Bryan Mealer was born in Odessa, Texas, the setting of Friday Night Lights, H.G. “Buzz’’ Bissinger’s classic chronicle of high school football, race and a lot more, which was turned into a critically acclaimed film and an equally lauded television series. But the comparisons of Mealer’s new book to Friday Night Lights would have been inevitable even without that coincidental hometown tie.
A former AP war correspondent and freelance journalist in Africa, Mealer spent an academic year reporting on the edge of the Everglades and has delivered a multi-layered immersion tale that is a lot more ambitious than simply following the Glades Central High School football Raiders.
Mealer, who co-wrote the bestselling The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind, delivers on many of the expected characters and set pieces: The gridiron heroes who have escaped the canefields to play college and pro football — plenty have fallen short — and the outside pressures of gangs, slippery college recruiters, teen pregnancies, regional and statewide rivals, the insistent pressure to win from alums and boosters (and barbershop bookies and gamblers) whose tiny lives rise and fall with the Raiders.
Where Muck City differs from Friday Night Lights is primarily the setting. Belle Glade is one of the poorest and roughest communities in Florida, meaning it ranks among the most hardscrabble places in the United States, 40 short miles but worlds away from the swanky mansions of Palm Beach.
In the early days of the AIDS epidemic, this community of sugar-cane cutters and migrant farm workers held the dubious distinction of posting the highest per-capita HIV and AIDs infection rates in the United States. Drugs, gangs and gunplay are omnipresent. Many kids are being raised in one- or no-parent households. Living hand-to-mouth doesn’t begin to describe the routine poverty here. And yet Glades Central has become an incredible talent pipeline, churning out dozens of college football players, 30 of whom have been drafted by the NFL since 1985, including five first rounders.
Mealer devotes a primary arc to one of those first-round superstars, former migrant Jessie “The Jet’’ Hester, a standout at Florida State who spent 11 years in the NFL. Hester has returned to Belle Glade as head coach, hoping to “win kids, not championships.’’
He follows quarterback Mario Rowley, an iron-willed orphan who makes physical and psychic sacrifices for the good of the team but to the detriment of his own football future, and 6-foot-6-inch recruiting prize wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin, the so-called “Beautiful Freak’’ who is also a teen father and disinterested student.
But the most heart-rending storyline revolves around Jonteria Williams, who joins the cheerleading squad as a resume-rounding afterthought, but whose laser focus is aimed at academic achievement, college scholarships and dreams of leaving Muck City for med school.
If there’s a fault with Muck City, it comes in some of the sportswriting segments. Mealer’s interests are bigger and broader narrative storytelling. Some of the gameday chapters are muddled and hard to follow, the fault of too many secondary and ancillary Raiders, competing coaches and star players. But that’s a minor quibble.
Belle Glade is a notoriously tough town for journalists and outsiders to penetrate, but Mealer largely succeeded in winning over enough of the locals — starting with Hester, his besieged coaching staff and players, plus school administrators and key members of the community — to bring Muck City to life, warts and all.
Larry Lebowitz is a writer in Miami.