In Bleachers, football is frequently compared to war. Eddie Rake “loved the violence of football” (Tuesday, p. 32) yet “seldom lost his cool in the heat of battle” (Tuesday, p. 7). He teaches the boys in ninth grade “Punt returns are perfect for killing people” (Wednesday, p. 130). In the 1987 state championship game the radio announcer Buck Coffey speaks of a “dogfight down there in the trenches” (Wednesday, p. 125) and describes Silo Mooney as “slaughtering people” (Wednesday, p. 132). Silo admits, “It wasn’t a game anymore, it was a war” (Wednesday, p. 119).
The name of the team is the Spartans, taken from the Greek city-state that focused on military training. They had the reputation of being unbeatable. Boys were taken from their families and began their harsh training at seven years of age. They were told to return victorious from battle or dead. Failure was not an option.
The Spartan Marathon run of Coach Rake is so brutal that boys begin training early in the summer. Rake’s players “were taught that those who are timid and frightened have no place among the victors” (Friday, p. 208). Judge Hilliard recalls that Rake’s training was like going to war and that he would prefer war to “Camp Rake” (Friday, p. 215).
Along with war goes injury and wounds. “Rake loved stories of players who refused to leave the field with broken bones and bleeding flesh” (Tuesday, p. 55). Mal Brown plays with a broken ankle and Neely with a broken hand and nose. At nineteen, Neely is a disabled veteran, with one kneecap twice the size of the other.
The football war is played out on “sacred” ground. Rake Field may not be walked upon by mere mortals: “No piece of ground in Messina was more revered than the Field. Not even the cemetery (Tuesday, p. 3). The bust of Rake at the gate to the field is an “altar” with players bowing to it before they play (Tuesday, pp. 11-12). The lobby of the gym has a trophy case that is a “shrine to Eddie Rake, an altar where his followers could worship” (Wednesday, p. 105). The narrator refers to the “Sacred Bermuda of Rake Field” (Thursday, p. 178). Rake once curses the mayor of the town for stepping onto “the sacred Bermuda grass of the field” (Tuesday, p. 5) and when he tries to fire Rake, he is politically defeated. Most of the action of the novel occurs on the field of play or on the bleachers where the boys reminisce about their past. “In the glory days” (Tuesday, p. 4), the boys were treated as gods, waited upon, worshipped. “Now Messina football was played by mortals” (Tuesday, p. 5). If the Field is sacred, then the congregation gathers on the bleachers to worship or to atone for the past. The bleachers are a metaphor for contemplation, memory, and forgiveness. It is in the bleachers that games are originally witnessed, later discussed by the players as Rake dies, where Rake held the dying Scotty in his arms, where Cameron and Neely make peace, and where Rake’s funeral is viewed.
Trophies and Monuments
The glory of winning is part of the reward of victory, and neither Rake nor his players are too modest to refuse the spoils of war. The state championship is something to kill for. Rake has to win, so everyone gets a share of the spoils. The school gets revenue, the town gets business, and Rake delivers his boys to certain college recruiters, perhaps for a bonus. Neely describes the reason he signed with Tech is that they gave him $50,000 cash. When he won a college game, he found an anonymous envelope in his mail with $5,000.
Fame is also a trophy. Rake has a monument with a bronze bust and his record on a plaque at the entrance to Rake Field. The trophy case in the gym is “massive” to display thirteen state titles, signed footballs, and retired jerseys, “a glorious tribute to a brilliant Coach and his dedicated players” (Wednesday, pp. 104-05). Photos of the star players and teams are displayed all over town, and Neely sees his own photo displayed at Renfrow’s Café. Yet the big trophy is elusive. Rake thought Neely could have won the coveted Heisman trophy for best college player of the year. He is injured before he can deliver the ultimate prize to his coach and feels he failed.