The Bleachers: Theme Analysis
Greatness and Glory
The novel brings up the idea of greatness, what it is, and what it costs. Coach Rake conditions his players and the town to crave glory in football. He himself is described as a great man because he can make others great. He does this by taking the raw talent of his players and shaping it. Even though “talent came in cycles” (Wednesday, p. 76) with the best players and teams coming in streaks, “Rake’s greatness, however, was winning with players who were small and slow” (Wednesday, p. 76). He works the ones without talent even harder. Therefore, greatness consists in overcoming obstacles and boundaries: “He worked us like dogs and wanted every one of us to be great,” says Paul Curry (Tuesday, p. 51).
At Rake’s funeral, Judge Hilliard says, “His genius was simple—stick to the basics, and work nonstop until you can execute them perfectly” (Friday, p. 215). All the players know the same forty plays that never change over the years. Rake’s genius is not creative or innovative, but relentless. It is this discipline which saves Mal Brown’s life in Vietnam, for it is a conditioning adapted to war. The training spills over into other areas of life in times of challenge. Rake tells Nat Sawyer, for instance, to stick to his principles and weather the town resistance to his openly gay lifestyle. Sawyer says it is Coach Rake who helped him be a successful bookstore owner. Similarly, black player Collis Suggs overcame racial discrimination to become a respected preacher in Messina. Judge Hilliard concludes, “Greatness comes along so rarely that when we see it we want to touch it. Eddie Rake allowed us, players and fans, to touch greatness, to be a part of it” (Friday, p. 218).
Rake’s boys are aware of being part of an exclusive club or “fraternity” (Wednesday, p. 125), a “brotherhood” (Thursday, p. 167) of “the chosen few” (Wednesday, p. 127). They become drunk on their own glory. The extended narrative of the 1987 championship game concentrates this glory into a decisive moment.
The glory of greatness on the field is what Neely remembers and misses. He is totally aware as he returns to Messina that he was once a golden boy but is no longer the all-American quarterback. People continue to tell him “you were great,” but it is in the past tense. What he begins to learn is that great at football is not the same as great in life. Silo Mooney, the great tackle, is now a car thief. Jesse Trapp, who was headed for the NFL, is now in jail for selling drugs. Neely’s great regret is losing his true love, Cameron, by choosing a sexy groupie when he was a football star.
Yet the other players help him see that Rake taught them a greatness beyond football. Many of his boys have used the training to find honorable professions. Neely is thus in search of a deeper greatness in himself that he only finds when he gives Rake’s eulogy.
Whenever anyone tells Neely he was a great player, he replies, it was in another lifetime. He has lost the ability to connect with that past or to make peace with it. Rake’s death becomes the catalyst for his players to deal with the past, particularly for Neely Crenshaw, who, like the other players on the 1987 championship team “want to finish this game. We’ve been waiting for fifteen years” (Wednesday, p. 145). This refers to the mysterious championship victory with the conspicuous absence of the coach. The secret of the fight in the locker room at halftime reveals an ugly part of Rake’s nature. It is part of the missing evidence in the war of opinion over Rake in Messina since the death of Scotty Reardon. The fight with Rake and the loss of his ability to play football are still hanging over Neely’s head. He doesn’t know why he is drawn back to Messina after avoiding it for fifteen years. He tells Paul he didn’t come back before because he didn’t want to hear about how great he used to be. Paul tells Neely they have all had to deal with being forgotten heroes. One day, “poof, it’s gone . . . You can’t believe it’s over” (Tuesday, p. 16). Paul has gotten over it by being a successful banker and family man, but Neely is left with “broken dreams” and “bitterness,” (Friday, p. 230). It is because the past “was a secret that we all buried. We didn’t forget it” (Friday, p. 229).
Even though Rake visits Neely in the hospital and asks his forgiveness, Neely drifts with his bitter memories and disabled knee until Rake dies. Neely admits at the funeral, “Once you’ve played for Eddie Rake, you carry him with you forever” (Friday, p. 231) and that has been a burden to him. Rake’s death is a release but also a moment of judgment for each of the players. We hear about the failures, the Jesse Trapp story, for instance. Neely feels like he failed the coach in both his life and in football. He says, “At times you get tired of carrying Coach Rake around” (Friday, p. 231). When Paul tells Neely to just “Enjoy the memories,” Neely says, “I can’t. Rake’s back there” (Tuesday, p. 20).
Neely has come back to Messina to forgive and be forgiven. First, he wants to apologize to Cameron, the girl he dumped for “Screamer,” a sexy groupie who is now a cocktail waitress in Vegas. In a lengthy interview near the end of the story, Neely humbly asks Cameron’s forgiveness, and they reminisce about the days of his football arrogance, and the mistake he made, and the pain he caused her. He admits he never learned what a broken heart felt like until his wife left him. He is now lonely and childless, but Cameron is happily married with two children. He sees the path he might have taken. Once he makes peace with her, there is still the major act of forgiveness he must make with Coach Rake, a father figure.
The fight in the locker room between Neely and Rake was a turning point for both. Even though the boys covered up for the coach, the incident seems to have sparked Rake’s downward spiral to Scotty’s death and his firing. As Rake lives his last years in seclusion rather than glory, he gains humility. First he fights politically to get his job back, but when that fails, he devotes himself to his church and works of charity. He spends time with the gay Nat Sawyer, reading and discussing books. He visits Suggs’s black church. He spends time with Scotty’s family to get their forgiveness. In every way, he tries to make amends before he dies, and in this, once again, sets the standard for his players.
Rake had asked Neely’s forgiveness when Neely was nineteen, but the boy was unable to give it. Fifteen years later, after Rake’s confessional letter is read in public at the funeral, he is able to let go. Even this moment has been brilliantly orchestrated by Rake in his request to have Neely be one of the eulogists at the funeral. Neely says to the mourners: “With each success in life, you want Rake to know about it” (Friday, p. 231). Equally, however, with every failure, he feels compelled to apologize, because “he did not teach us to fail” (Friday, p. 231).
One of the moving moments at the funeral is the appearance of Jesse Trapp, who is let out of jail for the day. He has been afraid to show his face, ashamed that he failed Rake. He shows up on the football field where the funeral is held and puts on his Spartan jersey. He is welcomed by the crowd, who gives him a standing ovation: “the crowd embraced a fallen hero” (Friday, p.207). This is another symbol of the forgiveness that comes over the town at Rake’s passing, healing the division and war sparked off by Scotty’s death.
As Neely reflects on Rake’s legacy, he can still hear the coach say, “pick yourself up . . . be confident, be brave, and never, never quit” (Friday, p. 232). Neely is finally free and confesses his love for Rake: “His spirit will move us and motivate us and comfort us for the rest of our lives” (Friday, p. 232).