Neely and Paul meet in the bookstore and drink Nat’s Guatemalan coffee. The Sheriff arrives and asks if they are ready to go. They get into the Sheriff’s car and onto the highway where Mal goes a hundred miles an hour with the lights blinking while he tells them about his experience in Vietnam. He was one of six on a boat that patrolled a river making trouble. They shot at everything: “We were idiots” (p. 155). Their mission “had no tactical purpose” (p. 155) so they drank beer, smoked pot, played cards and flirted with the local girls. One day they are ambushed from both sides of the river. Three on deck are immediately killed, with only Mal surviving. Two guys are below, and when the fuel barrel is hit and starts a fire, the men below are trapped and burn. Mal dives over the side and hides under the camouflage net, but when he comes up for air, the Vietnamese shoot at him. The river is full of poisonous snakes and so he thinks he can get shot, drown, or wait for the snakes. Mal says that Rake’s training saved him: “If you’re hurt, never quit” (p. 158). He gets hit in the leg, and just then a rescue helicopter pulls him out. When they asked his name, he said, “Eddie Rake” (p. 159).
After that story, Mal is hungry and pulls into a country diner for biscuits and sorghum molasses. Mal eats and begins cross-examining Neely and Paul about the 1987 game. He says now that Rake is dead, he insists on knowing what happened. Everyone figured there had been some disagreement at half time. Neely and Paul nod at each other, that it is all right to confess it now. Neely begins speaking. He tells how they were taking a beating in the championship game. They went to the locker room at half time terrified of Rake. Rake went up to Neely, started cussing him out, and then backhanded him across the face so hard his nose broke. By instinct, Neely punched Rake in the face and knocked him out cold. Another coach rushed forward, and Silo grabbed him by the throat and threatened to kill him if he made a move.
Silo threw the coaches out of the locker room and they left, dragging Rake’s body. Neely started crying and couldn’t stop. Neely’s hand and nose were broken, and he was bleeding and delirious. The whole team hated Rake and wanted to kill someone, and East Pike was the only available target. Silo yelled at everyone to get them together and said they had to go out and win. During a huddle, Silo and Neely convinced all the players to run back to the locker room after the game and lock the door and not leave till the crowd was gone. They waited for an hour for everything to settle down. The players agreed to never speak of the incident, because they were afraid there would be trouble. Rake only appeared on the sidelines near the end of the game, and he showed no emotion, even when his team won. The players were so emotional all fifty of them were crying in the locker room because they had pulled off a miracle, winning with no coaches.
They get in the police car with Mal and ride in silence for a while with all the lights going, but without the siren. They begin to talk about Jesse Trapp, and Neely asks if Mal busted him. He says no, it was the state police. Jesse was hooked on drugs during his college football career at Miami. His family could not get him rehabilitated, and finally, he started selling drugs and had a large organization. Jesse got twenty-eight years, no parole, because a cop was killed during the bust. Rake was heartbroken and said if Jesse had gone to A &M he would not have turned bad. He could have played in the NFL. Rake was in the courtroom when Jesse was sentenced.
Mal, Neely, and Paul arrive at the Buford Detention Facility where they have a pre-arranged meeting with Jesse Trapp. Jesse is working out with weights when they arrive. He is a bodybuilder and looks great. Neely and Paul had played with him, and he looks twice as big now. They tell him about Rake’s death and invite him to come to the funeral. He can get a leave, because Mal has cleared it for him. Jesse refuses, saying he loved Rake and “what hurt the most was that I had failed in Rake’s eyes” (p. 176). They promise to come visit him in prison sometimes and then leave.
On Thursday afternoon, there is visitation to the coffin in a tent erected on Rake Field. Eight pallbearers, former coaches, carry the casket around the track followed by Rake’s wife, daughters, and grandchildren, a priest, and a drum corps and marching band. There is a reception line.
Neely goes to the home of Cameron’s parents, the Lanes, and asks for Cameron, who is there visiting her parents during the funeral. When Neely sees her, he understands how grave his mistake was in letting her go. She is prettier than in high school. He asks to speak to her, saying they might never have a chance again, and he needs to tell her something. She is distant and uninterested as he confesses his mistake in high school and asks her forgiveness. She tells him it is old history, and he should forget it, but he is not satisfied. He wants a fight, a show of emotion from her, so there can be a catharsis. She tells him she is married with two daughters. Her husband is rich. She got over him and no longer likes him. On the contrary, Neely thinks of her all the time. Finally, she opens up and gives her opinion about the stupidity of high school football with its lopsided values. She admits, “I was a nice girl, and I paid a price for it. You broke my heart, humiliated me . . .” (p. 190).
They get into Neely’s car and drive to Rake Field and sit in the bleachers to finish their conversation. She continues to criticize the town’s passion for football and how it shorted everyone else. Neely confesses that he got Screamer pregnant and took her to Atlanta for an abortion. His own wife had miscarriages and blamed Neely’s and Screamer’s abortion for their inability to have children, and left him. He says he never understood how he broke Cameron’s heart until his wife broke his heart. He tells Cameron if she is ever single, he will still be waiting for her. They say good-bye.
Commentary on “Thursday”
By confronting the wounds of the past, Neely will be able to start healing and forgiving. The two big traumas of his early life in Messina still haunt him: the violent fight with his coach, and his lost love, both related to his football stardom. These hurts make him question the validity of his football years and make him disconnect from them as though they are “another lifetime.” If Neely began with an innocent love of the sport, his head was turned by fame. He contemplates his own photo at Renfrow’s: “no smile, all business and attitude and ego . . . dreaming of future glory” (p. 65).
Glory is one motivating factor, but a deeper one is revealed at the funeral: he wanted to please Rake. Rake is a larger than life father figure to the boys. To be assaulted by one’s “father” is a great shock to the spirit. He loved Rake and can’t understand his violence and abuse. It shakes his faith in the values he had adopted with football. That code which lasted a lifetime for Nat and Mal, helping them with their personal crises, does not work for Neely in the real world. Rake’s training doesn’t tell him what to do about getting hit by his coach, or disabled, or losing his wife. It doesn’t prepare him for the fall from grace when he is no longer valued. Without the football field, the heroic worldview he had adopted crumbles.
It helps him to speak honestly to Cameron and hear her side of the story. She echoes his line, saying that their relationship was in “another lifetime” (p. 183). She has moved on. He is ready to admit he was wrong, which is a more noble and heroic act morally than winning a game. He wants to mature beyond the adolescent stance of high school. He assumes Cameron was hurt through jealousy, so he assures her that Screamer is a washed up has been. She replies it was never about competition. Cameron’s score against Neely is that he humiliated her and stopped treating her as human being. He did not see her as a person, because he was so caught up in being “everybody’s hero” (p. 195). Once in a while she could catch his eye and “for a split second you would look at me like a real person” (p. 195).
The big secret about the 1987 game sheds more light on Rake’s character. The confession of the fight to the Sheriff means the players can be released from the burden of the past. The fight in the locker room reveals not only why the players hated Rake, but also that they loved him. As Rake himself points out in his funeral letter, he could have been arrested or fired for assaulting one of his students. His players kept the secret because they wanted to protect him. At the same time, they stood up for themselves and refused his coaching.
It is never mentioned, but the irony is that if Rake had been held accountable at that game in 1987, there would have been no death for Scotty Reardon in 1992. Rake does not change his methods even after the locker room incident he is ashamed of. He had apologized to Neely for it in 1991, yet he continues his harsh and abusive practices until another tragedy happens.
Both Paul and Cameron place the blame on the town’s value system that takes pride in aggressive warlike competition and trains its young men to be like Rake. This is verified in Mal’s testimony about Vietnam. He and his young buddies are cocky on their boat in the river, shooting up anything that moves. They are a lot like football players: “We were invincible because we were eighteen and stupid” (p. 156). It is assumed that Rake makes boys into men, but does he? Neely notes that now Rake is gone, the Spartans are like any other football team, perhaps playing for fun rather than blood. Yet the book is not a complete denunciation of Rake, for the glory days of Messina football are enshrined in the town’s heart and resurrected at the funeral.
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