The emphasis in the majority of this fall’s latest titles is on storytelling, whether of key personalities or of whole teams. Themes running through the books reviewed below include the effects of the game, both positive and negative, on individuals, schools, and communities—effects that may be physical or emotional but are always deeply felt.
Almond, Steve. Against Football: One Fan’s Reluctant Manifesto. Melville House. Sept. 2014. 192p. ISBN 9781612194158. $22.95; ebk. ISBN 9781612194165. SPORTS
Almond’s (Candy Freak) problem is that he likes to watch football but feels that it fosters greed, racism, homophobia, and violence; it makes him feel ethically dirty. The reader’s problem is that the author is so wildly over the top that legitimate issues raised, such as concerns about player health and safety and the corruption of corporate welfare for owners, are lost in extreme rhetoric. Almond regards football as a sacrificial rite symptomatic of our imperial decadence that indoctrinates Americans to be more angry and cruel and less able to overcome our racial neuroses, lust for violence, yearning for patriarchal dominion, and sexual hang-ups. As contrition for the author’s guilty pleasure, he appears to want each fan to don a hair jersey and suffer with him. VERDICT This diatribe will appeal most to those who hate sports.
Anderson, Lars. The Storm and the Tide: Tragedy, Hope and Triumph in Tuscaloosa. Sports Illustrated. Aug. 2014. 240p. ISBN 9781618930972. $25.95; ebk. ISBN 9781618939586. SPORTS
The book opens with the April 2011 tornado that struck Tuscaloosa, AL, taking the lives of 53 people. Included amongst the dead were six University of Alabama students, a couple of whom had close ties to the Tide’s football team. Anderson (Carlisle vs. Army) perceptively examines how the devastated town and surrounding area forged a symbiotic relationship with the team to draw inspiration and sustenance from one another as Alabama rolled to national championships in both that year and the next. The book abounds with in-depth profiles of players, students, fans, and grieving parents. Most notable is the surprisingly favorable picture that emerges of Coach Nick Saban, a figure usually depicted as a gloomy, deceitful automaton, but one who took a leading role in turning the tragedy into a rallying point for all. VERDICT Should be of wide interest to nearly all readers.
Briles, Art & Don Yaeger. Beating Goliath: My Story of Football and Faith. St. Martin’s. 2014. 272p. ISBN 9781250057778. $26.99; ebk. ISBN 9781466861305. SPORTS
After attaining success coaching high school football in Texas, Briles moved on to create winning teams at the University of Houston and Baylor University. In resuscitating those flagging programs, he has relied on the spread offense to level the playing field in competing with bigger schools. Prominent NFL quarterback Robert Griffin III is his most famous pupil and brought Briles national attention. The tone of this autobiography is folksy, with the narrator professing, “I’ll let so and so explain,” before quoting one of Briles’s confidantes talking about the coach. The best parts of this work are when the author describes what makes his program different. In particular, he uses no playbook, rejects pregame stretching, and eschews overcoaching at practice. VERDICT Primarily of interest to college football fans and followers of Texas sports.
Cohen, Robert W. The 50 Greatest Players in New York Giants Football History. Rowman & Littlefield. Aug. 2014. 368p. photos. notes. ISBN 9781442236318. $45; ebk. ISBN 9781442236325. SPORTS
The New York Giants have a rich 89-year history in which they have appeared in 19 title games and won eight championships, including four Super Bowls; thus, they are ripe for a rendering of their 50 greatest players across all positions. The main problems with ranking football players are the lack of meaningful statistics and the indivisible interdependence of the 11 men on the field; unlike baseball, in football it is very hard to determine how much of a team’s success is dependent on any one player. Sports historian Cohen bases his rankings on statistical leaders, honors awarded, and his judgment regarding how much the player contributed to the team’s success. Each entry provides a biography of the player that highlights his best season and greatest performances. The book is excellent tinder for discussion as is intended. The author rounds out the book with an honorable mention section of the next best 25 Giants. VERDICT Of interest to Giants fans everywhere.
Crepeau, Richard C. NFL Football: A History of America’s New National Pastime. Univ. of Illinois. Sept. 2014. 272p. illus. notes. bibliog. index. ISBN 9780252080203. pap. $19.95; ebk. ISBN 9780252096532. SPORTS
This overview history of the NFL lacks the richness of Michael MacCambridge’s America’s Game and the distinct approach of Michael Oriard’s Brand NFL but aims to synthesize the work of historians, economists, and sociologists to retell the story of the league. Crepeau (history, Univ. of Central Florida) focuses on such real-world aspects as finances, legal issues, marketing, media relations, labor conflicts, player health, racial divides, political influence, corruption, and overall societal impact. Half of the book is devoted to the Pete Rozelle years (1960–88), a time of both growing popularity and turbulence for the new American pastime. The first quarter of the work covers the pre-1960 NFL and the last quarter details the most recent 25 years. The volume concludes with a look at the Super Bowl: the excess, the hype, and its centrality to American society. VERDICT A solid resource for researchers and historians but too academic for the general public.
Edmundson, Mark. Why Football Matters: My Education in the Game. Penguin Pr. Sept. 2014. 229p. ISBN 9781594205750. $26.95; ebk. ISBN 9781101635728. SPORTS
Cultural critic Edmundson largely attributes his teenage transformation from a doughy dreamer to a disciplined man of serious thought to his stint as a high school football team benchwarmer. Here, the author reflects on the qualities that are often said to be taught by football—including character, courage, pride, toughness, loyalty and resilience—in a balanced analysis of their impact. Drawing on both his own experiences and the writings of such poets and thinkers as Homer and William Shakespeare, Edmundson comes to view each quality as a double-edged sword, especially when taken to extremes. In short, the game to him is both a poison and an elixir. While at times Edmundson seems to be overreaching, this work is a wide-ranging and insightful meditation on what football means in American culture. VERDICT Beautifully written and impressively thought out, this smart memoir should appeal to a wide audience.
Gitlin, Martin. The Greatest College Football Rivalries of All Time: The Civil War, the Iron Bowl, and Other Memorable Matchups. Rowman & Littlefield. Aug. 2014. 360p. photos. notes. bibliog. ISBN 9781442229839. $40; ebk. ISBN 9781442229846. SPORTS
The 14 intense college rivalries in this book fall into three categories: in-state, such as the University of Alabama vs. Auburn University; interstate, such as Ohio State University vs. the University of Michigan; and nongeographic anomalies—think Army-Navy for example. Sportswriter Gitlin often begins a chapter with a key moment from a pivotal game in the series and expands from there to provide an overview of the entire run of the rivalry. He notes significant athletes, the progression of head coaches, the highs and lows of the programs, and the swings of dominance in the sequence of games. No college is featured here more than once, so some outstanding rivalries are excluded, such as the University of Florida vs. Florida State University, but it is a solid selection. VERDICT Well executed and featuring an engaging topic, this book should be of interest to all college football fans.
Herzlich, Mark with Alex Tresniowski. What It Takes: Fighting for My Life and My Love of the Game. NAL: Penguin. 2014. 288p. ISBN 9780451468796. $26.95; ebk. ISBN 9780698151130. SPORTS
Herzlich was a promising college linebacker who nearly died from bone cancer but fought back to claim eventually a starting position with the New York Giants. While the author clearly loves the game, this book is more about facing a life-or-death obstacle and fighting it. Herzlich emphasizes that the fight is the victory, no matter what the outcome, and urges readers to have hope, fight hard, be a warrior, and believe in themselves. VERDICT This well-written, inspirational story will find popularity with a general audience.
Nichols, Greg. Striking Gridiron: A Town’s Pride and a Team’s Shot at Glory During the Biggest Strike in American History. Thomas Dunne: St. Martin’s. Sept. 2014. 288p. ISBN 9781250039859. $25.99; ebk. ISBN 9781466835344. SPORTS
Against the backdrop of the longest steel strike in history, the multiracial Braddock High School football team attains what is believed to be the longest unbeaten streak in the nation. This current work of narrative nonfiction re-creates scenes and dialog from participants’ memories to retell the tale (the basics of which were originally featured in a Sports Illustrated piece called “A Town and Its Team” in 1959). The characters are well developed, especially head coach Chuck Klausing, who later coached in the college ranks, and the book teems with game action and local color. Ultimately, the unbeaten team makes out better than the ill-fated strikers. Although high school football could pull the town together during that trying time, it could not prevent the inevitable decline of another rust-belt industrialized area. VERDICT Nichols offers a nice bit of Americana with dark undertones; the story speaks to all readers.
Weinreb, Michael. Season of Saturdays: A History of College Football in 14 Games. Scribner. Aug. 2014. 272p. bibliog. index. ISBN 9781451627817. $25; ebk. ISBN 9781451627848. SPORTS
Weinreb, a Pennsylvania State alumnus and passionate fan, was driven to write this idiosyncratic history of college football when he confronted his athletic loyalties in light of the Pennsylvania State child-sex-abuse scandal and other prominent examples of corruption in the sport. The 14 games of the title jump from 1869 to 1913 and then to 1962 on; the gaps reveal that the book is not about these particular matches or a rigidly chronological rendering of the past. Instead, the author uses the selected games as symbols and discussion points of key elements of the sport. In addition to covering essential topics such as the origins of the college game and the adoption of the forward pass, Weinreb also addresses other items including overly passionate coaches, Southern football as religion, tie games, and improbable upsets. Despite the frequent conflict between money-making football and academic mission, Weinreb defends college football’s existence for its spontaneity, tameless nature, and ability to bond an academic community across generations. VERDICT Entertainingly written for the college football fan.
Willis, Chris. A Nearly Perfect Season: The Inside Story of the 1984 San Francisco 49ers. Rowman & Littlefield. Aug. 2014. 368p. bibliog. ISBN 9781442236417. $45; ebk. ISBN 9781442236424. SPORTS
The 1984 San Francisco 49ers are something of a neglected team among great teams, despite being the first club to win 15 regular-season games and 18 games overall; there is much more written about the 15-1 Super Bowl champion 1985 Bears, for example. However, the 49ers had a deeper roster that featured superstars Joe Montana and Ronnie Lott and groundbreaking coach Bill Walsh, and decimated a much better opponent in the Super Bowl than that fearsome Bears’ team did. Drawn from extensive interviews with more than 40 players, as well as original broadcast tapes and Walsh’s recorded comments from player meetings, this book details how the team was constructed and clarifies what the coaches were thinking from the preseason to the postseason. Game by game, Willis (head of research library, NFL Films; Old Leather) examines game plans, observes strategic personnel moves, and depicts the emotional fluctuations of the season with a flowing narrative that is enlivened by piquant quotations from the team’s animated personalities. While the author’s previous books all dealt with pre–World War II football, he shows an adept familiarity with the modern game in this thoroughly enjoyable retelling of the 1984 49ers. VERDICT The best football book of the year will be enjoyed by all football fans.
John Maxymuk is Head of Public Services at Rutgers University’s Paul Robeson Library, Camden, NJ. He is a longtime sports reviewer for LJ and the author of NFL Head Coaches: A Biographical Dictionary, 1920–2011 (McFarland, 2012)