Bryan Mealer had heard the stories of the town at the edge of the Everglades that produced two exports: sugar and football stars.
He had heard about how the kids there ran faster, played better. How they inhabited the NFL by the dozens: 30 since 1985, with five of those drafted in the first round.
But as a freelance journalist who had covered the war in the Democratic Republic of Congo, he knew there were more to the clichés, more chapters to the story.
So Mealer chased the story all the way to Belle Glade — renting a room at the Horizon Inn on Main Street for six months, commuting monthly another six months, then writing in a tool shed-turned-studio in the back of his New York farm house for another year.
The result is a complex portrait of the community: Muck City: Winning and Losing in Football’s Forgotten Town (Crown Archetype, $25).
“I was stunned to see this kind of poverty and decay so close to the gated communities of Palm Beach and Fort Lauderdale,’’ said Mealer, author of the New York Times bestseller The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind. “I knew I wanted to know more about Belle Glade.’’
What he found was a rich story steeped in the sugar cane fields, a great legacy of football and the meaning of proud people making do.
But there is something far more compelling here: Beyond football, the people of Belle Glade are remarkably resilient, fighters who rise above the stereotypes.
The layers and layers make for authentic storytelling as Mealer introduces readers to Coach Jesse Hester, the town’s first star NFL player who returns home to coach at Glades Central High School; Kelvin Benjamin, a highly recruited receiver; Mario Rowley, a quarterback intent on winning championship for his late parents; and Jonteria Williams, a gifted student who dreams of becoming a doctor. Together, they face the 2010 school year and the next chapter of their lives.
Mealer, 37, who now lives with his family in Austin, chatted with The Miami Herald a few days before he was scheduled to make an appearance at the Miami Book Fair International.
He speaks at 4:30 p.m. Sunday at the Miami International Book Fair at Miami Dade College’s Wolfson Campus, Building 2, Room 2106 (Batten).