, and perfectly captures the area’s distinct dialect." - Publisher's Weekly
“A multi-layered immersion tale that is a lot more ambitious than simply following the Glades Central High School football Raiders….Belle Glade is a notoriously tough town for journalists and outsiders to penetrate, but Mealer largely succeeded in winning over enough of the locals — starting with Hester, his besieged coaching staff and players, plus school administrators and key members of the community — to bring Muck City to life, warts and all.”—Miami Herald
“A lesson-filled trip into the past, a compelling, richly told story of the tragically flawed 2010 Glades Central football team….Muck City takes you to a place that, if you aren’t a reporter or a local football player or coach, you won’t ever see or experience. And, like any good piece of nonfiction, Muck City leaves you asking more questions than you started with.”—Palm Beach Post
“There is real drama here, with the stakes much higher than the question of who wins or loses the big game…. a stirring tale of sports as a means of escape from dire circumstances.” - Kirkus
Top Customer Reviews
Muck City by Bryan Mealer certainly has many of these common themes, which make it a great fit for the football fan.
But Muck City offers something deeper that I think everyone will be able to relate to. Glade, Florida is an impoverished community where football is one of the few chances for escape from a life of poverty and misery.
Mealer impressed me by going into deep detail about the history of the town itself from racial tensions, to its status as a Big Sugar empire now departed, to the present day struggles with crime and poverty, that touch not just every player on the team, but the entire town. This helps illustrate why football is so important.
Mealer also spotlights the academic crisis faced by the school district at large and the tremendous effort it takes for a student who isn't a football player to chase their ambitious dreams of being a doctor.
I liked these portions because it showed that the school wasn't just football , a point that some football books lose in an effort to engage sports fans.
Muck City is a completely human story of dreams, ambitions, life, loss, and overcoming that both football and non-football fans will find something to draw on.
The book sarted out promising enough, when it gave the history of the Belle Glade area, a poor agricultural section of Florida rife with racial tensions and ground down with poverty. It was also the site of a 1928 hurricane that rivaled the 1900 hurricane of Galvaston, Texas. No one will probably ever know how many were killed in the Belle Glade disaster, as so many, especially African Americans, were buried in mass graves. There was little opportunity for advancement beyond the subsistence level (as migrant workers) for the black residents of Belle Glade in the years after the hurricane. Those of us old enough to have watched the 1960 documentary "Harvest of Shame" will remember that the opening scenes were shot in Belle Glade.Read more ›
Reidel Anthony - Former NFL wide receiver, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Washington Redskins, Florida Gators
Brad Banks - CFL quarterback, Winnipeg Blue Bombers, 2002 Heisman Trophy first runner-up
Roosevelt Blackmon - Former NFL defensive back, Green Bay Packers, Cincinnati Bengals
Dinavon Bythwood - Former NFL Defensive End, Cleveland Browns, University of Miami
Johnnie Dixon - Defensive back, Calgary Stampeders
Rashaad Duncan- Defensive End, Tampa Bay Bucs, Carolina Panthers and now with the Buffalo Bills.
Cedric E.Read more ›
Most Recent Customer Reviews
First off, let me give author Bryan Mealer his props for putting his life on the line to go study the Glades Central Raiders of Belle Glade, Florida. Read morePublished 19 days ago by Matthew Robinson
Really insightful look into one of the most poorest cities in America. The book offers a telling perspective of how individuals live in Belle Glade. Read morePublished 1 month ago by Matthew Fante
If you are a Floridian or a foot ball fan you should enjoy this look at how important a role football can play in a small, poor town.Published 7 months ago by Patricia Walker
This is a great documentary about football. Would highly recommend if this is your thingPublished 7 months ago by Skut H
Knowing some of the NFL players mentioned so prominently would enhance a reader's enjoyment of the book, but the book does not demand that for the reader to understand what is... Read morePublished 14 months ago by Carol K. Askin
The writing is great. It's fun reading about people I know. You see, I grew up in Belle Glade, as did my father, mother, and grandfather. Read morePublished 14 months ago by Patrick Altman
As a couple other reviewers said, (i) the book jumps around quite a bit, seemingly haphazardly, and (ii) it would have been better as a feature Sports Illustrated type article than... Read morePublished 18 months ago by x