The Holiday Book Section
Lots of good selections out there this year, and I've highlighted nine of them here that I think will be appealing to real football fans. I've asked a future journalism star and pride of Montclair High's class of 2009, Emily Kaplan, with some guidance from me, to pick out short passages from each book so you'll get a flavor of what they're about. (Memo to deans of journalism schools across the United States: If you see an application in the file from Emily Kaplan, Montclair, N.J., she has my unstinting seal of approval. This kid has a chance to be really good.)
Not to prejudice you before you go out to buy, but I think three of these books are particularly noteworthy. Warrick Dunn's features a hair-raising trip to see the man accused of murdering his mother, on death row in Louisiana. Sal Paolantonio's about the roots of football is such a strong and, at times, riveting, living-history portrait that it's already in its third printing in three months; I love the excerpt here, linking Richard Nixon and Vince Lombardi. And I feel terrible that I haven't written more about Stefan Fatsis' effort in NFL training camp with the Denver Broncos. A Few Seconds of Panic is a must-read if you want to know what being inside a team is really like.
Here are the short excerpts of my holiday recommendations, beginning with one about the Ohio State-Michigan rivalry:
War As They Knew It, by Michael Rosenberg (Grand Central Publishing, $26.99).
"Former Ohio State captain Dave Whitfield had just come back from military service -- in Germany, not Vietnam, because the war was winding down. Now he was back at the site of his greatest days: the Ohio State locker room. Woody Hayes had asked him to give the Buckeyes a pregame talk. Hayes had reason to be nervous. His team, though extremely talented, was young and a four-point underdog to That School Up North. If the Buckeyes lost, Hayes would be an unthinkable 1-3 against Schembechler heading into next year's game in Ann Arbor. Earlier that week, Hayes looked out from his practice field -- way out, across a four-lane highway and up to a window on the tenth floor of the Fawcett Center for Tomorrow and he saw... a spy? Could it be? Hayes took no chances. He called the campus police. The cops arrived on the scene to find a Michigan fan filming Ohio State practice with a telephoto lens.
"Whitfield was searching for the right words to describe the intensity of this rivalry. He kept thinking of his last game, when he thought the Buckeyes were too cocky and they lost, 25-12 in Ann Arbor. At the end of his speech, he said, 'This is not a game... This is war.' Young Archie Griffin thought he understood the rivalry -- he had grown up in Columbus. But as Whitfield spoke, Griffin looked around the room and saw that his teammates had tears in their eyes. Then he looked at Whitfield and saw that he, too, had tears in his eyes."
How Football Explains America, by Sal Paolantonio (Triumph Books, $24.95).
"On the surface, it appeared that [Richard] Nixon and [Vince] Lombardi were, indeed, one and the same. Both worried that the counterculture movement was unraveling core Middle American values. In 1968, the Milwaukee Sentinel, in an editorial, said out loud what a lot of people had been thinking: that Lombardi should run for public office. 'He is articulate in matters of national concern,' the newspaper said.
"Indeed, in 1968, Nixon dispatched the man who would later become his attorney general, John Mitchell, to investigate the possibility of Lombardi being his running mate in 1968. But the Nixon campaign was disappointed Mitchell found that Lombardi, like many urban Catholics from the Northeast, was a Democrat. His parents voted for Franklin Roosevelt. In 1960, he voted for John F. Kennedy, whose love for football was well documented (all of America had seen the black-and-white photos of the Kennedy clan playing touch football at the family compound on Cape Cod). Shortly after taking office, Kennedy met Lombardi at a football banquet in New York. They hit it off and kept in touch, and when Kennedy was assassinated three years later, Lombardi joined a group of celebrities demanding stricter gun control laws."
Running for My Life: My Journey in the Game of Football and Beyond, by Warrick Dunn, with Don Yaeger (Harper Collins, $25.95).
"On going to meet his mother's murderer, who denied to Dunn's face that he killed her:
"Before I went to Angola, I spent hours in conversation with my Atlanta counselor, Pauline Clance. She believed it was a good idea, a positive move, because she clearly understood that there were some things in my life that I would never get over until I sat across the table from him.
"... I found myself in a small break room on Death Row at Angola State Prison, eye to eye with Kevan Brumfield. The days and nights leading up to the visit were somewhat unsettling. I tried not to let it dominate my mind, even pretending the meeting wasn't happening. I went to the movies. I slept a lot. I started gathering my thoughts and talking to my brothers and sisters, compiling questions they wanted me to ask. The weekend prior to the trip was difficult because we also lost to the New Orleans Saints on that Sunday. It was our third consecutive defeat and the sixth in our first seven games. Drained and tired, I actually just wanted to relax and enjoy the [bye week] off. It was really my first break since the start of the 2007 season.
"... Tears started to well in my eyes when I realized that I was laying it all out on the line for the guy who killed my mom. As I looked around the room, I realized everyone else in the room had tears in their eyes, too -- Brumfield included. I took thirty seconds, paused, collected my thoughts, and finally looked at him and told him: 'If you didn't do it, I don't know why you are here today, but I know why I am here today. I am here to forgive somebody. I am here because it has been fourteen years and it's time for me to move on. I was searching for answers. I've been going to counseling. I've started smiling. I've started laughing. I even had my first drink two years ago during a fun moment. It is time for me to forgive and move on.'"
The Birth of the New NFL: How the 1966 NFL/AFL Merger Transformed Pro Football, by Larry Felser (Lyons Press, $14.95).
"By the end of the 1962 season, it appeared the Raiders would either relocate, probably to New Orleans, or close down operations. Instead, Wayne Valley, the managing partner, convinced his board of directors to give it another year, mainly because the team had received a $400,000 infusion of cash from Ralph Wilson, owner of the Bills, in exchange for 25 percent of the team. Wilson later said, "I knew it was against the constitution, but the league would have folded. I did it for the sake of the league."
"The Raiders then got an infusion of professionalism by hiring [Al] Davis as head coach and general manager. He had been recommended by [Sid] Gillman. One of the first moves Davis made was to trade for Art Powell of the New York Titans, a big, fast enormously talented receiver who had previously worn out his welcome in one year as a Philadelphia Eagle. It took him three years in New York to become a dispensable asset. The trade with the Titans came about because Davis was not afraid to take big risks. ... Davis made other risky moves, and they were what made the 1-13 Raiders of 1962 into the 10-4 Raiders in his first season as a head coach."
The Genius: How Bill Walsh Reinvented Football and Created an NFL Dynasty, by David Harris (Random House, $26).
"Walsh's decision to use four of his first five draft picks [in 1981] on defensive backs was well off the NFL's beaten path and by itself would have secured his reputation as 'different.' Most teams would have picked one or two and gone on to other positions. But the move that proved truly remarkable was what Walsh then did with his draft picks when they got to training camp. [Ronnie] Lott, [Eric] Wright, and [Carlton] Williamson were almost immediately installed as starters alongside Dwight Hicks. 'All these players had been in successful college programs,' he later explained. 'They were accustomed to playing pressure games before huge crowds, so they would have a better chance of adapting to NFL football.' Still, the move was nothing if not audacious. The San Francisco Forty-Niners would start the season with a defensive backfield composed of one two-year veteran and three rookies, two of whom were playing positions they had never played in college. It was an arrangement that conventional football wisdom considered a recipe for short-term disaster at the very least.
"And pulling off a miracle under those circumstances would make the miracle even more so."
The Best Game Ever: Giants vs. Colts, 1958, and the Birth of the Modern NFL, by Mark Bowden (Atlantic Monthly Press, $23).
"The Colts' head coach, Weeb Ewbank, loosened his vocal chords and gave the motivational speech of his life. 'Nobody knows you guys, and we're in a good place to get known, New York City, so we're going to have to win this game,' he told his players. He pulled out some handwritten notes from his pocket. 'Nobody wanted you guys,' he said. Then he went around the locker room, singling out most of the starting players.
"To John Unitas: 'Pittsburgh didn't want you but we picked you off the sandlots.' To Milt Davis, 'Detroit didn't want you, but I'm glad we got you.' Most of his players had been cut or rejected somewhere along the line, and Weeb cited every slight. To Big Daddy Lipscomb: 'The Rams didn't want you. We picked you up for the one hundred dollar waiver price. You have come a long way. When you start rushing the passer more you will become one of the greatest tackles the game has ever seen.'
"To Raymond Berry: 'Nobody wanted you in the draft. You are a self-made end.' To Lenny Moore: 'You can be as good as you want to be. That's what they said when we drafted you, but the idea was presented we might have a hard time getting you to practice.' To Gino Marchetti: 'In ten years of pro coaching, you are the finest end I have ever seen. They said you are the greatest end in the league and that you just couldn't get any better, but you continue to get better every week and you will today.'
"The coach also talked about himself. He noted that he had not been the Colts' first choice for the head coaching job when they had gone looking in 1954, and they all knew how close he and his staff had come to being fired after the 1955 season. The message was, they were a team of self-made men, playing against the glamour boys of the NFL, the only team that had beaten them in a game that mattered that season."
A Few Seconds of Panic: A 5-Foot-8, 170-Pound, 43-Year-Old Sportswriter Plays in the NFL, by Stefan Fatsis (Penguin Press, $25.95).
"In Mike Shanahan's finely calibrated world, every second of every day has a purpose. During training camp, he arrives at 5 a.m., exercises, watches film, and leads an 8 a.m. meeting of the coaching staff. Shanahan knows that the succession of two-a-days is brutal. It is intended to be. But after thirty years as a coach, he has a sixth sense for when to pull back, when to toss a bone. 'When you're younger, you're so into wanting to have a good practice that you forget you're getting ready for the games,' he tells me in his office.
"One of those bones is a bit of levity at the end of almost every day. The team meeting begins with players drumming on the desktops until Shanahan calls a rookie to the front, where he has to answer questions, tell a joke, or 'suffer the consequences.' Where fight-song singing was once instigated by players in the locker room or cafeteria, today even the standard rookie hazing ritual has been co-opted by management. It's a departure from the usual church-service reverence of the team meeting, but it's also controlled, like everything else, by Shanahan.
"'Who are you?' the players scream one night after Shanahan orders a rookie to the podium.
"'No! Who are you?' The pack wants the red-cheeked, peach-fuzzed Eslinger to say his nickname, and he knows it, and eventually capitulates.
"'Wee-Man,' he says into the microphone. The room explodes. Eslinger is a six-foot-three, 290-pound center who won the 2005 Outland Trophy as the nation's best interior linemen. But he also looks a bit like a four-foot-seven actor on the MTV show Jackass."
The Glory Game: How the 1958 NFL Championship Changed Football Forever, by Frank Gifford, with Peter Richmond (Harper Collins, $25.95).
"[Referee Ron] Gibbs had picked the ball up at the end of my run. He held on to it, and didn't put it back down until all the chaos had subsided and Gino [Marchetti] had been removed from the field [after breaking his leg]. Then they brought out the chains. And it was a couple of inches short.
"I wasn't happy about the spot. And I told Gibbs about it. As Artie [Donovan] recalls it now, 'You were shouting, 'I made it, I made it!' I told you, 'Shut up and get back to the huddle.'' I don't remember even shouting in any game, but I do recall being dead certain I'd made the first down.
"Decades later, soon after Ron Gibbs passed away, I would get a letter from his son, which included this passage: 'Dad told me a few days before he died, 'You know, Joe, maybe Frank was right ... maybe he did make that first down ... We shouldn't have ever picked up that ball before the measurement.'"
Rough & Tumble, by Mark Bavaro (St. Martin's Press, $24.95). (Fiction)
"Offensively, we were in for a slugfest against Chicago's ferocious defense. They prided themselves on winning through physical beatings. I was going to need all the strength just to survive. As we touched down at O'Hare, my heartburn, among other things, was pushed aside by the pain in my leg. My knee hurt like hell. The missed Mass of last week and the nap and protection couldn't have felt further away. In fact, His wrath felt closer. I was surprised the plane landed without mishap.
"Walking into the lobby of the downtown Sheraton, my roommate, Jeb Watkins, was greeted by the outstretched arms of a slinky brunette. I picked up our room key and grabbed a snack box the team provided for us on a folding table by the elevators. I grabbed our punt returner's box as well. Jeb wouldn't want his. A ham-and-cheese sub, chocolate-chip cookies, and an apple were the last things on his mind at the moment. I wouldn't see him again until tomorrow's game. Every road trip was the same. Jeb would disappear with a different girl, and I'd take a long, restful nap alone, half-eaten candy bars and apple cores littering his empty bed. He was the perfect roommate."
One last point: I have a lot of admiration for Bavaro. He tells a fictionalized story of what pro football is really like, and does a good job with the kind of descriptive passages I never, ever expected to hear from a man I covered as an NFL rookie with the Giants. You'll like the Lawrence Taylor character. You'll recognize him in the first three sentences.