Belle Glade, Florida is in many ways a horrible place.
Located in Palm Beach County, Florida on the shore of Lake Okeechobee, Belle Glade is a town where severe poverty is rampant. Grade school and high school education systems are among the worst in the United States. Violent crimes often triggered by gangs rank among the nation's worst. The town has one of the nation's highest rates of AIDs.
For the past four decades one of the few bright spots in this town of 17,000 people has been the Glades Central High School football team. This school, nicknamed the Raiders, has produced an extraordinary number of tremendous athletes who have won Division 1 football scholarship and gone on to play in the National Football League. This school is one of the nation's best high school football programs in terms of producing championships and supremely talented players.
This story of this town and its football program are told in wonderful and emotionally wrenching detail in a new book titled Muck City by Bryan Mealer. The author immersed himself in the town and culture. He followed the football team through the 2010 season game by game, emotion by emotion. He weaved throughout the history of Belle Glade, one of the nation's largest producers of sugar for the United States because of plentiful supply of fertile muck soil.
The school produced 35 players since 1985 that went on to National Football League such as Santonio Holmes, Fred Taylor and Reidel Anthony. The 2001 team spun out seven--more than any other high school in the country. Many more have played for major college programs such as Florida State, University of Florida and University of Miami.
This books stands apart from typical sports books because it is not merely a sports book tracking what happened to the team in a single season. It's a book about the football team and its town history dating back to floods of the 1928s. The book gushes with detailed stories about former players from the program and where they ended up. The book is special because it does not have a formulaic ending. It ends the way life often ends with a major strain of melancholy, borderline depression.
In sports books you often expect the team with the fantastic historical track record, despite the ups and downs of the season, to win the championship, the fairy tale ending. This book doesn't do that because it tells what really happened. The team lost in the state championship game. It was a bitter disappointment and the fans who follow the team-the same ones who have for decades who never wrestled themselves away from Belle Glade-don't react kindly to losing. Despite his two year record of 36 wins and 4 losses, typical winning percentages for this program, they blame the coach, Jessie Hester, because he didn't win it all. They turn on him as soon as he doesn't fulfill their vicarious wishes of yet another state championship team out of Muck City that can keep bragging about their one shining light: the high school football team.
Hester played for this team years earlier, enjoyed a professional football career, and had come back to give back to the kids. He coaching salary was $3,600 compared with over $600,000 to play in the NFL.
It's sad the book end ends this way but, like great stories, there is some hope. Before the final game, the team has an emotional locker room scene in which they express how much they have learned during the season and how they appreciate what their coach has taught them.
"The last time I cried I was in like seventh grade," said one player. "but I cried last night. It's my last time to play football with yall, and I love yall."
Another player said: "Ever since I got to Glade Central, football has been like a light, like an everlasting light compared to what I've been through in my life. This has been a journey I never imagined. I just feel like I'm living a dream right now."
And another player whose mother and father had died earlier in his life said: "I just wanna tell yall, if you got a mama just love her. I got to look at my mama and daddy in a picture every day and it hurts me to death. I just want yall to know that there aint nobody like your mama. There aint nobody like your mama ???cause when she's gone, she ain't never coming back."
Hester, who also grew up without a father who had abandoned his family, lost his job but accomplished what he had set out to do. He reached the kids. And there is hope that what they learned about life from him will propel them to better lives than they've known growing up in Muck City.
In the end, though, you are left feeling that Belle Glade will continue to struggle mightily. Hopelessness will forever be the prevailing mindset. The team's pre-game chant leaves a chilling sense that too much of more of the same is going to trap these people:
Do or die!
Better not cry!
We shall win!
They shall die!
Kill! Kill! Kill! Kill!