Saturday, 6 July 2013

Book Review: The Last Headbangers by Kevin Cook


The Last Headbangers, Kevin Cook's paean to the violent and freewheeling NFL of the seventies is narrowly-focused, somewhat disorganized, but still a generally entertaining read about (some of) the teams and characters of the period. Cook, whose work has appeared in Sports Illustrated and Men's Health, mines one of the sport's richest eras and the book is full of trivia about the motley individuals on NFL payrolls during the decade and how the decade paved the way for the current NFL. The seventies served as a real transitional period between the run-heavy, no-nonsense, collectivist, NFL of the previous several decades and today's flashy, lucrative, and wide-open NFL as players such as Joe Namath became cultural icons and the sport openly embraced television and the passing game. Though not without its flaws, the book is a light read and worth spending an offseason afternoon or two with.

Cook begins with the Immaculate Reception, when Franco Harris improbably caught a pass deflected off of Jack Tatum/Frenchy Fuqua (depending on your partisanship. Harris' catch should have been nullified if Fuqua touched the ball first) in the waning moments of a 1972 playoff game between the Steelers and Raiders. The game finally established the Steelers as a legitimate contender after spending most of its previous thirty-eight seasons mired firmly in the doldrums of the league standings. It also set the stage for one of the most intense rivalries of the decade, as the Raiders and Steelers were constant fixtures in the AFC playoffs and their meetings/bloodbaths often determined the conference's Super Bowl participant. Covering the league through the Immaculate Reception to the rise of Bill Walsh's more cerebral and finesse West Coast offense in the early eighties, the book chronicles several of the era's dominant teams and the changes taking place in the game on and off the field.

 The Last Headbangers is largely a chronological history of the league in the seventies, winding across several teams as well as off-field phenomena like Monday Night Football, which was emerging as a cultural institution. The sport itself was finally emerging from college football's shadow and it became the nation's most popular sport by the end of the decade. He also examines the various rule changes enacted during the period by the all-powerful Competition Committee. These new rules helped open up the passing game and create a more exciting, high-scoring brand of football. The group brought in "innovations" such as narrower hash marks (to open up both sides of the field), uprights in the back of the end zone (to reduce those pesky field goals), and reductions in contact between defensive backs and receivers (to open up the passing game and bring us the pinball-esque numbers we see from non-Jets quarterbacks today). One change that I was not aware of was that missed field goals from outside the twenty-yard line were actually spotted on the twenty rather than the line of scrimmage. When that rule was changed in 1974, it adjusted coaches' calculus for field goals and also offered shorter fields for teams facing reckless coaches with inaccurate kickers. Cook's analysis of the changes, augmented by comments by Brian Billick and others, is definitely one of the book's highlights.

While it paved the way for the current NFL, the league had several elements that existed only within the seventies. The NFL only introduced steroid testing in 1987, and such substances were legal during the period. Performance-enhancing drug usage was even discussed frankly in books written during the time such as Roy Blount's About Three Bricks Shy of a Load, and Cook explains that steroids were rather prevalent. Some teams took such abuse to higher levels than others, however, like the Raiders and their horse steroids. The league was also took a far more laissez-faire approach to player safety, as late hits and vicious cheap shots were committed without punishment. There was no established concussion policy, and several players recount shrugging off concussions, which will probably strike football fans as more and more remarkable moving forward.

Perhaps influenced by the "Me Decade" surrounding them, players began to embrace their often-outrageous personalities and coaches became more amenable/tolerant to such behavior. There was a notable shift from the collectivist ethos espoused by the likes of Vince Lombardi to the philosophies of coaches like John Madden of the Raiders and Chuck Noll of the Steelers. As Noll said "I want players to be themselves," and thus the coach tolerated Frenchy Fuqua's regal and ostentatious behavior and the loose-cannon Ernie Holmes. The more militaristic strand of coaching certainly persisted, however, and teams such as the Minnesota Vikings, led by Bud Grant, football's answer to William Jennings Bryan as the loser of four Super Bowls (but winner of an NBA Championship as a Minneapolis Laker in 1950), and Dick Vermeil's straight-laced Eagles served as foils to the rambunctious Steelers and Raiders. Much to the delight of Cook's general thesis (if there really is one) the Vikings and Eagles went a combined 0-5 in the Super Bowl against teams that better exemplified the era. 

The book is really at its strongest when it covers the afforementioned idiosyncracies of the players and coaches. When you are dealing with ten years for an entire league I suppose it is rather easy to collect interesting material, but Cook is able share some truly fascinating trivia and anecdotes from the era. Phil Villipiano, Franco Harris, Terry Bradshaw, and many other former players were very generous with their time and memory banks and they offer up some engaging stories about their coaches and teammates. Learning about Chuck Noll's interest in gardening and classical music (he even conducted the Pittsburgh Symphony at one point), Frenchy Fuqua's goldfish-containing platform shoes, and the story about how the punctilious Jim Otto once painstakingly removed his car from its position wedged inside a bar door to make curfew at Raiders camp are some of the highlights of the book. I could really go on about all of the great stories contained within the books pages but these reviews are long-winded enough already. Just believe me that there are others. Maybe it was a product of the culture of the decade or the fact that lucrative sponsorships (and thus opportunities to put hypothetical sponsorships in jeopardy through reckless behavior) weren't available to most players, but it really seemed like players were far more willing to express themselves in the seventies, much to the benefit of those writers covering the era.

It is worth noting that despite what the book's subtitle ("NFL Football in the Rowdy, Reckless, '70s) may claim, the book is almost completely focused on the Cowboys, Dolphins, Steelers, Raiders, and 49ers, and the other twenty-three teams that existed during the period go largely ignored. If you are a Redskins fan looking to read up on George Allen and the "Over-the-Hill-Gang," you will be sorely disappointed. I could write twenty-two similar sentences for the other teams (though maybe only twenty-one considering I wonder if a Saints fan would really want to relive those years of futility). While Cook clearly concentrates on the "correct" (i.e. best) teams of the decade, it prevents him from spending more time on players such as Conrad Dobler and Hollywood Henderson, who embodied some of the most prominent aspects of the time (dirtiness and drug usage, (dis)respectively). Additionally, stars like Walter Payton and Earl Campbell (both physical runners whose style could be considered "headbanger-y") The dynasties also didn't really neatly conform chronologically, and as a result Cook has to jump back and forth between teams sometimes which sometimes gives the book a disjointed feel. I also thought there was too many pages blandly recapping Super Bowls, some of which were rather staid affairs. Even the more exciting games have been exhaustively chronicled in other books and I didn't think that Cook's rather generic summaries (with their mysterious fascination with yards-per-passing-attempt) added much. While he is a generally competent writer, Cook is also apparently not above interspersing his prose with some truly lame puns. Though the subject material has been covered more extensively by other writers, I was surprised at the amount of new information contained in the book. If you have not read many of the recent books that have touched upon the dynasties of the seventies you will definitely get a lot out of it.

The final section on the rise of the 49ers and their finesse West Coast offense portends end the headbanging era. Bill Walsh's more cerebral dink-and-dunk offense provided a harbinger of the multifaceted and increasingly complicated offensive and defensive schemes on the horizon. Steroids and stickum were on their way out, and gunslinging quarterbacks such as Bradshaw were being phased out by precise passers with weaker arms like Ken Anderson and Brian Sipe. The league continued to cater to passers and higher-scoring games through the tinkerings of the Competition Committee. Athletes were now making relatively absurd salaries compared to ten years prior, and the league was growing exponentially in popularity and bringing in the television revenue to match. Cook thankfully doesn't end his book with a curmudgeonly diatribe about how today's NFL is far worse than the seventies version. He acknowledges the changes without editorializing them. Cook realizes that the NFL of the seventies was triggered by a perfect storm of the nascent televised sports industry, the greater culture of the era, and ignorance to the physical toll levied by the game and its PEDs, and the league will never be able to return to that. Thankfully we have books like The Last Headbangers to memorialize the players who risked their physical health to contribute to the flashy and entertaining NFL of the the time.

In Sum
Despite being unorganized and poorly-(sub)titled, The Last Headbangers is a light and entertaining read that is worth reading for anyone who followed or is simply interested in the NFL at the time. While it is only focused on several teams I think that fans of other teams can still get some enjoyment out of it, unless they have something against interesting anecdotes.

6/10

Observations/Interesting Things Learned
George Halas named the Chicago Bears as a play on the previously-existing Cubs. He decided to go with Bears based on the reasoning that football players were larger than baseball players. Halas also offered fans premium tickets that allowed them to sit on the visiting team's bench in the team's early days. I imagine that this was done without consulting said visiting team.

Bill Cosby was considered for Monday Night Football after Don Meredith left. 

Al Davis did very little as commissioner as the AFL, as he quickly resigned after other AFL owners worked the merger deal behind his back. At least as acting commissioner he managed to insert the phrase "dynamic young genius" to references of his name in the press release announcing his appointment.

I'm guessing this has a lot to do with the fact that the "event" covers many hours across several days but I still find it rather ridiculous that ESPN's Scouting Combine coverage outdrew both the Masters and Indianapolis 500 

Jim Otto wore 00 as a pun on his last name (aught-oh). The AFL originally allowed it as a marketing ploy and it survived the merger intact.

The book briefly describes the 1979 NFL draft and how Phil Simms' selection by the Giants received a poor reception from the 200 fans in attendance. As recounted in Gary Myers' Coaching Confidential, another work filled with trivia tidbits but lacking a coherent focus, Simms was subject to far more ridicule than described. Rozelle actually announced the pick twice. The commissioner was taken aback by the fans' strong negative reaction to the selection and he then realized that the cameras were not rolling. After turning on the cameras (and more importantly the microphones) Rozelle announced Simms' selection again to a chorus of boos to preserve the moment for posterity.

Further Reading
As I mentioned in my review, this is not even close to the only book about the NFL in the seventies. Here is a list of several others organized roughly by how much I enjoyed reading them:

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