Posted: Monday June 11, 2012 12:26AM ; Updated: Tuesday June 12, 2012 1:31PM
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The Father's Day Book Section

Chris Spielman
Former Lion, Bill and Brown Chris Spielman was an intense player, but you see a completely different side of the linebacker in his emotional book.
Manny Rubio/WireImage.com

Some of you like this section, which has begun to take over one of my 48 Monday columns each year, and some of you don't. For those who don't, skip the next 4,000 words or so. For those who do, I appreciate all the support you've given this idea over the years, and I hope you find a book here -- or anywhere, quite frankly -- to give the Dad who really wants a book. I can tell you one of the gifts of the last four or five weeks has been the gift of unplugging so I could read the books I've listed here.

The other day, in Montana, I toured a one-room schoolhouse (more about that later) and picked up a little tome called English Reading for Schools. The book was published in 1926. Inside were these words: "The virtue of books is the perfecting of reason, which is indeed the happiness of man.''

Well, I always thought the happiness of man was the Red Sox winning the World Series. But reading's pretty good. I urge you to pick up one of these for the man who needs to get back to reading. Thanks for reading.

That's Why I'm Here: The Chris and Stefanie Spielman Story, by Chris Spielman, with Bruce Hooley (Zondervan). Non-fiction.

Once, when I was in Detroit in the early '90s, sent by Sports Illustrated to write about linebacker Chris Spielman, I gave him a pitch for a story I wanted to do: I'd go home with him after practice one day and watch how Mr. Intenso went about his preparation for film study for the next game. Spielman listened to me as I sold the inside look into his world harder and harder -- "I want America to see who you are,'' is approximately something I said -- and after a few minutes he gave me a bit of a patronizing stare and said he'd think about it. The next day Spielman told me no. "My life's not the friggin' NFL Today!'' he said.

Imagine my surprise, then, when I cracked this book and read some of the most intimate details, conversations and eruptions a family of six can have as the noble wife and mother careens toward death. Chris Spielman, one of the most balls-out football players I have ever covered, but also one of the most private, delves into things like:

• Asking Stefanie: "How do you want your funeral?''

• How to tell ninth- and seventh-graders their mother is dying. The oldest child, Madison, wrote the foreward to the book. What a strong, eloquent girl she is.

• Drawing baths for Stefanie as the end neared, making sure the water was just the right temperature and her favorite lotions were there for her ... then lifting her in and out of the tub, drying her off after the bath.

• The painful dialogue with the younger children, telling them their mother wouldn't be around much longer, then letting it sink in, then giving little Audrey time to think. "What are you doing?'' Chris called out a few minutes later. Said Audrey: "Crying my eyes out.''

• Watching a tape Stefanie left the family, to be viewed only after her death. "She told each one [of the children] that she had prayed for their future spouse for a very long time,'' Spielman, with Hooley, writes.

• The last words he speaks to her body before he personally lifts her into the crematory and pushes the button ... for her to be cremated. "I didn't want her to be alone at that moment,'' Spielman writes.

It's a stunningly unvarnished look into the most painful time of a family's existence, and how the deeply religious couple copes. I had to call Spielman and ask, with a mixture of surprise and great admiration: "How could such a normally private person have done this?''

"It's funny,'' he told me Saturday. "But I've done some interviews about the book, and people will say to me, 'It must be so therapeutic for you to tell these stories and talk about this.' No. It's painful. But in order to make the story credible, you've got to tell it all. To have an impact, to really help people, you've got to put it all out there.''

For those of you too young to remember much about Spielman the player or character (I can't believe I'm writing those words; seems like Spielman was suiting up for the Lions five years ago), he was a blood-and-guts player the way Jack Youngblood or Dick Butkus was. Here's Spielman describing one of his old offseason habits as a player: "After getting in my running at Rochester (Mich.) High School, I'd put on a plastic suit, get in my truck, roll the windows up, and turn the heater on full blast. I'd drive around with my mouth full of chewing tobacco and see how long I could last without spitting. I'd just swallow the tobacco juice and fight the urge to puke. It tested me mentally to see how long I could go without throwing up. It helped me simulate playing through distractions and taught me to focus. I think I lasted an hour and 29 minutes one time.''

Well, all right then.

Through the book, Spielman's growth as a person is highlighted. He describes once, pre-breast cancer, how his wife and he had an argument and he says to her: "Why don't you put all your ideas on how I can be a better husband into a suggestion box, and I'll read them when I get time?'' He said he knew a lot of people felt that Neanderthal side defined him. But he became significantly more religious, mirroring Stefanie, when she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1998. He decides to take the year off from football to help with family things and to be there for his wife, and though he misses the game desperately, he never feels he's done the wrong thing. And from there, as you'll read, he and Stefanie are thrown into the cancer cauldron, with great hope followed by crushing disappointment. And then, of course, the ultimate disappointment.

"I took my wedding vows seriously,'' Spielman told me. "When I said, 'In sickness and in health,' I meant it.''

Spielman sounds different in the book, and in person, than he was as a player. "There are blessings in contentment,'' he said. "If I'd said that to you back when I was working out at Rochester High, preparing for a season with the Lions, I'd have expected you to punch me in the head. But we got such great blessings from Stefanie's life. When we were all sitting there, watching the tape she'd made for us to watch after she died, she spoke to each of the kids individually. So impressive. One of the things she said was, 'Never use my death as an excuse for anything.' That was important for the kids to hear.''

I think the book's terrific. I'm surprised it hasn't generated more positive press; you feel like you're in the battle with the Spielmans. I strongly recommend it, particularly to those going through the pain of a loved one fighting cancer. It has a very strong religious bent, which will be over the top for some readers. But the story itself is inspirational, and raw, and, I would think if I knew someone going through a bout with cancer, helpful. Praise, too, to Bruce Hooley, Spielman's friend, who knows how to tell a story and helps Spielman tell it exceedingly well.

***

Canada, by Richard Ford. (Ecco). Fiction.

I'm sure I'm not the first to say that, among Ford's novels, I liked The Sportswriter and Independence Day better than Canada. But that's akin to saying I like Drew Brees and Tom Brady better than Matthew Stafford. Canada, Ford's newest book, is a slog in two or three spots. The story's narrator, a 15-year-old twin boy whose life is turned incredibly upside down in the span of a few months in 1960, first in Montana, then in Saskatchewan, is an appealing, sympathetic and literate character defined perfectly by Ford. My only beef is I found myself saying, when the sameness of the kid's life dragged in two or three spots, "Get on with it!''

A small price to pay, though, for one of the best stories I've read in a while. Young Dell Parsons is growing up in Great Falls, Mont., the son of a slick and idiotic father and a timid and reclusive mother who, from the start, you can see never should have been married. The father gets into debt with some locals and comes up with the brilliant idea of robbing a bank -- and convinces the wife who hates him to drive the getaway car.

From the observations of this friendless boy Dell, the story is at times hilarious, at times heartbreaking. It feels so real. And Ford writes some of the best sentences I've ever read. How perfectly he describes his mother on the eve of the bank robbery: "Anyone might think a woman whose husband was possibly losing his mind (or at least part of it), and who was preparing to rob a bank, who'd led his family almost to ruin, who considered it a novel idea to involve his only son in the robbery, who was threatening jail and disaster and the dissolution of everything the two of them understood about life (and a woman who was already thinking of leaving the same man, anyway), you'd think this woman would be desperate for an opportunity to get away, or to involve the authorities to save herself and her children, or would find an iron resolve, would hold her ground, and would let nothing go forward and thereby preserve her family by the force of her will (my mother, as small and disaffected as she was, seemed to have a strong will, even if that turned out not to be true). But that isn't how our mother behaved.''

I tell you about the bank robbery not to be a spoiler, because Ford brings it up in the first paragraph of the book. But the sordid familial sex, the murders, the suicide, the cancer, the stark and incredibly unfortunate life turn in Canada, the remarkable resilience of young Dell and what he makes of his life ... those you'll have to read for yourself. I strongly urge you to do so.

A Ford book, to me, is like a U2 CD. I'm a huge fan of the writer and the group, and too much time passes between the releases of their gems. Do not take from my note about the slog above that Canada will not be worth your while. I read its 420 pages in 48 hours, and if life hadn't interceded, I'd have finished it quicker.

***

Over Time: My Life as a Sportswriter, by Frank Deford (Atlantic Monthly Press). Non-fiction.

For many of us in the business, Frank Deford is the Holy Grail. He's simply one of the greatest sportswriters of all time. If he's the New York Yankees, I'm honored to be the Double-A Trenton Thunder. Just to play the same sport as Deford is something wonderful.

His memoir has a little bit of everything -- great stories about interviewing everyone from Richard Nixon (why, Nixon wondered, didn't Sports Illustrated cover bowling more, seeing that millions in the country bowled?) to Jerry Jones. (Now there was a story. During the Deford-Jones chat, in a bar late at night, the waitress wondered if Jones would autograph her breast. He did, then suggested Deford autograph the other, which he did. "Sportswriters, as a general rule, are not often given that opportunity,'' Deford wrote.)

Deford played with the Harlem Globetrotters, introduced the world to Bill Bradley, really disliked Rodney Dangerfield, edited the only national sports daily in our history (The National), and has great takes on the history and characters of Sports Illustrated in its formative years. His interview with the Babe Ruth of Japan, Sadaharu Oh, is one of the great lost-in-translation stories you'll ever read.

I love Deford's description of the modern media, told from his aging-sportswriter perspective:

"About all you share anymore with most of the players is their sport itself -- or listening to them talk about themselves. Soon, the coaches and managers are the ones of your vintage. As you grow older, in fact, you gravitate more toward doing stories about coaches -- not just because they're your new contemporaries, but because they've lived longer, more complicated lives. They're simply better stories. After all, most of them failed, in that they couldn't cut it as players. That's why they become coaches.

"Coaches are movies. Players are snapshots.

"So the one great irony of writing about sports is that the most important people in sports are young and unformed, and consequently, if through no fault of their own, less interesting ... Now, with television, everyone with a clicker is privy to seeing the same thing clear as day on HD as are the pros on the scene with media passes, so you have to eschew the games and write about the athletes as people.

"And that can be a trial. Too often, it's reminiscent of when someone asked Fred Zinnemann, the movie director, what a certain young actress was like, and he replied: 'What makes you think she's like anything?'

"Therefore, more and more we tend to celebrate the loudmouths -- the highest percentage, it seems, being wide receivers in football -- who first make themselves accessible, then voluble, and thereupon qualify as 'characters,' but who are, really, just so many obnoxious jerks.''

Deford's the best.

***

The Art of Fielding, by Chad Harbach (Little, Brown & Company). Fiction.

I mentioned how much I liked this book in Monday Morning Quarterback when I read it in January. I'm not a voracious reader of books, but I like them, and I like fiction that sucks you in and doesn't let you out. Thrillers do that. For me, John Grisham has always done that. But this book is the best piece of fiction I've read in years, and it's not political or some covert espionage job. It revolves around a phenom baseball player from South Dakota named Henry Skrimshander after he enrolls at the fictitious Westish College in Wisconsin. The book is 525 pages. I only wish it were 1,525.

What happens to a precocious baseball player and incredibly na´ve college student, when his life in so many ways begins to spin out of control? And the lives of so many people around begin to spin in a wayward way as well? I won't spoil the drama of what happens in the book, only the part about the first of several things to go terribly wrong with Henry:

He is such a great shortstop that he's being scouted by the pros as a surefire first-round draft choice for the major leagues ... until he suffers from the kind of ballplayer sickness that plagued Rick Ankiel, Steve Blass, Steve Sax and Chuck Knoblauch. They couldn't throw the ball where they wanted to anymore.

If Harbach didn't play hundreds of games of baseball, I'd be surprised. The way he writes about Henry's trouble, it's like Harbach himself had it. As in this segment about one throw gone awry: "The distance called for a casual sidearm fling -- he'd done it ten thousand times. But now he paused, double-clutched. He'd thrown the last one too soft, better put a little mustard on it -- no, no, not too hard. Too hard would be bad too. He clutched again. Now the runner was closing in ... '' It's that kind of writing that makes you feel Henry's pain.

But the amazing thing is, as much of a baseball fan as I am, I thought the book got better when it veered away from the baseball scenes. The story about Henry's gay roommate, the Westish college president, his daughter escaping a bad marriage, the baseball team captain ... it all makes for a compelling read.

If the dad you have in mind is a huge sports fan, he'll like this book a lot. If he's a baseball fan, he'll love this book. If he's a fan of good writing and a great story, hand this to him and get out of the way, because once he starts he won't want to stop reading.

***

The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer, by Siddhartha Mukherjee (Scribner). Non-fiction.

Cancer, obviously, is one of the great mysteries of life. There's something in this 470-page book -- part research tome, part history book, part emotionally patient-focused storytelling -- for anyone with any ties to cancer. I was interested, in part, because my two parents and both of my wife's parents died of it (my mother also had emphysema), and I've been mystified over the years about why, with all the money we pour into it, we can't finish it off.

The answer, Mukherjee writes, is because cancer is not one disease. It is many. He delves into the history and the technical side of the various forms of the disease -- and I won't lie, I skipped some of the chemical and scientific parts of the book, though he writes in prose understandable to Neanderthals like me. But the human stories make the book important, and the social stories.

Mukherjee devotes a significant section to how the tobacco companies kept America smoking, even as evidence began to surface that smoking was bad for you. In the mid-50s, when 45 percent of the adult population smoked, one ad for Camel cigarettes noted, "More doctors smoke Camels,'' certainly in part to help customers understand that if doctors smoked an unfiltered cigarette, how dangerous could it be? In the '50s, Mukhurjee writes, doctors line up for free cigarettes at the annual America Medical Association convention. And you wonder why it took so long for America to wise up about the dangers of smoking? Why would they get smart -- when the professionals paid to keep them healthy were smoking?

The book isn't a page-turner, or a lazy beach book. It's well-written, by a leader on the front line, and one of the best books I've ever encountered that explains a terribly complicated series of diseases so that they're understandable -- and so that we can understand how difficult it is to solve the cancer problem. Mukherjee writes how difficult the task is, but that it's not the impossible dream either.

***

The Essential Smart Football, by Chris B. Brown (CreateSpace). Non-fiction.

Amazing how much football knowledge Brown, a lawyer and sportswriter (you may know him from his smart takes on football at, fittingly, @smartfootball on Twitter), packs into 139 pages. He sets out to explain how football, which often looks to be a street fight, is actually more of a chess match. His premise: Football works because it teaches us that, as in life, you've often got to play as part of a team and you've got to get up after getting knocked down.

"Yet,'' he writes, "football is also great because, due to its complex arrangements of twenty-two roving players across a wide expanse of green grass -- coupled with repeated opportunities for synchronized action and planning -- it's a sport for those who think ... Football is the rare pastime that has the opportunity to stimulate our left and right brains equally.''

Brown, in one instance, explains why Vince Wilfork is such a valuable player for New England. He takes a snap from the AFC title game last season, late in the fourth quarter, when the Patriots made a pre-snap adjustment that resulted in Wilfork being one-on-one with an overmatched Matt Birk. At the snap, with no help, Birk was powerless to hold off Wilfork because Wilfork is stronger and got the leverage first. Wilfork forced Joe Flacco, who had planned to throw quickly, to throw much more quickly than he'd wanted, and the pass was incomplete.

So often, terms like one-gapping and two-gapping are thrown around in line play the way four-seamer and cutter are used in baseball. Fans hear them, but do they know them? In the Patriots' amoeba-like defense -- New England prides itself in being so multiple you can't get a read on what the D does half the time -- players like the strong and quick and massive Wilfork are important because they can both one-gap and two-gap.

One-gapping is easier, as Brown explains, because the defensive lineman is responsible for attacking and controlling one gap. Two-gapping is tougher because it requires a defender to take on an offensive lineman while minding the holes on either side of him. If the offensive lineman is pushing him in a certain direction on a running play, for instance, the defender has to think there's a reason for it and understand that he could be trying to open the gap for a running lane. So the defender has to fight that, while watching to see where the play's going. "It is the most violent, most complicated, and most beautiful ballet I can think of,'' Brown writes.

Often, many of you ask me for a good, educational football book to read. I've told you scores of times to read Tim Layden's Blood, Sweat and Chalk, about the origination of many of the important innovations in football history, and, more recently, I advised you to read War Room, Michael Holley's book about the Belichick personnel tree. Now I'll tell you to buy The Essential Smart Football, for one simple reason: It's going to make you and dads in this world a lot smarter about football.

***

Imperfect: An Improbable Life, by Jim Abbott and Tim Brown (Ballantine Books). Non-fiction.

Smart, cool way of writing the story of Abbott, who was born without a right hand and went on to be a good major-league pitcher -- and inspiration to the physically challenged everywhere. Abbott and Brown weave the heroic Abbott's life story through and around the inning-by-inning reportage of his 1993 no-hitter against Cleveland. (What a lineup -- Kenny Lofton, Carlos Baerga, Albert Belle, Manny Ramirez and Jim Thome, among others.)

The best stuff isn't baseball. It's life. "The thing about a disability is, it's forever,'' Abbott writes. "And forever might not end, but it has to start somewhere.'' That was in Michigan for Abbott, born to Flint teens. "It was pity I didn't want and couldn't stand,'' he writes. "By fifth grade I was being carpooled across town to play flag football on muddy fields lined by parents. The murmuring about that kid, the one people stared at, usually would start in the parking lot. Those doing the whispering must not have thought so, or didn't care if I did, but I could always hear them. I could see them. They'd hold their conversations through our warmups, and then when I was the one playing quarterback, and then whenever the thought struck them ... In the years that followed, only the crowds changed. They got bigger and louder, but the reaction was always the same."

Abbott writes of the pain of being bullied for his disability, and, much later, of being a beacon for so many families of children with disabilities. In many ways, the stories of touching so many families reminds me of what we've seen over the last couple of years with Tim Tebow. Good, decent human beings convinced that part of their calling in life is the humanness as well as the sports.

GALLERY: Uplifting Moments in Sports

"Imperfect'' is very well-written. I'm glad a story as good as Abbott's is showcased with such fine writing.

***

Drop-Dead Healthy: One Man's Humble Quest for Bodily Perfection, by A.J. Jacobs (Simon & Schuster). Non-fiction.

Esquire writer A.J. Jacobs tells us before his quest for bodily perfection begins that his wife looked forward to going to the gym the same way he looked forward to reading on the couch while she's at the gym. At 41, he decides to go on a two-year mission to be the healthiest person alive. The book is about more than losing weight or being muscular. Jacobs covers all the bases when it comes to a healthy body: hearing, teeth, skin care, strong feet, posture, sleep and breathing, along with the expected diet and exercise chapters. There's even some unusual, but always welcome, advice about going to the bathroom.

It's a fun and exhaustive journey through myriad theories, myths, fads and facts, an engaging story brought to life by his family -- his wife, three young sons, grandfather and eccentric, raw-foodist Aunt Marti from Berkeley, Calif., who Jacobs calls the "single most health-minded person in America." When he phones to tell her about his quest for great health, she berates him for calling on his cellphone, lecturing him about its dangers to the brain. Marti comes to visit to do a sweep of his apartment to detoxify it. Everything in the home is toxic, and she looks at his refrigerator likes it's a "Superfund site."

There's a chapter on the evils of sitting and how even a strenuous workout in the morning can be undone by a day at your desk. Our grandparents, he learns, burned an average of 800 calories a day more than us without the benefit of exercise equipment. Committing to the idea that motion equals health, Jacobs turns his treadmill into a desk and writes nearly his entire book from there. While the book can feel a bit disjointed at times, like a series of magazine articles, Jacobs makes up for it with his slightly cynical yet sincere take on the crazy world of health gurus and the mountains of conflicting advice, evidence and studies. And the scatological musings of his sons are priceless. By the book's end, he's lost 16 pounds, halved his body fat percentage, completely changed his eating habits and competed in a triathlon.

I'll leave you with a list of his exercise advice at the end of the book:

1. Literally run your errands.

2. Have meetings like you're a character in "The West Wing," walking and talking, moving quickly.

3. Use small plates at meals.

4. Put your fork down between bites.

5. Eat an apple, a bowl of soup with cayenne pepper, two glasses of water or a handful of nuts. They all suppress the appetite.

6. Don't eat white food -- white rice, white bread, anything made with white flour.

7. Fidget. It's bad to sit still.

It's a good book. If you want to lose weight or live a healthier life, the ideas here will make you think, and laugh.

 
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