The Bleachers: Summary of “Friday”

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On the day of the funeral, the shops are closed and school dismissed. There is a traffic jam around Rake Field, and the bleachers are overflowing. Every ex-player shows up in his green Spartan jersey. A string quartet is playing over the P. A. system, and the crowd is identifying former players. Father McCabe, Rake’s priest, heads towards the podium, and the ex-players sit in a special section on the field. Father McCabe announces that Rake has already been buried near Scotty Reardon, the boy who died. Rake had been dreaming of Scottie in his last week and couldn’t wait to see him in heaven to tell him he was sorry. Just then, the priest is interrupted by the entrance of Jesse Trapp accompanied by prison guards. Jesse is wearing his prison uniform, but his mother meets him with his Spartan jersey, the retired number 56, which he puts on in front of the crowd. People rise to their feet and give him a standing ovation, and Jesse sits with the other players with tears streaming down his face. 

The priest resumes, saying that the Coach was unafraid to face death and had faith in God. Neely reflects that his own thoughts about his coach always begin with the slap in the face, but he tries to get past that to the good times. He had always wanted Rake’s approval, and he wanted to win the Heisman trophy for him in college. He felt he let Rake down when he got injured. He wants Rake’s death finally to “kill the demon that dogged him” (p. 210). Rake’s daughter gets up to say that he especially loved his players, a fact which he seldom let on. She reads a letter that her father wrote for the occasion. He says, “I’m a lucky man who lived a wonderful life . . . I want my players to know that I cherished every one of them” (p. 211). Then, the letter mentions two regrets in his life—the death of Scotty Reardon, for which he accepts the blame, and the fit of rage at halftime in 1987 when he assaulted a player, “a criminal act, one that should have had me banned from the game forever” (p. 212). That team’s victory on the field of play, however, was his finest hour. He asks for forgiveness.
Three former players have been asked by the Coach to give eulogies, the first by Judge Mike Hilliard who played on the first team. Hilliard outlines Coach Rake’s basic training and how hard it was, but how proud everyone was to be in that exclusive club. Coach Rake allowed them all to touch greatness, and he “was the finest man I’ve ever met” (p. 218). The second speaker is Reverend Collis Suggs, the first black captain of the team in 1970. Suggs has a large congregation and is politically involved in the community. He tells the story of how Rake integrated his football team and the town: “he was the greatest motivator I’ve ever met” (p. 221). Rake saw to it that there were black cheerleaders and black band members. He was one of the first coaches to actually start his black players in games and thus forced the other coaches to play theirs if they wanted to win. The coach worked through Suggs’s church to help abandoned and abused children. Suggs asks the town to bury the hatchet and be “one in Eddie Rake” (p. 225). The third speaker is Neely Crenshaw. Neely is reluctant and terrified of speaking to such a large audience. He remembers Rake’s advice to “Harness your fear” (p. 228). Neely tells how Rake came to his hospital room to apologize. Rake tried to inspire him to finish college, and he asked Neely to forgive him. Neely confesses he was unable to do either, because he became bitter about football and his life. When the coach was dying, however, he felt the call to come home and accept his apology. He wants to thank him for teaching that “success is not an accident” (p. 231). He taught never to quit. He ends by saying that he loved Coach Rake. The choir sings, and people linger, saying good-bye. Rabbit arrives to prepare the field for the game that night, and the cheerleaders arrive to hang banners. 
The 1987 team meets in Silo’s cabin in the woods for beer and steaks and talk. Neely wants to leave early, having had enough of memories. He promises he will come back once a year. He goes to the cemetery to take leave of Rake, then parks on Karr’s Hill to watch the current Spartan game from afar. He drives away and knows he can come back to Messina now.
Commentary on “Friday”
Despite the excessive emotion and sentiment, or perhaps because of them, the funeral for Eddie Rake does the trick and brings the spirit of forgiveness to the town and to Neely. Rake proves he is great by publicly admitting his faults and doing everything to set things right. The ending is surprising, because Grisham does not let on that Neely will be one of the speakers. It is the last thing the reader would expect, since Neely has had the hardest time with the coach. All the others seem to have reconciled themselves to Rake’s memory by the time Neely returns. It is evident now that he knew all along he had to give the speech, and that he resented this last attempt of Rake’s to manipulate him into forgiving him in public. Yet it was what he needed. And Rake also did it to make peace with the ’87 team. 
We have heard the pros and cons of Rake’s life throughout the book, but at the funeral, the tide turns to the positive as more facts are brought out about his good works in the town. Though a tough and macho man unable to express love, Rake loved his players and was proud of them. It is also clear from the eulogies that he left a deep and abiding legacy for the town and still has the power to bring the town together, even from the grave. The wounds are healed and enmity buried with the coach. Life moves on, as is evident when Rabbit starts mowing the field, chasing the mourners away, so the next game can be played. 
Neely finds that he too falls back on the Coach’s teaching when he has to face his fear of speaking. He finally has to admit that Rake did him good and thus connects the early part of his life to the present moment. He decides he can come back to Messina and be part of the community again and perhaps one day, he too, can tell a positive story about how Rake inspired his success, as the other players have done. He lets go of the past: “Give it up, he told himself. You’ll never be the hero again. Those days are gone now” (p. 238).

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