Tuesday, January 29, 2013

"Muck City" by Bryan Mealer

Football is not something I give much thought to beyond supporting my husband's Colts when they're playing. I didn't attend a high school or college with especially strong football teams (we did okay, but not enough to develop a cult of worship around it), nor did the high school of my last teaching assignment focus much on the sport. However, at my new school (and in the community surrounding it), football is significantly more important, and because I teach juniors, I have a number of varsity players in my classroom. I've been able to see the pressure the students put themselves under to perform, and I know that many hope to play at the college level. Since I'm always looking for books to interest my students, I picked up Muck City hoping it might appeal to my football-loving students.

Muck City is the story of the football program at Belle Glade, Florida--home of sugarcane and "muck." The city is poor, with high rates in everything: poverty, crime, gangs, AIDS infections. Yet the area also produces standout football players; the Glades Central Raiders have won six state championships and have sent thirty players to the NFL (and many more to college teams) since the mid-80s. Unlike the city of Friday Night Lights, however, the team operates with little money, no booster club, and little student fan support.

Mealer explores the 2011 season with the Raiders through the lens of Jesse Hester, the Raiders' coach, former Glades player, and the city's first NFL star. Early on, Mealer makes it clear that, for many of the players, football is their one ticket out--their path to college and beyond. However, the students' natural playing abilities are often hampered by outside forces: lack of family stability; drugs and gangs; anxiety and fear of failure. While some work hard, pushing dangerously through injury and pain to perform, others seem wary of trying and finding themselves lacking. The Raiders are a perennial powerhouse, but they're also often undisciplined and sloppy, sometimes sabotaging their own best efforts.

Though relevant to the story, I did feel the book was weighed down by play-by-play calling of the football games. I was more interested in the students' themselves. The vast focus of the book is on Hester and his players, but Mealer occasionally digresses to follow Jonteria, a female student hoping to go to medical school. Her story was interesting but felt fragmented from the rest of the book.

I'm not sure I'll try to use the book with my students. It can be somewhat confusing in the beginning, and the prose style is more advanced than I expected for a book on the subject. But, it's certainly an interesting look at a complicated story.

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