High school football players and other residents of hardscrabble Belle Glade, Fla., fight for their pride and their lives in this chronicle from veteran reporter Mealer (All Things Must Fight to Live: Stories of War and Deliverance in Congo, 2008, etc.).
The rich soil of the region around Lake Okeechobee, known to locals as “muck,” produces cane sugar and other valuable crops. It also produces professional football players (including current star Santonio Holmes) at a surprising rate, especially considering the equally staggering rates of crime, disease and poverty in the area. Glades Central Raiders and their attempt to win a state championship in the 2010 season are the focus of this entry in the inspirational sports genre. At the center is former NFL wide receiver Jessie Lee “Jet” Hester, who has returned to Belle Glade a hero and agreed to take over as coach of his former team in an attempt to give back to his hometown. The book also spotlights two of the players—wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin, expected to follow Hester to NFL stardom, and linebacker turned underdog quarterback Jamarious “Mario” Rowley—as well as the head cheerleader, Jonteria Williams, who dreams of becoming a doctor. No one on the team or in the town escaped untouched by tragedy, and Hester learned that trying to give back is not without its own pitfalls. The source material, including some fascinating history of the Okeechobee region, is compelling enough without the author’s occasional slips into purple prose, and the chronological jumps in the narrative can be confusing. But there is real drama here, with the stakes much higher than the question of who wins or loses the big game.
Mealer tries a little too hard to tug at the heartstrings; nonetheless, he offers a stirring tale of sports as a means of escape from dire circumstances.