Belle Glade, Fla., a town once known as a sugar-producing empire, now produces quality football players.  This small town near Lake Okeechobee struggles with poverty, unemployment and disease, but also boasts a legendary high school football program. In his new book, Muck City: Winning and Losing in Football’s Forgotten Town, Bryan Mealer reveals both the pervasive nature of poverty in Belle Glade and how a few young people have escaped.

Bill’s thoughts on Muck City: Winning and Losing in Football’s Forgotten Town

Belle Glade, Florida, aka Muck City, is apparently a great place to be from if you’re a terrific football player. The town is known for sending lots of players to D-1 football programs and the NFL. This has become something of a self-fulfilling prophecy. Assistant coaches looking for prospects line the sidelines when the Belle Glade Raiders play.

But the town is also known for its very high rates of unemployment and AIDS. Football is an escape of sorts, albeit a dubious one. As Bryan Mealer acknowledges in his new book, Muck City, lots of the alleged “student-athletes” haven’t been educated well enough to fulfill the “student” half of the bargain upon which their scholarships are contingent. Beyond that, the seriousness with which football is regarded in Belle Glade leads some players to take dangerous risks. The quarterback on the team Mealer followed in 2010 kept his concussions to himself and played through “blinding headaches” and worse.

It’s not difficult to understand why Mealer regards the story he has told as “uplifting.” Some of the young men in this dreary community of oppressed and desperate people do find in football a way out of the poverty to which most of the people who aren’t exceptional athletes seem to feel they are doomed. But like it or not, Muck City is also about a discouraging culture in which almost nobody can imagine an alternative route out of poverty. I say “almost” because Muck City does include the story of a remarkable young woman, Jonteria Williams, who manages by means of brains, determination, and an optimism almost inconceivable under the circumstances to find the road to medical school. The only sad thing about her route out of Belle Glade is that she’s alone on it.