"Battle's End: A Seminole Football Team Revisited," by Caroline Alexander. Knopf. 220 pages. $23 The tale is not new: Opportunity knocks for young black boys who have been groomed since high school for football's physical demands - but not for the rigors of college.
As they climb toward a berth in the pros, will they overcome economic and academic poverty, the temptations of notoriety, the exploitation they accept as part of the game of getting ahead?
Readers of Caroline Alexander's interviews with eight former athletes from Florida State University can guess the answer. Rather than indicting the institution of athletics, she presents a series of portraits and allows the reader to glean from them what they will.
Her subjects speak for themselves, not in cleaned-up-for-newsprint quotes, but in their rhythmic, rambling and sometimes awkward vernaculars of rural and inner-city Florida. From some, she wrings an honesty that is painful.
Twelve years after she served as their naive but patient English tutor, Ms. Alexander tracked down eight former charges. They are in their 30s now, and at the "Battle's End" (from a line in the F.S.U. fight song). They include contented family men and absentee fathers, low-wage earners and comfortable entrepreneurs. Some won stints in the pros, one plays on. Two are in prison.
To a man, they decry the institutions of learning - especially high schools - that neglected their minds while promoting their prowess on the field. Most also share in the blame for their missed opportunities.
"I needed to study more harder, and think of sports second; but in reality football is first and education is second. There is no way round that, once you accept a football scholarship," says Quent Reed from prison, serving time for violating parole after an armed robbery conviction.
In the end, the book is not about the sport. This is not the balletic prose of "The Last Shot: City Streets, Basketball Dreams," Darcy Frey's chronicle of New York teens trying to make it to the NBA. Ms. Alexander candidly (almost excessively) explains that she is a foreigner in the land of pigskin. She is ever the teacher, which might appeal to some in her crossover audience of educators and sports fans. Unfortunately, Ms. Alexander cannot resist the urge to counsel these men, a habit that may be loving but comes dangerously close to sounding arrogant. Has she dropped back into their lives after more than a decade to lecture them and move on?
Some will forgive her, and continue reading, content to be voyeurs while her former students evaluate, sometimes harshly, sometimes ingratiatingly, what kind of men they have become.
Jean Thompson writes about education for The Sun. She is the daughter of a retired high-school football referee and Pop Warner coach, and tutored varsity athletes in college.