Touchdown! | Football Reviews, August 2013

This year’s autumn bounty of new football titles offers biographies—with subjects ranging from Hall of Famers to barely proven youngsters to relative obscurities—and histories generally concerned with championship teams from both the college and professional ranks. Many of these books also touch insightfully on broader issues such as race, changing mores in America, physical incapacitation and concussion, fan involvement, and the business of sports.

fourth Touchdown! | Football Reviews, August 2013Bacon, John U. Fourth and Long: The Fight for the Soul of College Football. S. & S. Sept. 2013. 336p. ISBN 9781476706436. $26.99; ebk. ISBN 9781476706443. SPORTS

The things that make college football superior to pro football in Bacon’s view—the traditions, the regional rivalries, and the passionate involvement of students and alumni—he sees threatened by fraud and the ceaseless pursuit of money. For the 2012 season, Bacon (Three and Out: Rich Rodriguez and the Michigan Wolverines) covered four Big Ten schools—Penn State, Ohio State, Michigan, and Northwestern—and here addresses issues such as counterproductive and inconsistently applied sanctions, the precarious balance of academics and athletics, and the clear conflict between monetization and a nonprofit mission. Throughout, he decries the governing NCAA as a soulless marketing arm working with college administrators who all too often are opportunistic mercenaries. Additionally, Bacon describes throughout much of the history and traditions of Big Ten schools as they relate to the weakening devotion of alumni. VERDICT Although the focus is the Big Ten, the message is widely applicable and of interest to all college football fans. [See Prepub Alert, 3/25/13.]

Barca, Jerry. Unbeatable: Notre Dame’s 1988 Championship and the Last Great College Football Season. St. Martin’s. Aug. 2013. 320p. index. ISBN 9781250024831. $26.99; ebk. ISBN 9781250024848. SPORTS

Notre Dame has as rich a history as any team in college football as well as a nationwide following of both fans and detractors. The last Fighting Irish national championship team was filled with great players and characters, including Ricky Watters, Tony Rice, and Chris Zorich, and was coached by the personable and quotable Lou Holtz. In that 1988 season, Notre Dame beat four top-ranked teams: Michigan, USC, West Virginia, and, in the famous belligerent “Catholics vs. Convicts” showdown, the University of Miami. The story of that season and those personalities is recounted here by journalist and Notre Dame alum Barca in a professionally executed narrative based on extensive interviews and research. VERDICT College football fans will enjoy the breadth and pace of this fully told tale.

Carter, Cris with Jeffri Chadiha. Going Deep: How Wide Receivers Became the Most Compelling Figures in Pro Sports. Hyperion. Aug. 2013. 304p. ISBN 9781401324858. $25.99. SPORTS

Former Vikings wide receiver Carter (NFL analyst, ESPN), a recent Hall of Famer, is one of the more articulate football commentators on the air. Here, with Chadiha, a senior writer at ESPN.com, he combines his autobiography with a defense and celebration of the preening divas who have starred in his old position in the past three decades. Carter tends to oversell the behavior, on and off the field, of wide receivers as compelling, while underselling how much the inflated numbers of recent players owe to rule changes designed to make the game easier for pass catchers. He highlights the advent of celebrity entertainers such as his friends Michael Irvin, Keyshawn Johnson, and Deion Sanders, who are now also NFL broadcasters as a result of the unquenchable need for self-expression among troubled talents. VERDICT This book reflects the glory of self-promotion in the NFL but likely will be in demand by football fans due to the prominence of the author.

Dent, Jim. The Kids Got It Right: How the Texas All-Stars Kicked Down Racial Walls. Thomas Dunne: St. Martin’s. Aug. 2013. 304p. index. ISBN 9781250007858. $25.99; ebk. ISBN 9781250017895. SPORTS

Prolific and popular sportswriter Dent (The Junction Boys) relates the forgotten story of the 1965 Big 33 All-Star game between high schoolers representing Pennsylvania and Texas. The Texas squad was coached by legendary quarterback and raconteur Bobby Layne and represented an early attempt at integration in the racially segregated Lone Star State. Dent presents this game as a telling snapshot of Texas race relations and football in the 1960s. At the center of the narrative is the blooming friendship between white quarterback/safety “Super” Bill Bradley (the University of Texas’s top recruit) and black wide receiver Jerry LeVias (the first African American to be recruited by a Southwest Conference team, Southern Methodist University). The story is engagingly told despite Dent’s use of invented dialog that often comes across as stilted. A lengthy epilog brings the principals up to date through all the troubles their lives would later bring. VERDICT A warm and positive take on times of change that should appeal to football fans and broader readers.

OrangeReviewStar Touchdown! | Football Reviews, August 2013Easterbrook, Gregg. The King of Sports: Football’s Impact on America. Thomas Dunne: St. Martin’s. Sept. 2013. 368p. bibliog. index. ISBN 9781250011718. $25.99; ebk. ISBN 9781250011725. SPORTS

Journalist Easterbrook (The Leading Indicators; The Progress Paradox) may be best known for his “Tuesday Morning Quarterback” column at ESPN.com, where he mixes in many nonfootball–related opinions with distinctive football analysis. Here he addresses the overall impact of football on the nation and concludes that the sport he loves needs to reform, not just at the NFL and NCAA levels but also at the high school and peewee levels. Easterbrook’s main objections are how football corrupts education and government, how it exploits and then jettisons young athletes, and how debilitating is the physical cost it exacts from its players. His prescribed remedies include banning organized tackle football until eighth grade, lessening the year-round schedule for school football players, vacating public subsidies and tax breaks for big-time football, factoring graduation rates into college football rankings, and mandating the use of the safest helmets. VERDICT Easterbrook presents much to consider and discuss in his diagnosis and treatment plan, which should be of interest to a broad audience. [See Prepub Alert, 5/20/13.]

Freedman, Lew. Clouds over the Goalpost: Gambling, Assassination, and the NFL in 1963. Sports: Skyhorse. Sept. 2013. 320p. bibliog. ISBN 9781613213988. $24.95. SPORTS

Fifty years on, Freedman (The Fifty Greatest Players in Chicago Bears Football History) revisits the haunted 1963 NFL season, a surprising and compelling one in its own right. He looks at the teams, coaches, and players who made it special. As expected, he directs most of his attention to the Chicago Bears and their quest to dethrone the two-time-champion Packers. The hero of the book is 68-year-old George Halas, Bears team founder and league patriarch, driving his team to one last NFL title. Freedman also examines the gambling suspensions of the Packers’ Paul Hornung and the Lions’ Alex Karras, the mysterious heroin-overdose death of Eugene “Big Daddy” Lipscomb, who played with the Colts and the Steelers, and the curious decision by Commissioner Pete Rozelle to play all league games two days after JFK’s assassination. The American Football League is briefly noted. VERDICT Lovers of football history will enjoy this book although it breaks no new ground in retelling some familiar stories.

Gronkowski Family with Jeff Schober. Growing Up Gronk: A Family’s Story of Raising Champions. Houghton Harcourt. 2013. 224p. photos. ISBN 9780544126688. $25. SPORTS

Here we have the suffocatingly cloying life story of Gordy Gronkowski (founder, G&G Fitness Equipment) and his five enormous, athletic sons, three of whom have played in the NFL. The book, coauthored by Schober (Bike Path Rapist), includes a chapter on the father, who played football for Syracuse, and one on each son: Gordie, the former minor league baseball player; Dan, a tight end with four teams in three years, who caught nine passes; Chris, a fullback with three teams in three years, who caught eight passes; Glenn, an H-back at Kansas State; and Rob, an All-Pro tight end with the Patriots. Rob, of course, is the selling point of this family branding exercise. There are also chapters on weight training, mental toughness, and competition. VERDICT Reading this book is like being forced to sit through an annoying neighbor’s home movies. Not recommended.

Jackson, Nate. Slow Getting Up: A Story of NFL Survival from the Bottom of the Pile. Harper: HarperCollins. Sept. 2013. 256p. ISBN 9780062108029. $26.99; ebk. ISBN 9780062108043. $14.99. SPORTS

Periodically, one of pro football’s lumpen proletariat provides a perceptive insider’s view of the NFL from the end of the bench. The lesser-light author in this case is a former Broncos receiver who caught just 27 passes in his six-year NFL career from 2003 to 2009 while missing dozens of games because of yearly injuries. Jackson draws a sharp picture of the rough camaraderie of the NFL fraternity with lots of good behind-the-scenes stories involving both players and coaches. The language is coarse and crude, and the author spends too much time on private sexual habits of no relevance or interest, as well as on the dry diagnostic details of his injuries, but he also effectively portrays the adhesive hold such a physically punishing and mentally stressful sport exerts on its players. VERDICT A flawed but interesting look at the NFL life for adult fans.

Kiszla, Mark. No Plan B: Peyton Manning’s Comeback with the Denver Broncos. Taylor. Sept. 2013. 200p. ISBN 9781589798533. $22.95; ebk. ISBN 9781589798540. SPORTS

Veteran sportswriter Kiszla (Denver Post) spent last season covering 36-year-old future Hall of Fame quarterback Peyton Manning in his 2012 comeback season with his new team, the Broncos. While dutifully reporting the team’s game-by-game highlights and ultimate disastrous loss to the Ravens in the playoffs, the author primarily focuses on profiling Manning through a series of revealing prisms: his relationship with fellow competitor, Broncos GM John Elway, his comfortable interactions with easygoing coach John Fox, his long friendship with local baseball star Todd Helton, and his handling of the harsh realities of the salary-cap NFL, where even the biggest of stars are one misstep from being cut. The smoothly written book shows Manning as both a bossy, obsessive perfectionist and a likable, loyal, funny friend and teammate. VERDICT Manning is as popular as anyone in football, and this insightful piece of journalism will be of interest to all fans.

OrangeReviewStar Touchdown! | Football Reviews, August 2013Pomerantz, Gary M. Their Life’s Work: The Brotherhood of the 1970s Pittsburgh Steelers, Then and Now. S. & S. Oct. 2013. 480p. notes. bibliog. index. ISBN 9781451691627. $28; ebk. ISBN 9781451691641. SPORTS

Following the lead of Roger Kahn’s classic The Boys of Summer, author and journalist Pomerantz (visiting lecturer, communication, Stanford Univ.; Where Peachtree Meets Sweet Auburn) recounts the exploits of an iconic team from the past and revisits the players decades later to see how the years have treated these now middle-aged former sports heroes. He devotes the first half of the book to a discussion of how the 1970s Steeler championship teams were built and were able to rule the NFL. Then he profiles some of the stars today, as well as the team-founding Rooney family and former coach Chuck Noll. He pays special attention to the physical impact the game has had on the subsequent lives of those he interviews. Both parts are richly examined and the subjects movingly depicted, but Pomerantz limits his primary attention to just five players: Joe Greene, Terry Bradshaw, Franco Harris, John Stallworth, and Mike Webster. Readers will want the stories of more players, both stars and journeymen. VERDICT Pomerantz insightfully gets at why so many of these aging, damaged men would do it all again. For all sports fans.

OrangeReviewStar Touchdown! | Football Reviews, August 2013Ribowsky, Mark. The Last Cowboy: A Life of Tom Landry. Liveright: Norton. Nov. 2013. 640p. photos. notes. index. ISBN 9780871403339. $25.95. Sports

Tom Landry spent 40 years in professional football, most notably 29 years as the original coach of the oft-celebrated Dallas Cowboys. Landry was one of the most innovative and influential coaches in NFL history, essentially inventing his own offensive and defensive systems that spread throughout the league. Beginning as the defensive coach of the Giants in the 1950s, the cool technician from Texas was the polar opposite of that team’s volatile offensive coach, Vince Lombardi, who would be his chief rival in the 1960s. Although Ribowsky (Howard Cosell) is gratuitously snarky about Landry’s religious and political beliefs at times, he recounts Landry’s life honestly, avoiding both distortion and hagiography while portraying a stoic, flawed man of honor. The one failing of the book is that there is little about Landry’s family life during the time he was coaching. VERDICT Nonetheless, this is a triumph of extensive research and interviews. It will be welcomed by all football fans

OrangeReviewStar Touchdown! | Football Reviews, August 2013Roberts, Randy & Ed Krzemienski. Rising Tide: Bear Bryant, Joe Namath, and Dixie’s Last Quarter. Twelve: Hachette. Aug. 2013. 384p. notes. index. ISBN 9781455526338. $28; ebk. ISBN 9781455526345. SPORTS

Legendary hard-nosed University of Alabama football coach Bear Bryant and cocky Northern playboy quarterback Joe Namath seemed the oddest of odd couples in the early 1960s, but they forged a permanent personal relationship in Tuscaloosa. Although Bryant and Namath teamed up for some spectacular college football, they were doing so in the heart of the segregated South as disturbing events and villains surrounded them. That civil rights history is depicted here along with the football. Roberts (history, Purdue Univ.; A Team for America) and historian Krzemienski present a fine profile of Bryant and offer the best treatment of the pre-professional Namath yet printed. Although all three elements of this story—coach, player, and civil rights history—are exceedingly well researched and portrayed, the flaw is that the authors make no real connections among them. The revered, God-like Dixie football coach and the nonconformist Yankee big-man-on-campus quarterback formed a forceful bond, but they each stood above, apart from, and seemingly untouched by the ugly racial strife all around them. VERDICT The riveting depictions of Bryant and Namath will be of interest to all football fans, and the segregated South so vividly evoked here should never be forgotten.

Sheinin, David. RG3: The Promise. Blue Rider: Penguin Group (USA). Aug. 2013. 352p. ISBN 9780399165450. $26.95. SPORTS

Robert Griffin III grew up in a military family and seems to have absorbed all the positive qualities that such an environment can offer, valuing hard work, with discipline, poise, and dedication as his lodestars. As a rookie quarterback with the Redskins in 2012, he set new first-year marks for passer rating, interception percentage, and yards rushing by a quarterback. Still, Sheinin (sports reporter, Washington Post), who primarily covers baseball, paints Griffin, widely known by the nickname RG3, almost as a tragic figure owing to the nature of his playing style, the team’s play selection tendencies, and the brutal nature of the sport. Sheinin comes across as deeply disturbed by the inherent violence of football and posits that, given the injuries RG3 has suffered and those inevitably to come, we may have already seen the best of this celebrated player. VERDICT In his rookie year, RG3 had the highest-selling NFL jersey. This thorough biography will likewise be sought out by football fans everywhere.

Smith, Dean Bartoli. Never Easy, Never Pretty: A Fan, a City, a Championship Season. Temple Univ. Aug. 2013. 224p. photos. notes. ISBN 9781439911068. $24.50. Sports

As the subtitle indicates, this book is a fan’s memoir, the view of a championship season from outside the team but from within the once-rejected team city, Baltimore, formerly home to the Colts, now the home of the Ravens. Smith (director, Project MUSE, Johns Hopkins Univ.), a Baltimore sportswriter and poet, was born and raised a Colts fan. Here he recounts the Ravens’ championship 2012 season in light of his personal background and the history of pro football in the intimate small market of “Charm City.” Smith gives particular emphasis to the seamless transfer of his city’s loyalties from the formerly beloved Colts, who abandoned the town in 1984 for Indianapolis, to the Ravens, the former Cleveland Browns franchise that abandoned that city in 1996. Two Super Bowl titles and some iconic star players smoothed the transition. VERDICT This is heartfelt writing, but the appeal will largely be limited to the Maryland region.

Sports Illustrated Green Bay Packers: Green, Gold, and Glory. Sports Illustrated. 2013. 176p. ed. by Bill Syken. photos. ISBN 9781618930385. $34.95. SPORTS

The Green Bay Packers are one of a handful of NFL teams that enjoy a truly national following. It is not surprising that Sports Illustrated is mining its impressive text and photo archives to produce its version of an illustrated team history. In addition to sections on the 33 best players and a dozen title games, the book recycles five memorable articles from the magazine: on the town itself, on the Packers’ Depression-era Runyanesque player Johnny “Blood” McNally, on the return of Bart Starr as a coach, on the coming of Brett Favre, and on the 2011 Super Bowl win. The mostly color photographs are artfully selected and reproduced to invite happy reverie for Packer fans. However, the 20-page section of photographs of decked-out fans at Lambeau Field is space that could have been better inhabited by more team coverage. VERDICT This will be of interest to Packer fans everywhere.

Surdam, David George. Run to Glory and Profits: The Economic Rise of the NFL During the 1950s. Univ. of Nebraska. Oct. 2013. 448p. notes. bibliog. index. ISBN 9780803246966. $55. Sports

It’s commonly understood that professional football overtook major league baseball as the most popular sport in the United States in the 1960s. Surdam (economics, Univ. of Northern Iowa; Wins, Losses, and Empty Seats: How Baseball Outlasted the Great Depression) details how the foundation of that rapid growth was laid in the post–World War II period under the savvy leadership of NFL commissioner Bert Bell. While subsequent commissioner Pete Rozelle is deservedly praised for his stewardship of the league from 1960 on, Bell skillfully navigated congressional inquiries and competitor leagues to champion the three R’s—the reserve clause, revenue sharing, and the reverse-order player draft—that helped the league to prosper in the 1950s. VERDICT Surdam exhibits wit and a light touch in this vital economic exploration of pro football. It will be welcomed by sports historians and those who study the business of sports.

Toone, Trent. No Excuses, No Regrets: The Eric Weddle Story. Shadow Mountain. 2013. 320p. bibliog. index. ISBN 9781609073954. $25.99. SPORTS

The San Diego Chargers’ safety Eric Weddle is something of a throwback player; this mundane biography is also a throwback to 1960s gee-whiz hero worship. Journalist Toone (Deseret News) writes of being so excited when Weddle first texted him that he proudly showed the text around the newsroom. His biography hits all the familiar notes: the athlete courting the unattainable girl, the religious angle (Weddle converted to Mormonism), and the spur of being undersized and underappreciated. It takes 85 pages before Weddle gets to college at the University of Utah and 185 pages until he reaches the pros. And this is for a good, but not great, player for a perennially disappointing franchise. VERDICT There is little of interest to football fans here; perhaps of interest to Mormon readers.

Wright, Bart. Football Revolution: The Rise of the Spread Offense and How It Transformed College Football. Univ. of Nebraska. Oct. 2013. 256p. notes. ISBN 9780803271913. pap. $19.95. SPORTS

Currently, the most popular offense in college football is the spread, which features an up-tempo pace, four or five receivers on each play, and much more passing than running. Wright (sports editor, Greenville News) traces the origins of the spread to high school football in Washington State in the 1940s, asserting that it is in clear contrast to Dutch Meyer’s spread offense at Texas Christian University (TCU) in the 1930s. On the ensuing journey to the present, the reader is introduced to a dizzying array of coaches, high schools, and colleges. While this is a fascinating story, the author’s tendency to jump back and forth in time and from place to place can be confusing, especially since all these coaches seemed to change jobs frequently. Also, an examination of the evolution of tactics would be made clearer by illustrations of formations and key plays. VERDICT Of interest primarily to football coaches.

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Comments

  1. Karl Helicher says:

    Very comprehensive roundup! Congratulations, John! At this point, here in Pennsylvania, with the troubled events at Penn State and nearby Rutgers, I would rather read about football than watch it.

  2. Sharon Cerasoli says:

    Great list, thanks! I am printing off and will request that our library purchase some of these…especially intrigued by the first title, and the Jerry Barca book about ND…

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