The town of Messina is and was wholly focused on Spartan football, with a football schedule in every shop window. The team plays every Friday night, and there are banners all over town. Nothing seems changed; he sees the same schedules and posters. He goes to Renfrow’s Café with Paul and is hit with old memories. During the season, football players could eat free there once a week. Rake was responsible for smooth and quick racial integration when black students came to the high school. He told Renfrow’s they had to serve his black players, and it was so. Neely nods to the patrons of the café but avoids eye contact. He feels awkward and wants to get the public appearance over with. His presence verifies the rumors that the great Neely Crenshaw has returned.
Neely sees the mementos lining the walls of the café: the newspaper stories, the pennants, the photographs and autographed jerseys. His photo is above the cash register. One wall is devoted to Coach Rake. Neely tells Paul “it seems like a dream” (p. 65). A man comes up to Neely and shakes his hand, telling him he was great. Neely says thanks but breaks eye contact, and the man leaves. Other people take the hint and glance at him but do not approach. Messina is used to owning its heroes and is not used to being ignored.
Paul asks Neely when was the last time he saw “Screamer.” Neely says he hasn’t seen his ex-girlfriend since college. Paul says she came to the ten-year reunion bragging about her career in Hollywood as an actress, but he got the impression she was sleeping around trying to get a break. Paul says “It was all a show” (p. 68). She had changed her name to Tessa Canyon, a name Neely says sounds like a porn star, and Paul says that’s where she is probably headed. The last time he saw her she was a cocktail waitress in Las Vegas and looked older than thirty. Neely is worried that he might run into her at the funeral.
Another man comes up to shake Neely’s hand, saying “You were the greatest” (p. 70). Paul says that the town is ever hoping for a new “Streak” of victories. They don’t want a few wins, but “eighty, ninety, maybe a hundred wins in a row” (p. 71). Paul wonders at this greed of ordinary people for vicarious glory. The chef approaches Neely with a photo to sign. It was taken, he recognizes, minutes before he was permanently injured. He signs it and sees himself once again as a fearless quarterback. He was an all-American. He begins to long for that time again and asks Paul if they can leave the restaurant. They continue their talk as they drive through town, and Neely remembers how Coach Rake was recruiting him as an eleven-year-old boy.
The narrator then tells about the death of Scotty Reardon during training in the 1992 season. Coach Rake was working the boys hard, because he felt pressure to produce a winning team, and he didn’t have much talent to work with. The second most dreaded torture besides the Spartan Marathon was running up and down the bleachers in the heat. Rake would yell, “Bleachers,” and the boys wanted to quit. On the second round, the vomiting began. Scotty was a sophomore who came into training weighing 141 pounds but was 129 pounds at the autopsy. He collapsed in the bleachers and died there of heatstroke in the coach’s arms.
Paul tells the story to Neely, and how the boy’s uncle, the Superintendent of Education, fired Rake. Rake tried to fight back. The town became divided in its opinion of the case. Rake tried to rig the next election to get the superintendent out, but he lost, and had to retire. He has been in seclusion for the last ten years of his life. Paul says he himself has managed to straddle the fence about the case, though the town demands that people take sides. Paul and Neely go to the graveyard and see the ex-Spartans who died in Vietnam, both black and white.
Next Neely visits Nat Sawyer’s bookstore in Messina. Nat was a punter on the team with Paul and Neely. He is now gay. The bookstore is filled with the smell of incense and Nat has five earrings in each ear and a ponytail. He proudly points out he is “the first openly gay downtown merchant” (p. 91). Nat commiserates on Neely’s knee, but Neely repeats it happened in “another life” (p. 92). Nat says that Paul loaned him the money to open the store which Nat hopes can “breathe some culture into this desert” (p. 93). Nat then tells the amazing story of how Coach Rake became his first customer and main supporter. Rake often would go to the bookstore, have coffee, and read books Nat recommended to him. They discussed detective fiction together instead of football. Because of Rake’s patronage, Nat has been accepted by the town. Nat says Rake has been more important in his life than his father.
Nat then brings up another topic of the past, Neely’s other ex-girlfriend, Cameron. Nat accuses him: “You dumped Cameron because Screamer was hot to trot” (p. 100). Nat and Cameron had been close friends. She protected Nat from other kids. While Screamer is an aging call girl, “Cameron is nothing but class” (p. 101). Neely admits his mistake and hopes he can see Cameron at the funeral to talk to her. He invites Nat to come to the bleachers at night for war stories with the other guys.
Neely goes to the high school gym to visit one of the coaches. The halls of Messina High look the same, and he feels eighteen again. He had despised academic subjects because he thought he would make football his career. He looks at the impressive trophy display case with all the victories and his own retired jersey. Some call this “the heart and soul of Messina” (p. 105). The class bell rings and students pour into the halls. Neely sees a big muscled player with a Spartan letterman’s jacket, “a status symbol” (p. 106). Feeling that he is trespassing, he leaves. He drives up to Karr’s Hill that looks down on the practice fields and Rake Field. This is where Rake watched the games after he was fired, not wanting to show his face.
At night Neely goes to the bleachers where Paul is in jeans and carrying two pizzas that are complemented by Silo Mooney’s cooler of beer. The Utley twins, former linebackers, are there, and Nat comes. Rabbit switches on the field lights. Nat has a tape of the 1987 championship game and wants to play it. He puts it on explaining he will skip the first half of the game. Neely laughs, because the Spartans were down 31-0. The tape is heard on and off in the rest of the chapter with announcer Buck Coffey’s commentary on the plays. The sound of the tape attracts other players who are arriving on the bleachers, such as Randy Jaeger and the 1992 team, and some older players. The other players keep asking the 1987 team to comment and explain what happened, because the game is still a mystery. On tape, the announcer says, “I don’t see Coach Rake” (p. 113). None of the coaches are on the field after halftime. When someone asks about it, Silo shrugs. Silo and Paul and Neely recall how tough the East Pike team was and why they had not done well in the first half. In the second half, however, the announcer’s commentary gets more and more excited as the Spartans come back to life: “Spartans are really wired now” (p. 116). He notes that Neely is calling the plays. After the Spartans make their first touchdown, Nat turns down the volume, while the players comment themselves, recalling every play. The other former players are amazed at the miraculous comeback and again ask Neely’s team to explain. Silo says, “No team could’ve scored on us in that second half” (p. 120).
They turn up the volume and listen to the game plays again from the announcer, Buck Coffey. Rabbit sneaks under the bleachers to hear the game too. The Spartans keep scoring touchdowns until the game is almost tied. The announcer comments that there is something wrong with Neely’s hand; he keeps putting it in a bucket of ice, and he cannot throw or pass the ball. Jaeger asks Neely if he broke his hand, and he says yes, but does not explain how. Silo says that they had secrets to protect. Paul does go so far as to say the coaches had been told by the team to stay away.
The Sheriff joins them on the bleachers to announce that Rake has finally died. Rabbit turns out the lights. The men sit in silence, until one says he wants to hear the end of the game. Paul and Neely and Silo take turns enumerating the last plays of the game and how they got the winning touchdown with seconds left on the clock. The strange thing is that even though the Spartans miraculously won the state championship, there was no joy or reaction from players or coaches. The players ran into the locker room and locked themselves in. Rabbit had to accept the trophy. The Sheriff announces the funeral will be Friday at noon on The Field.
Commentary on “Wednesday”
This is the longest section, containing information about Rake since Neely has been gone, and a long play-by-play description of the mystery game of ’87.
The scene at Renfrow’s reinforces Neely’s paralysis about his fame. He doesn’t want to hear about it or act the hero to the townspeople. In this section, however, Neely hears more about both the positive and negative actions of Rake. He is reminded that Rake was responsible for racial integration in the town by protecting his black players. He is also informed about the death of Scotty Reardon with Rake’s brutal training methods. Paul helps to deliver a balanced judgment on Rake for this act by implicating the whole town in the mania for football victories. It is their value system that delivers up the young boys to such training and gives Rake the power over them. Rake was feeling pressure to produce champions and had poor material to work with. His philosophy was to train and train until one was perfect. He pushed too hard, and a boy died. Paul remains in the middle in his opinion about Rake, understanding the total picture, but he is blamed by the town for not taking a stand. As Rake was able to unite the town before, he tears it apart now, and the town is at war with itself. Only Rake’s death and funeral will heal this division. Is Rake a villain or a scapegoat?
Neely’s own mistakes are brought up in the discussion of his former girlfriends. He dumped the girl with class who loved him, Cameron, for a floozy, “Screamer.” He admits his mistake now and wants to see Cameron again to come to terms with this. The scene in the cemetery looking at the graves of former Spartans who died in Vietnam is important for tying the image of football and war together, and for bringing out the theme of brotherhood. All the Spartans have gone their separate ways, but there was equality on the field of play, with the black and white players, and with all the diverse boys coming together in a team effort. The graves of both black and white veterans together reinforce the motif of equality and brotherhood. The remaining Spartans of all ages find that brotherhood again as they sit in the bleachers, once again Coach Rake’s boys.
Nat’s surprising information about Rake after he was fired, depicting him as hanging out with a gay man at the bookstore, discussing books, contradicts his macho and cruel image. Nat, like Paul, is able to have a balanced view: “Eddie Rake’s not a sweet man, but he is human. He suffered greatly after Scotty’s death” (p. 96). Nat gives the credit for his success to Rake: “He gave me the courage, man” (p. 98).
Neely was an innocent and believed in football, in the glory, in what his coach told him. When he visits the high school now, he looks at the boy in the letterman’s jacket and thinks ironically that when the boy comes back in a few years, “Your fabulous career will be a footnote” (p. 107). We begin to get a feeling for how Neely changed when we hear the 1987 game. Many facts are brought up with suspense and no explanation: why did the players disallow the coaches to coach them, and why did the coaches obey? How did Neely break his hand? What happened to turn the players around? Paul says suggestively that the players “hated the sight of them [the coaches]” and Nat says, “It was us versus them. We didn’t care about East Pike” (p. 137). These mysteries are cleared up in the next section. Once Rake dies, the secrets can be told.