Gridiron Legacies: This Season’s Football Picks

The latest football titles reflect a little of everything from the gridiron: iconic quarterbacks such as Brett Favre and Peyton Manning, racial pioneers in Texas and the NFL, great teams such as the 1986 Giants, terrible teams such as the 1976 Bucs, the sledgehammer decade of the 1970s in professional football, and the evolution of passing game strategy. There is much to be gleaned, both fun and serious, from these ten titles.

Anderson, Lars. The Mannings: The Fall and Rise of a Football Family. Ballantine. Aug. 2016. 368p. notes. index. ISBN . $28; ebk. ISBN 9781101883846. SPORTS

Archie Manning was a legendary quarterback at the themannings.jpg72016University of Mississippi who spent 16 years on unsuccessful teams in the NFL. He raised three sons including Cooper, whose football career ended with an injury in high school, and two Super Bowl–winning quarterbacks: Peyton and Eli. Peyton, a future Hall of Famer, has been the subject of many books, but the only biography of the family was John Underwood’s Manning, which largely consisted of first-person accounts by Archie and Peyton. Here, Anderson (The Storm and the Tide) stresses family life and places emphasis on the mantra of Archie and even his father—be a nice person. The first half of this book deals with Archie’s life and playing career, although comparatively little is included about his woeful time as a pro. Later chapters detail the upbringing of Archie’s sons. Football heroics are the connecting thread but not the main point, as the book tries to depict the distinct personalities of each of the Mannings. VERDICT An expertly written impressionistic account of the first family of football that will be of wide interest.

Atwood, Gretchen. Lost Champions: Four Men, Two Teams, and the Breaking of Pro Football’s Color Line. Bloomsbury. Sept. 2016. 288p. notes. index. ISBN 9781620406007. $27. SPORTS

While 1946 is famous as the year Jackie Robinson integrated Major League Baseball, it is also the year that professional football reintegrated after a 12-year ban on black players. Four players were the gridiron pioneers: Kenny Washington and Woody Strode for the Los Angeles Rams, and Bill Willis and Marion Motley for the fledgling Cleveland Browns of the new All-America Football (AFL) Conference. In 1950, the Browns and the Rams competed for the NFL championship. Although both Washington and Strode were gone by then, former sportswriter Atwood uses the play-by-play of that game as a touchstone. Where the author runs astray is in providing context to the ordeal of the four men. She does not tell the story chronologically, but with wavering success, trying to weave vastly disparate threads into a whole. While background about the four principals and their teams is excellent, equal coverage of Willis and Motley would have been a welcome addition. VERDICT There is enough powerful material here to recommend this title to all football fans, although a stronger focused narrative would have heightened the appeal.

Barca, Jerry. Big Blue Wrecking Crew: Smashmouth Football, a Little Bit of Crazy, and the 86 Super Bowl Champion New York Giants. St. Martin’s. Aug. 2016. 320p. bibliog. ISBN 9781250071538. $26.99; ebk. ISBN 9781466882676. SPORTS

The New York Giants under Hall of Fame Coach Bill Parcells were one of the best and most colorful teams in the NFL throughout the 1980s, the epitome of physical “smashmouth football” on the field and hard-living off. After they won their first Super Bowl following the 1986 season, six books about the team were soon published. Now, 30 years later, Barca (Unbeatable) draws on those early works and on his recently conducted interviews with several principals to provide the benefit of a broader perspective on how the team was built. Barca begins with the franchise’s low point in 1978, a bizarre loss to division rival Philadelphia that Eagles fans still referred to as the Miracle of the Meadowlands, but Giants’ fans mourn as The Fumble. That culmination of 15 years of lousy football led to a league-mediated reorganization of the front office between squabbling co-owners, who happened to be uncle and nephew. New general manager George Young rebuilt the organization into one that remains well-run today, two generations later. The book concludes with a focus on the 1986 season and its aftermath. VERDICT An entertaining look back at a popular team from three decades ago. Any football fan will enjoy this book.

Gwynne, S.C. The Perfect Pass: American Genius and the Reinvention of Football. Scribner. Sept. 2016. 304p. illus. ISBN 9781501116193. $27; ebk. ISBN 9781501116216. SPORTS

This book by Pulitzer Prize finalist Gwynne (Empire of the Summer Moon) is not only about the evolution of football strategy, particularly in the passing game, it also illuminates the challenges and rigors of college football coaching and its effect on family life. The story is told through the experiences of itinerant football coach Hal Mumme, who rose from high school assistant coach in Texas to head coach of University of Kentucky in the vaunted Southeastern Conference to his current position as head coach of Belhaven University after four tumultuous years in Lexington. Mumme, along with his chief assistant Mike Leach who has forged his own nomadic college coaching career, developed the Air Raid offense that is prominent in the present game. Mumme’s simple, fast-paced, pass-oriented attack draws inspirations from plays such as the run and shoot offense, the single-back offense, and legendary football coach Bill Walsh’s West Coast offense. Diagrams make the technical ­aspects clear and understandable. Despite his innovative role in the sport, Mumme now languishes in the lower depths of NAIA (National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics) football, a prophet without honor in his own country. VERDICT This interesting amalgamation of football strategy and biography will interest all fans of the sport.

Miller, Jeff. The Game Changers: Abner Haynes, Leon King, and the Fall of Major College Football’s Color Barrier in Texas. Skyhorse. Oct. 2016. 256p. bibliog. ISBN 9781613219379. $24.99; ebk. ISBN 9781613219423. SPORTS

The story of integrating Texas college football usually centers on Southern Methodist University’s Jerry LeVias and a few other stalwart pioneers in the mid-1960s. Actually, the first Texas state college to employ black players was North Texas State a decade earlier. In September 1956, prospective freshmen Abner Haynes and Leon King tried out for the North Texas team. Perhaps the most surprising part of the story is that when the two arrived for practice, three white players walked across the field to shake hands and welcome them to the team. While not all teammates and not many opponents were as enlightened, overall, the integration process occurred with little drama owing to both players and coaches who forged lifelong bonds of friendship. Sportswriter Miller (Going Long) relates that story here and contextualizes it by detailing the overall integration of the college itself, as well as the experiences of the more famous football desegregationists of the 1960s at the larger schools in the Southwest Conference. VERDICT Bolstered by the vivid memories of the principals, this moving account provides a fresh view of turbulent times in the past.

redstarPearlman, Jeff. Gunslinger: The Remarkable, Improbable, Iconic Life of Brett Favre. Houghton Harcourt. Oct. 2016. 448p. notes. bibliog. index. ISBN 9780544454378. $28; ebk. ISBN 9780544453678. SPORTS

gunslinger.jpg72816Here, best-selling author Pearlman (Sweetness: The Enigmatic Life of Walter Payton) takes on perhaps the most celebrated football player of the last 25 years: Brett Favre. The record-setting quarterback, who spent the majority of his career with the Green Bay Packers, was tough as nails on the field, but his giant talent was hampered by a tendency to make bad decisions and costly mistakes at key moments. The author, who interviewed more than 500 sources for this biography, demonstrates how Favre regularly undermined himself and his family with problems of addiction and serial infidelity, all of which was kept out of the press until his final years when he was implicated in an embarrassing ­sexting scandal. VERDICT Presenting Favre as a congenial, larger-than-life character, a “gunslinger,” who was fun to watch on the field and hard to root against, Pearlman proves to be a good match for his subject and creates a compelling work.

Price, S.L. Playing Through the Whistle: Steel, Football, and an American Town. Atlantic Monthly. Sept. 2016. 400p. notes. index. ISBN 9780802125644. $27; ebk. ISBN 9780802190093. SPORTS

Price (Pitching Around Fidel) is best known for his work as a writer for Sports Illustrated. In this book, he conveys the history of an immigrant steel town though its changing demographics and a high school football team that has produced such future stars as Mike Ditka, Ty Law, and Darrelle Revis. The author begins with a long, detailed record of the origins of the local steel industry and its conflicting dynamic with organized labor. Once reaching the postwar era, the lives of numerous players and coaches are chronicled, with increasing racial tensions as a backdrop. From the late 1960s onward, the beginnings of the steel industry’s decline exacerbated the region’s many manifestations of societal dysfunction: drugs, gangs, violence, and corruption. Still, the football team stands as the one source of pride for a town that has been slowly dying for decades. VERDICT While this book is impressively researched and organized, it can be an exhausting read.

Trask, Amy with Michael Freeman. You Negotiate Like a Girl: Reflections on a Career in the National Football League. Triumph. Sept. 2016. 240p. ISBN 9781629371870. $25.95. SPORTS

Trask first worked for the Oakland Raiders as an intern in 1982. By 1997, she was the team’s CEO, the first woman CEO in league history. Although this account describes her experience in a male-dominated field, Trask does not complain about the challenges she faced while working for the Raiders, instead listing the positive steps for change she implemented. She is extremely discrete, whether discussing instances of perceived sexism by league officials or incompetence in team matters; she does not name names. This title is primarily about Trask’s relationship with controversial and irascible Raiders’ owner Al Davis, her boss for more than 25 years in a contentious atmosphere of mutual respect, along with team management issues, including limited anecdotes regarding on-field highlights or player-coach interactions. Trask resigned from her position after Davis’s death. He was succeeded by his son Mark, but Mark’s name does not appear in the narrative even once, in another display of caution. VERDICT A solid work that presents a unique view of Davis, one of the most important figures in NFL history, as well as Trask’s pioneering achievement.

Vuic, Jason. The Yucks: Two Years in Tampa with the Losingest Team in NFL History. S & S. Aug. 2016. 256p. notes. ISBN 9781476772264. $26; ebk. ISBN 9781476772288. SPORTS

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers joined the NFL as an expansion franchise in 1976, and proceeded to lose 26 games during their first two seasons. The bumbling Bucs, or “Yucks,” became a national joke and were a regular part of Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show monolog. Coach John McKay added to Tampa’s notoriety with his wickedly sarcastic comments on his team’s performance. Part of the team’s ineptitude was a result of the paltry method the NFL devised for stocking the new team with players, but part of it was the Bucs’ determination to go with youth over veterans whenever possible. That hard path eventually led to a division title, but the team could not maintain its good fortune and still has the worst all-time winning percentage of any NFL franchise. Vuic (The Yugo) grew up in Tampa and returns to the team of his youth to account for its putrid beginnings through interviews and historical research. VERDICT The maladroit origins of these lovable losers is given a light touch in this delightful tale of interest to all sports enthusiasts.

Zagorski, Joe. The NFL in the 1970s: Pro Football’s Most Important Decade. McFarland. Jun. 2016. 444p. photos. bibliog. index. ISBN 9780786497904. pap. $45. SPORTS

Sportswriter Zagorski considers the 1970s to be the greatest decade in professional football history, making his case in this chronological account of the period. Devoting a chapter to each year, the author describes trends, rule changes, uniform variations, new stadiums, strategic evolutions, union activities, player transactions, coaching changes, on-field controversies, and individual achievements. His primary focus is recounting the most important games in each season’s divisional races, and each chapter culminates with a look at that year’s playoff games. The book is very dense with information, yet the seasonal narratives flow nicely. This definitive work could almost be considered a reference book. The extensive bibliography is accompanied by a bibliographic essay for each chapter. VERDICT An ideal resource for football historians as well as casual fans seeking to get a sense of a phenomenal decade in NFL history.

John Maxymuk is Head of Public Services, 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)

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