Reporter Uncovers Epic Sports Triumph in a Box of Letters

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Former ESPN sportscaster Sandra Neil Wallace recounts an incredible story in her latest novel.

Former ESPN sportscaster Sandra Neil Wallace’s new novel recounts a tale of victory against overwhelming odds. Inspired by the true story of the 1950 Jerome High School football team, MUCKERS (Random House/Knopf, October 2013) follows quarterback Red O’Sullivan in his struggle to unite a racially divided team in the high desert of northern Arizona.

Wallace discovered the story of the real Muckers by accident while working on a different project in the tiny mining town. In a box of memorabilia left behind by the school’s last principal, she found a trove of heartfelt letters from students. They told of racial tension that is still relevant today, the impact of the closing of the mine and the school, and the former students’ experiences in World War II and the Korean War.

The letters also put Wallace on the trail of an inspiring sports story. As the smallest team in Arizona--and one of the few that included both white players and Mexican Americans—the 1950 Muckers played on a field made of gravelly slag cast off by the mine’s smelter. They tore through an undefeated season against much larger schools and were declared the best in the state. The school closed a few months later, so the championship season was mostly forgotten.

“The story would have remained buried in the hearts of the few Muckers players who are still alive and scattered like tumbleweeds across desert towns if I hadn’t opened that box,” says Wallace.

After the school closed, most of the players served in the military during the Korean War. Wallace tracked down the players and learned the inspiring stories of their post-football lives. “They never let racism or early poverty define or defeat them,” Wallace says. “I found their modesty and success incredibly inspiring.”

Muckers is more than a football story. It is also a love story and a tale of deep friendship, bitter divisions, and economic hardship in a town that simply refused to die when the mine from which it drew its lifeblood shut down.

The novel is set in fictional Hatley, Arizona, but finds its inspiration in the real mining town of Jerome. Wallace interviewed former players, sifted through hundreds of newspaper articles, and spent countless hours on location in the abandoned high school, the town cemetery, the mining area, and the winding streets of the mile-high village.

Kirkus Reviews called Muckers “A richly textured portrayal of a small town coping with the economic, political and racial realities of post–World War II America. … Distinctive characters and finely drawn specifics of locale and landscape set this football story apart.”

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