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Home > The Bleachers(5)

The Bleachers(5)
Author: John Grisham

In thirty-four years as head Coach, Rake had struck only two players off the field. The first had been a famous fistfight in the late sixties between the Coach and a hothead who had quit the team and was looking for trouble, of which he found plenty with Rake. The second had been a cheap shot that landed in the face of Neely Crenshaw.

It was incomprehensible that he was now a shriveled old man gasping for his last breath.

"I was in the Philippines," Silo said at low volume, but his voice was coarse and carried through the clear air. "I was guardin' toilets for the officers, hatin' every minute of it, and I never saw you play in college."

"You didn't miss much," Neely said.

"I heard later that you were great, then you got hurt."

"I had some nice games."

"He was the national player of the week when he was a sophomore," Paul said. "Threw for six touchdowns against Purdue."

"It was a knee, right?" Silo asked.

"Yes."

"How'd it happen?"

"I rolled out, into the flat, saw an opening, tucked the ball and ran, didn't see a linebacker." Neely delivered the narrative as if he'd done it a thousand times and preferred not to do it again.

Silo had torn an ACL in spring football and survived it. He knew something about the knee. "Surgery and all that?" he asked.

"Four of them," Neely said. "Completely ruptured the ligament, busted the kneecap."

"So the helmet got you?"

"The linebacker went for the knee as Neely was stepping out of bounds," Paul said. "They showed it a dozen times on television. One of the announcers had the guts to call it a cheap shot. It was AM, what can I say?"

"Must've hurt like hell."

"It did."

"He was carried off in an ambulance and they wept in the streets of Messina."

"I'm sure that's true," Silo said. "But it doesn't take much to get this town upset. Rehab didn't work?"

"It was what they sadly refer to as a career-ending injury," Neely said. "Therapy made things worse. I was toast from the second I tucked the ball and ran. Should've stayed in the pocket like I'd been coached."

"Rake never told you to stay in the pocket."

"It's a different game up there, Silo."

"Yeah, they're a bunch of dumbasses. They never recruited me. I could've been great, probably the first nose tackle to win the Heisman."

"No doubt about it," Paul said.

"Everybody knew it at Tech," Neely said. "All the players kept asking me, 'Where's the great Silo Mooney? Why didn't we sign him?'"

"What a waste," Paul said. "You'd still be in the NFL."

"Probably with the Packers," Silo said. "Making the big bucks. Chicks bangin' on my door. The life."

"Didn't Rake want you to go to a junior college?" Neely asked.

"Yeah, I was headed there, but they wouldn't let me finish school here."

"How'd you get in the Army?"

"I lied."

Chapter Five

And there was no doubt that Silo had lied to get in the Army, and probably lied to get out. "I need a beer," he said. "You guys want a beer?"

"I'll pass," Paul said. "I need to be heading home soon."

"What about you?"

"A beer would be nice," Neely said.

"You gonna stay here for a while?" Silo asked.

"Maybe."

"Me too. It just seems like the place to be right now."

* * *

The Spartan Marathon was an annual torture run created by Rake to inaugurate each season. It was held the first day of August practice, always at noon, for maximum heat. Every varsity hopeful reported to the track in gym shorts and running shoes, and when Rake blew his whistle the laps began.

The format was simple-you ran until you dropped. Twelve laps were the minimum. Any player unable to complete twelve laps would get the chance to repeat the marathon the next day, and if he failed twice then he was unfit to become a Messina Spartan. Any high school football player who could not run three miles had no business putting on the pads.

The assistant coaches sat in the air-conditioned press box and counted laps. Rake prowled from one end zone to the other watching the runners, barking if necessary, disqualifying those who moved too slow. Speed was not an issue, unless a player's pace became a walk, at which point Rake would pull him off the track. Once a player quit or passed out or was otherwise disqualified, he was forced to sit at midfield and bake under the sun until there was no one left standing. There were very few rules, one of which called for automatic ejection if a runner vomited on the track. Vomiting was allowed and there was plenty of it, but once it was completed, somewhere off the track, the sick player was expected to rejoin the run.

Of Rake's vast repertoire of harsh conditioning methods, the marathon was by far the most dreaded. Over the years it had led some young men in Messina to pursue other sports, or to leave athletics altogether. Mention it to a player around town in July and he suddenly had a thick knot in his stomach and a dry mouth. By early August, most players were running at least five miles a day in anticipation.

Because of the marathon, every Spartan reported in superb condition. It was not unusual for a hefty lineman to lose twenty or thirty pounds over the summer, not for his girlfriend and not for his physique. The weight was shed to survive the Spartan Marathon. Once it was over, the eating could start again, though weight was difficult to gain when you spent three hours a day on the practice field.

Coach Rake didn't like big linemen anyway. He preferred the nasty types like Silo Mooney.

Neely's senior year he completed thirty-one laps, almost eight miles, and when he fell onto the grass with the dry heaves he could hear Rake cursing him from across the field. Paul ran nine and a half miles that year, thirty-eight laps, and won the race. Every Spartan remembered two numbers-the one on his jersey, and the number of laps he finished in the Spartan Marathon.

After the knee injury had abruptly reduced him to the status of being just another student at Tech, Neely was in a bar when a coed from Messina spotted him. "Heard the news from home?" she said. "What news?" Neely asked, not the least bit interested in news from his hometown.

"Got a new record in the Spartan Marathon."

"Oh really."

"Yeah, eighty-three laps."

Neely repeated what she'd said, did the math, then said, "That's almost twenty-one miles."

"Yep."

"Who did it?"

"Some kid named Jaeger."

Only in Messina would the gossip include the latest stats from the August workouts.

Randy Jaeger was now climbing up the bleachers, wearing his green game jersey with the number 5 in white with silver trim, tucked tightly into his jeans. He was small, very thin at the waist, no doubt a wide receiver with quick feet and an impressive time in the forty. He first recognized Paul, and as he drew closer he saw Neely. He stopped three rows down and said, "Neely Crenshaw."

"That's me," Neely said. They shook hands. Paul knew Jaeger well because, as was established quickly in the conversation, Randy's family owned a shopping center north of town, and, like everybody else in Messina, they banked with Paul.

"Any word on Rake?" Jaeger asked, settling onto the row behind and leaning forward between them.

"Not much. He's still hanging on," Paul said gravely.

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