Since taking some time off at the end of spring football, I had a dear friend deliver me a gift. A copy of a book about football in a town like no other. That town is Muck City, as the book is titled, or better known as Belle Glade, Florida. Reading this book was an eye opener to the way of life in Belle Glade. I have coached teams that have played in that area, and even as a player played teams from over there. Never did I know what went on in that area in terms of the history of not only the town, but also the football program. This is no Odessa Texas, or De La Salle by any stretch of the imagination. This is one of the roughest, poorest towns in all of America. It's literally like driving into a third world country when you go there. One thing they do well there is play football.
For those that don't know, "The Muck" is the area around Lake Okeechobee, that boast some of the most fertile soil in the world. However, as much as the land grows, the townspeople taketh away. In reading this book, it is amazing the despair, and the jealousy that abounds in a town like that. One bothered me the most was how when an athlete would "make it", others would try to pull him down, or resent him to the point that many folks felt this star athlete "owed them something". I can remember a quote from a movie, talking about people leaving poverty stricken areas and talking about the people there as "crabs in a bucket". When one crab makes it to the top, the others will climb on his back and pull him back down into the bucket. What's weird to me is, this is NOT the American way. How does one even think like that? I guess I'm wired differently, but the crabs in a bucket analogy, one I thought was just a joke, rings true throughout every ink laden page of the book Muck City.
The author, Bryan Mealer, does an excellent job in the telling of football history, daily life, and overall town history of Belle Glade. He is very detailed in his accounts, and you can tell he spent quite some time living and working in Belle Glade. My hats off to Mr. Mealer for writing such a quality book. The historical parts drag you back to a past that talks of hurricanes and floods, the beginnings of a rough town carved out of the Everglades on the southern border of pristine Lake Okeechobee. He also does an excellent job talking about the football history, even going back to when there was segregation and two schools in the tiny town. The best part is when he describes the games themselves, or being at practice. Mealer does such a good job, as a coach, I think I'm sitting right there with Jesse "The Jet" Hester listening tell the players much needed life lessons. You actually get tensed up and nervous in the parts about the games, because of Mealer's attention to detail when describing them. Mealer even knew the play calls and talked about the game as though he were a legendary coach himself. Again, I have to tip my hat, because Muck City is a very well written book.
The part that hit home, and bothers me the most is the fact that a football coach, such as Hester, who went 34-6 at his time at Glades Central High School was fired six days after appearing in his second state championship. This man had brought a sense of stability to a storied program, he'd make the young men believe in his coaching staff, and more importantly, believe in himself. Only to have a community, one who I'd think would eat their own young if they had to, tear the ground out from underneath him. Again, crabs in a bucket. It is through a book like this, that you finally realize that "misery loves company" and people in despair are that way by choice, not because of some unseen force, or a greedy capitalistic society hell bent on keeping the poor man down, or even by politics. These people are where they are because they do not have the intestinal fortitude to get out of their current situation. It's sickening to read chapter after chapter of players who get out of Belle Glade, only to be ridiculed, made fun of, or even berated to the point of some never wanting to come back and help out there hometowns folk. Who does that? Having not lived it, I can tell you maybe I'm just some snooty outsider who doesn't have a damn clue how things work there, but I'm telling you, there are far worse places in this world that some of our great leaders, athletes and politicians have come from. If they can do it, so can somebody from Belle Glade.
I don't mean to talk harshly about the town, but to be honest, the nature of things there are anti-American. To embrace despair, show jealousy, and downplay the success of others is not what we were founded upon. The one thing is true, some of the absolute fastest of the fastest football players come out of this region. Great names such as Fred Taylor, Jesse Hester, Reidel Anthony, Rickey Jackson, and Anquan Boldin just to name a few. The statistics of NFL players that have come from Belle Glade is staggering. Another disturbing notion in the book is how players nowadays feel entitled to this treatment as though they are gods and all they have to do is "show up" to be recruited. The game, in the book, takes an ugly feel to me. It's not longer a game in Belle Glade, yet a means to an end. This fact, is starting to branch out all across America I'm afraid. What used to be a game among young men, is now a pipeline to money, fortune and fame, and it was trickled down into even our youth programs. I have coached football long enough to see this demise and it is steadily withering away at my love for the game. Coaches, especially head coaches, are now looked upon to facilitate the recruiting process, and severely scrutinized when the process breaks down or the athlete being recruited simply isn't "good enough". The pages of Muck City echo this sentiment, even more than I imagined.
I recommend anyone read this book, but be prepared for an eye opener. I may simply be so naive that I've been holding on to the game, trying to look at the landscape through glasses meant for an earlier time, and this book as slapped these glasses off my head. I look at the game and wonder..."what am I doing here?". I have seen this entitlement change drastically over the past four or five years, and like many I have thought it just a phase, but I'm afraid folks it's here to stay. Several parts in the book have interviews with old war hero's from decades past that talk about the new wave of football players with great concern, and even some disdain. For years I've heard even the old greats around my area talk the same way, and often chalked it up to "they don't understand kids", or "they're just too old to understand", but more and more I'm beginning to believe these old timers and what they are saying. I guess that's because I'm becoming one of them. I see what's happened to our game and the players in it, and see how the money has crept in and made everything about a once beautiful game ugly. Everything has a peak, an apex if you'd say, and I think football is on a downward slope from it's once grand mountaintop. I may be a lone voice, but football, much like our country, is crumbling from the inside-out. The very foundation us as coaches preach has slowly been eroded away to where the whole thing stands to collapse. I mean, read the sports columns everyday and you see where somebody or some team is getting slapped with a violation of some rule. There's a fine here a fine there etc. You can also read the high amount of arrests in both the NFL and college and now people turn a blind eye to it, as though "It's ok, he's a football player". To this I say bullshit. A case in point is the Tyrann Mathieu, better known as the Honey Badger, is now on the Arizona Cardinals roster, simply because "he can play". He was arrested in possession of marijuana and failed numerous drug tests, but because he "can play", he gets entry into what is supposed to be the most hallowed fraternity in all of football, the NFL. Am I the only soul in America that sees this logic as flawed?
I watched a program on Lombardi last night, and Jerry Kramer, legendary guard for the Packers said these words "They don't make men like that anymore", when talking about Lombardi. I was thinking, you know, he's right, they don't. These men are shunned as "old school", and tossed out and away from the game because players don't relate to them. Players don't relate to them because they want everything handed to them, and the only thing Lombardi would hand you is a swift kick in the ass if you felt entitled to ANYTHING! I often wonder what Lombardi would say if he could gaze upon the landscape that has become college and pro football. My thinking is the famous line of "What the hell's goin' on out here!!!" would come to mind. All I can say is, he would be gravely disappointed in us for what football has become.
Like I said, buy the book, it really speaks more volumes about football in general than probably Mealer knows or intended. The book is a great look at football in a dark corner of America, where there are few fairy tales and even fewer happy endings.
Sorry I've been gone so long, but the new gig has me off and running, we have already started our summer stuff, but hopefully I can get some of these archived articles finished up and posted. Have patience with me!