The Bleachers: Essay Questions

1. What is the final assessment of Coach Eddie Rake in the novel?


Eddie Rake is, according to various testimonies: mean, jealous, aggressive, abusive, manipulative, kind, fatherly, loyal, a hater of injustice, and a genius. Coach Rake of Messina High rules the town for over forty years because he can consistently produce champion football teams and raise the town prestige. His players have a love/hate relationship with him because of his harsh methods. There is suspense throughout the story whether he is a petty tyrant or a great man. The town is split in its opinion since the death of Scotty Reardon, who died of heatstroke during the feared August training session. The reader never sees Rake directly but primarily through the eyes of his players.


In the negative column are the training techniques: “The practices were beyond brutal,” a former player, now a judge, remembers (Friday, p. 214). For his aggressive assault on Neely Crenshaw in the locker room, breaking his nose at half time, he could have been arrested. Instead, he is loyally protected by his players, who keep the secret of the 1987 half-time incident. The players are filled with such rage, they forbid Rake from coaching them during the rest of that game but go on to win the championship by themselves.


Neely Crenshaw is confused about his feelings for Rake, unable to forgive him for his treatment, and for dragging him into football. Crenshaw’s whole young life is wrapped up in trying to get Rake’s approval. He wants to win the Heisman trophy for him because Rake expects it. When Neely’s football life is over at the age of 19, due to an injured knee, he is bitter. Too late he realizes he gave up his humanity and the girl he loved to be a football star. The town encourages this choice as it lives vicariously through boys like Neely who are forced into bearing the glory for everyone, “The entire town living and dying with each game” (Thursday, p. 193).


Just when the reader assumes Rake is a madman, his players bring out another side to him: his legacy to “never quit” (Thursday, p. 158). Sheriff Mal Brown tells how he was the only survivor of his group in Viet Nam because of Rake’s training. Former player Nat Sawyer, now a gay coffee shop owner, praises Rake as accepting his homosexuality and patronizing his coffee shop. Black preacher Collis Suggs tells the story of how Rake led the way to racially integrated sports teams in the sixties through the force of his personality: “he made us all shake hands . . . All his players wore green” (Friday, p. 221). Suggs insists, “For all his toughness, he was terribly sensitive to the suffering of others” (Friday, p. 224). Rake is there for each of his boys in their crises, when Neely is in the hospital and when Jesse Trapp is sentenced for selling drugs. At his funeral, his daughter says that above all, Rake loved his players. Rake’s moment of greatest pride turns out to be the game of 1987 when his players rebelled against him and pulled off the miracle of the championship by themselves. He tries to culture greatness in them by pushing them beyond their boundaries. Neely confesses in his eulogy that Rake was one of the five people he has truly loved. Rake is forgiven for being a complex human being, neither wholly good nor bad.


2. What is the origin of American football?


American football is a variety of English football, rugby, in which a ball is kicked at a goal or run over a line. In the nineteenth century, games were unorganized mob-style football, with each school playing its own version until intramural games were held on college campuses. Violence and injury were common. Yale and Harvard had to suspend the games in the 1860s. 


Two general types of football had evolved: “kicking” games and “running” (or “carrying”) games. The “Boston game” was a combination played by a group known as the Oneida Football Club, the first formal football club formed in 1862 and played by schoolboys on Boston Common. This version began to spread to college campuses. In 1869, Rutgers University faced Princeton University in a game that is often regarded as the first game of intercollegiate football. In the Harvard-McGill games of 1874, the Boston game of carrying and the rugby “try” were combined, adding the feature of the touchdown.


In the 1880s, Walter Camp (The Father of American Football) reduced the players from 25 to 11, established the line of scrimmage, and the snap from center to quarterback, to open the game up to speed over strength. These changes and the down-and-distance rules made the unique sport of American football. The field became reduced in size to its dimensions of 120 by 53 1/3 yards. Gametime was set at two halves of 45 minutes, with referees and an umpire. By 1900, 43 universities participated in college football.


The violence of the early game resulted in several deaths by the charging of mass-formations against each other. The forward pass reduced injury. In 1918, the rules on eligible receivers were loosened to allow eligible players to catch the ball anywhere on the field. Glenn “Pop” Warner’s single wing and double wing formations, modern blocking schemes, the three-point stance, and the reverse play were important innovations, as well as University of Notre Dame Coach Knute Rockne’s use of the forward pass and offense over defense. 


The college bowl games provided a way to match up teams from distant regions of the country that did not otherwise play. In 1935, New York Citys Downtown Athletic Club awarded the first Heisman Trophy recognizing the nation’s “most outstanding” college football player. Coach Rake expects Neely to deliver this trophy to him. 


Professional football was primarily a sport of Midwestern industrial towns in the beginning. The American Professional Football Association (later the National Football League) was formed in 1920. It really took off as a national obsession with the televised 1958 NFL Championship Game (“the Greatest Game Ever Played”). The American Football League began in 1960 but merged with the NFL and the tradition of the Super Bowl, the most watched TV event in the U. S. since the late 1950s, was born. 


3. What are the common causes of death among football players?


Football is the sport with the highest rate of serious injuries, including head concussions, brain injury, fractures, ankle and knee disabilities, and spinal injury. Death most commonly happens, however, not during football games, but during training. The case of Grisham’s Scotty Reardon dying of heatstroke during strenuous conditioning in August is an actual football fact every year, with both youngsters and professionals collapsing. The Annual Survey of Football Injuries records 33 deaths from heatstroke from 1995 to 2008. Precautions are recommended to coaches now to prevent such deaths, such as finding out through physical exams which players are susceptible to heat; acclimatizing players slowly to heat; avoiding practice in high humidity; providing cold water and shady rest areas; removing helmets, and weighing athletes before and after practice to determine amount of weight loss. 


Grisham’s novel describes vomiting as a normal reaction of players to Coach Rake’s forced runs in the heat. Rake does not believe the players are working hard enough unless they vomit. He is harsh with the boys from ignorance, trying to make them tough. Such training was traditional, including the denial of water. Vomiting is a symptom of heat illness, along with fatigue, muscle weakness, rapid pulse, and incoherence. Players feel pressured from coaches or parents not to complain about feeling ill. When body temperatures rise to 103 or 104, the brain’s hypothalamus loses the ability to regulate heat. Brain death begins around 106 degrees, but death from heatstroke can be gradual, taking three or four days while organs begin to fail.


In 2009 a 15-year-old student at Pleasure Ridge Park High School in Louisville, Kentucky, collapsed in practice and died three days later. His temperature reached 107 degrees and witnesses said the coach denied the student water. The coach was arrested and charged with reckless homicide. (He was acquitted.) 


The leading cause of football deaths today is from “exertional sickling,” or sickle cell trait, a gene abnormality that can cause athletes to die during strenuous exercise. It kills many African-American football players each year during training and is often mistaken for heatstroke. Overexertion produces the sickling of red blood cells that jam blood vessels. Sickle cell trait occurs in one in twelve African-Americans. Death can be prevented with screening to identify those at risk, and gradually acclimatizing the athlete. With care, athletes with this condition can play safely.


4. What is the argument against football mania in school systems?


The book presents both sides to the overemphasis on high school sports. The Spartans are a source of town pride and identity. Football pays the bills, providing revenue for the school and tourism for the town. The other side is presented through Neely’s reflections and talks with former players, and through his conversation with former girlfriend, Cameron. 


The boys are given an unrealistic picture of who they are and what they deserve. Seventeen-year-olds “become convinced they are truly worthy of being worshipped” (Thursday, p. 193) with cheerleaders waiting on them, and recruiters giving them large sums of money. Paul Curry remembers, “you’re a hero, an idol, a cocky bastard because in this town you can do no wrong . . . the king of your own little world, then poof, it’s gone” (Tuesday, p. 16). Once Neely was “a high school all-American, a highly recruited quarterback with a golden arm, fast feet, plenty of size, maybe the greatest Messina ever produced” (Tuesday, p. 6). Now, he is just a real estate salesman, divorced, and alone. Neely is left with “broken dreams” (Friday, p. 230), the hero for a day, then forgotten, as Cameron tells him: “You became just a regular person, like the rest of us” (Thursday, p. 187).


Cameron points out how all this football worship was lopsided: “Prayer breakfasts every Friday morning, as if God cares who wins a high school football game” (Thursday, p. 193). If a football player cheats on a test, there is a cover-up, while another student would get suspended. There is “More money spent on the football team than on all other student groups combined” (Thursday, p. 193). Curry recalls, “The girls had no softball field, while we had not one but two practice fields. The Latin Club qualified for a trip to New York but couldn’t afford it” (Wednesday, p. 85). The competition factor is also out of balance, with the drive to win leading to overly aggressive behavior on and off the field. Rake needs to deliver victory and is so upset with failure that he punches Neely in the face. 


Once Rake is fired, a player recalled, “it was such a relief playing football for the sheer fun of it, and not playing out of fear” (Wednesday, p. 83). Finally, there is the physical danger, as Cameron points out: “It’s such a stupid sport. Boys and young men mangle their bodies for life” (Thursday, p. 187). Young Scotty dies, and Neely walks in pain with a deformed knee. 


However, though the negative side to football is presented, the emphasis of Bleachers is on the glory of the game and eulogies for the coach who brings the players to manhood. 


5. How does John Grisham view writing?


John Grisham is a popular writer who tackles issues interesting to a contemporary audience and treats them with some depth and sensitivity. He never intended to be a writer, he says, but was inspired to tell a story after witnessing court proceedings as a lawyer. 


Grisham first tried writing as a college senior as a diversion from his accounting courses. He kept a journal with ideas for books. He had a lot of ideas about characters from small towns in Mississippi. In school he was reading and keeping track of what kinds of books were being published. While writing A Time to Kill he read books about how to publish. He was not depressed at rejections but kept sending out manuscripts until Wynwood Press accepted.


Grisham credits his background for helping him be a writer. His mother did not believe in television and made him read. Every town they went to, they would immediately go to the library and load up on books. He loved reading but never thought of writing until later. In high school he was a jock, but his English teacher introduced him to John Steinbeck, whose harsh realistic style became part of his own writing style. Grapes of Wrath was a powerful book for him, shaping his view of humanity and the struggle of people against injustice. He was influenced by William Faulkner’s way of creating fictional Southern territory; Grisham also chose to write about Mississippi characters. When asked what author he would like to study with, Grisham replied, “Mark Twain.” 


Grisham, like his models, knows how to tell a good story. He focuses on plot and fast pace to keep the reader turning the pages, as he says. His subject matter depends on suspense and timing. Grisham starts with outlines, and then writes a paragraph for each chapter so he can see how the novel will shape up.  Plot is his main focus, so the structure has to be tight. He has also been credited with a good ear for the rhythm of language and speech. His style is smooth and clear; he doesn’t like obscurity or complexity.  As a keen observer of human nature, he writes honestly about Southern culture with no apologies.


His first published books were written while he was still practicing law, so he had to get up and write between 5 and 7 in the morning, often showing up at court tired. When he could write full time, he cultivated a habit of writing from August to November, from 6 a.m. to noon, five days a week. The books are revised before Thanksgiving, and he finishes one a year. Almost every one has been a best-seller, putting him in a category with Dan Brown and J. K. Rowling.