Text: Bleachers by John Grisham, Doubleday Large Print Edition, 2003.
The novel has four sections instead of chapters: Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday, the days of the funeral vigil for Coach Eddie Rake. It takes place in a fictional small town, Messina, probably in Mississippi, in 2002.
Summary of “Tuesday”
Neely Crenshaw, a former star quarterback for Messina High returns after fifteen years, as his former coach, Eddie Rake, is dying. Neely goes to the football field, now called Rake Field, and begins to reminisce. He remembers on Friday nights the entire town turned out for the football games. It is October, and the trees are changing color. It is football season again. The football field used to be called The Field, and it was sacred to the players, and no one dared to walk on it. Neely felt he could never return to this special place until Rake was dead, and now he that he is dying, he knows all the other players will be coming back too. The players who wore the Spartan green jersey were as gods in the old days, in the glory days, but now, it is just ordinary high school football at Messina. He was Number 19 and so famous that his jersey has been retired. He can still hear Coach Rake in his mind, growling at the players, who both loved and hated him.
He sees again his parents in the stands, the cheerleaders, and the college recruiters. The bleachers held ten thousand people and were always filled, though the town had only eight thousand people. Neely made over a hundred touchdowns and was never defeated on this field. But he says to himself, it was another lifetime.
Eddie Rake had become coach in the sixties and started the winning tradition. From 1964 to 1970, “The Streak” of perfect seasons, with 84 straight victories, is still remembered. Rake continued to produce winning teams, but the state title eluded him for a while until 1987, Neely’s senior year. On the scoreboard are still the tributes to the greatest players, the seven numbers that have been retired, including Neely’s. Jesse Trapp’s is another, Number 56, but he is now in prison. No expense was spared for the Spartan football team. They had two practice fields and luxurious dressing rooms. At the entrance to the field, Neely sees a newly erected monument to Rake with his bust in bronze and his record of thirty-four years as coach of the Spartans, with 418 wins and 13 state titles. Neely climbs up into the bleachers and sits alone for a while.
Next, a man in a coat and tie joins him. It is Paul Curry, Neely’s best friend and co-captain of their football team. Now Curry is the town banker. Neely greets him and asks after Paul’s family. Paul’s wife Mona is pregnant with their fourth child. Neely’s left knee is twice as big as his right knee. He was permanently disabled in college football since the age of nineteen when he had to quit. Paul asks why Neely doesn’t come back to Messina more often, and Neely says he wishes he had never seen a football. Paul realizes that Neely is “still living back then, still dreaming, still the all-American quarterback” (p. 15). Neely reminds him that they were recruited as children and by ninth grade they all knew Rake’s forty plays by heart. They talk about the pain of being big football stars as teenagers and then having to face that it is over. Curry, however, has gone forward with his life, while Neely is still bitter. Paul says that Neely should come back because people still love him, but Neely does not want to be reminded that he was once “great.”
Other former players begin to arrive and sit in the bleachers to remember the old days and wait for Rake’s death. Rake had coached hundreds of boys, most of whom still live in the area. Silo Mooney, who played with Neely and Paul, joins them in the bleachers. He sold drugs for a while and now deals in stolen pickups. Everyone knows that it is a matter of time before he will get caught. Silo was center on offense and nose-guard on defense and no one could get past him, but he always racked up personal fouls for his violence. They speak of Jesse who is in jail but could have played professional ball. Paul asks why Neely signed on to play college ball for Tech, and Neely admits it was for the money. They offered him $50,000 in cash. Paul is shocked, but Neely says that’s the way all the schools recruit.
Silo asks Neely what he is doing now, and he replies that he is selling real estate in the Orlando area. He is divorced with no kids. He explains that his kneecap is broken, and now he limps. No one has seen Rake, because he is dying of cancer and does not want anyone to see him like that. He had always been physically fit and loved the contact of football.
The narrator explains the tradition of the Spartan Marathon, one of Rake’s harsh training techniques. It was dreaded because the boys had to run laps in the August heat until they dropped. The boys vomited but had to keep going. Randy Jaeger now joins the group, who had the distinction of running eighty-three laps in the Marathon, right before Rake got fired in 1992. Neely said he ran thirty-one laps and collapsed in pain. More players arrive and bring cases of beer. Rabbit, an assistant athletic director, turns on the field lights. When Rake dies, he will turn them out.
Neely tells how when he was in the hospital with his knee injury, Rake visited him, and they talked about the controversial 1987 championship game. Rake had apologized then to Neely, but he never told anyone. The players gossip about Rake, bringing out his good and bad points. He became a recluse after he was fired. The sheriff, Mal Brown, also a former player, enters and has a beer with the group. Mal threatens Silo that he is going to shut him down one day. Finally, Neely leaves, limping in pain.
Commentary on Tuesday
Through third-person omniscient narration, we are introduced to several main characters, Coach Rake’s former players, who gather to pay tribute to him as he dies. It is fitting that they meet in the bleachers to discuss the old days. As boys, they played on The Field but were caught up in the glamour and action. Now they sit in the spectator section, trying to sort out their memories, reflecting on who Rake was and his influence on them.
The central character is Neely Crenshaw who was the star quarterback, but now is the character most afflicted by the past. He has not yet come to terms with the loss of his glory days, symbolized by his crippling injury. Paul was his best friend and is a foil for Neely. Paul understands Neely’s dilemma, but he was able to get past the loss of their early fame and embrace family life and community responsibility. He grew up and says now he is content to be a booster and watch the games. Neely tried to go on to play college ball, to make football his career, and was injured for life. In addition, he has no family, only a divorce. He seems lost. He doesn’t know why he has come back, but the main growth in the story will be his as he confronts his past.
Suspense is introduced about several people and events. Neely, Paul, and Silo were on the same team, and it happens to be the team who mysteriously won the 1987 state championship, Messina’s last one. It was a strange game, because Messina was losing. Then, in the second half they came back to win, but the coach had disappeared. We are told that Rake apologized to Neely when he was in the hospital, and it had something to do with the 1987 game, but we are not told what happened or why he apologized. We do not know why another star player, Jesse, is in jail. We do not know why Rake, the successful coach, was fired. And we do not know why Neely was expected to win the Heisman trophy. All these things are touched upon lightly in conversation, to be revealed later.
It seems that Neely could be bitter merely about the injury and inability to play football, but he also seems bitter about the town, the coach, his fame, and his life. He has avoided the town that Paul claims still loves him. He is still famous in Messina, but he does not go there to enjoy that fame. He says he wishes he had never played football, and the reader wonders what could have made him so bitter. He constantly refers to his football days as “another lifetime” that he sees as separate, not part of his present life.
It is interesting to see the players, all different ages, assemble together in their current lives and occupations. They were once brothers, a football fraternity, under Coach Rake, but now, their lives are diversified. On the Field they were glorious victors; now one is a car thief, another in prison, one a real estate salesman, a banker, and a sheriff. The sheriff goads Silo about his stolen car operation and threatens to arrest him, all while they drink beer together and talk football.
The reference to the Spartan Marathon is significant. It reveals a lot about the coach’s need to win, and his brutality that makes his players fear him. His training seems over the top, yet no one questions him. Rake is so powerful in Messina that when the Mayor tries to fire him, the Mayor loses the election. Rake has put Messina on the map and can do no wrong. Yet the Spartan Marathon and Rake’s eventual dismissal are foreshadowing for important developments, as well as the talk about the 1987 game. There are reasons that the players both love and hate him, and these reasons will be spelled out in the rest of the narrative.
The history of “Rabbit,” Rake’s faithful assistant athletic director, is told. Rabbit taught at the high school before it was discovered he had never finished ninth grade. He was fired, but Rake assigned him as an athletic director. He is Rake’s faithful dog, a bit muddle-headed, living above the clubhouse. He does odd chores, like driving the bus or cleaning up. During one game, Rabbit was so upset that a visiting team was about to win, he ran onto the field to tackle their running back. He was almost killed from the impact, but recovered and became a local hero as well as the local idiot. The story illustrates Rake’s compassion, and the loyalty of others to him and to the Spartan team.