WHAT WAS it like? John Ed Bradley has heard the question countless times; he knows it's coming as soon as someone discovers that he once played football at LSU. Bradley, a second-team All-SEC center as a senior in 1979, spent much of his postcollegiate life dodging the question. Determined not to be an ex-jock who revels too long in old glories, Bradley downplayed his status as a former athlete, barricading his past from public view.
But while he was cringing at the curiosity of outsiders, Bradley, a novelist, former Washington Post sportswriter and frequent contributor to SI, often found himself reflecting on his days at LSU—drawing comfort from them, even. He finally confronts the question so often asked of him in It Never Rains in Tiger Stadium, his disarmingly honest and bittersweet memoir about his life as an ex-athlete, the best sports book of the year. What was it like? "Always in the back of your mind was the knowledge of your supreme good fortune," Bradley writes. "Everyone else would travel a similar course of human experience, but you were different."
The question, What was it like? is at the heart of most sports books, but in 2007 the best answers seemed to come from authors who focused on football. The Blueprint, by Christopher Price, offers a Moneyball-like look at how coach Bill Belichick and personnel man Scott Pioli built the New England Patriots dynasty. The GM, by Tom Callahan, author of the 2006 best seller Johnny U, goes deeper—into the inner sanctum of former New York Giants general manager Ernie Accorsi. Callahan followed Accorsi through the '06 season, the G.M.'s last before retiring at age 65. Accorsi's candor (reflecting on the Giants' loss to the Ravens in Super Bowl XXXV, he says, "I would love to criticize our offensive game plan, but I don't think we had one") and anecdotes from more than three decades in pro football keep the pages turning, but Callahan succeeds most by revealing the psychological tension within a struggling team. Accorsi's frustration with coach Tom Coughlin grows as the season progresses ( New York started 6--2 but finished 8--8), and the two have a confrontation after the season. "I just would like a pat on the back every now and then," Coughlin says. To which Accorsi responds, "You shouldn't need it." It's not just lonely at the top, it's cold.
Down on fan level, though, things can get hot. The heat of passion infuses I Dream in Blue, another book about the Giants, by television writer and producer Roger Director. Like Callahan, Director follows his beloved Giants in 2006—the book is informed by interviews with Tiki Barber, Jeremy Shockey and other players—and gives us an amusing glimpse into the mind of the crazed fan. (When making out his will, Director mentions Barber as a potential guardian for his daughter.) In his more contemplative moments, however, Director realizes that his Giants devotion is an attempt, in middle age, to stay connected to the boy within.
What's it like to be a player? Standard athlete bios often provide unsatisfying answers, but Never Give Up, by Patriots linebacker Tedy Bruschi with Michael Holley, is a candid reflection on the balance pros must strike between preserving their livelihood and their health. Bruschi writes compellingly about the stroke he suffered in 2005 and why—amid media and internal criticism—he decided to return to the field the next season. Bruschi's dedication is something Bradley could appreciate. As he ages and makes peace with his athletic past in It Never Rains, Bradley realizes that football exerts a pull as strong as any familial or civic bond. "There are things we never get over," he writes. "And for me football is one of them."