Sunday, 19 March 2017

The Best Books About Football

Football has set itself pretty firmly on top of the American sports pantheon in terms of national interest and economic success, but the sport's literary oeuvre doesn't have the best reputation (I blame Just Give Me the Damn Ball!). While there is ample evidence for the argument that "most football books aren't very good," there are a handful of works that are actually worth reading, which will be highlighted in the list below.

The "rules" and structure of this post are basically the same as when I wrote about the best hip-hop books: everything is loosely ordered by topic rather than rank, starred entries are especially recommended, and my personal 5 favorite books are included at the end. I stuck to non-fiction books only (which wasn't too hard, I found North Dallas Forty and Semi-Tough to be pretty overrated, though to be fair neither aged particularly well. Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk was decent but isn't really a football book.), and there are no limits on author appearances. Every entry includes an Amazon link in case you want to learn more about the title, this site is a labor of love and they aren't affiliate links, it's just for the benefit of the reader.

The Classics: Books Your Dad Would Recommend (That He is Justified in Recommending)
There are a few books, generally older ones, that are held in high regard by football fans and considered "required reading" by any dad or grandfather worth his salt. Sometimes (see blurb about Semi-Tough and North Dallas Forty), they are wrong, but here is where they are justified.  

Paper Lion by George Plimpton* 
For whatever reason, baseball has historically attracted the more literary types, which is why it is always an absolute treat when a writer of Plimpton's caliber decides to write about gridiron-related matters. In Paper Lion, Plimpton suits up for the Detroit Lions, joining them for training camp and participating in an intrasquad scrimmage. Curious, perceptive, and willing to make a fool of himself for the sake of journalism, Plimpton is an engaging guide through the Lions' 1963 training camp, and does an excellent job at demonstrating how a regular Joe would fare in the NFL of the early 60's (spoiler alert: not incredibly well) and giving a peek into training camp life. Plimpton also strikes up friendships with many Lions, showing the more personal sides of legends such as Dick "Night Train" Lane, Dick LeBeau, and Alex Karras (who was actually suspended for the 1963 but features in the stories of many a Lions player in the book).

Plimpton wrote a follow-up of sorts to Paper Lion with Mad Ducks and Bears, which is mainly Lions linemen Alex Karras and and John Gordy reflecting back on their careers in the game. It's not worthy of inclusion on this best-of list, but there's worse ways to spend a few hours if you really enjoyed Paper Lion.  

Instant Replay by Jerry Kramer with Dick Schaap*
Yes, another behind-the-scenes account of a Midwestern NFL team from the 60's. Kramer was a mainstay at guard for the Green Bay Packers (one of the pulling linemen for the team's fabled Power Sweep) and Instant Replay chronicles the Packers' 1967 season, in which they would win the NFL Championship in the famed Ice Bowl game (in which Kramer featured prominently in the final play) and thump the Raiders in the Super Bowl. Similar to Paper Lion, Kramer's book transports the reader back to the NFL of the 60's, which was a truly different time. It's obviously dated if you want to understand what current NFL-ers have to contend with but if you're interested in how the sport has evolved and how it was to play for Vince Lombardi you should pick this up.

About Three Bricks Shy... And the Load Filled Up by Roy Blount Jr.  
Coming only a few years after Jim Bouton's Ball Four, Blount's classic book chronicling the Pittsburgh Steelers' 1973 season presents an intimate portrait of the team and its remarkably colorful players, warts and all. This was the period right before the team would achieve juggernaut status, and most of the core that would win 4 Super Bowls from 1975 through 1980 was in place, and the reader gets a look inside one of the best NFL teams ever. Blount is a witty observer of affairs and writes with a freewheeling, semi-rambling style with frequent injections of humor. He also had loads of great material to work with, from the sartorially-advanced Frenchy Fuqua (who wore shoes with goldfish in the heel) to the inaccurately-nicknamed Mean Joe Greene to the kinda crazy Ernie Holmes (who once shot at a police helicopter with a shotgun). Blount is able to ingratiate himself with most of the team and many Steelers open up to him, including a surprisingly blase description of several players' steroid regimens (it was truly a different time).

Friday Night Lights by Buzz Bissinger*
Anyone with an iota of perspective knows that there are more important things in life than football. Fans of the Permian Panthers in the economically-depressed town of Odessa, Texas in 1988 may have quibbled with this notion, however. Bissinger, then a writer for the Philadelphia Inquirer (if you're interested in urban policy check out his book on then-Philadelphia mayor and future Pennsylvania governor Ed Rendell) uprooted his family to Odessa to follow the Panthers' 1988 campaign and reveal what life is like in the football-mad regions of Texas (i.e. Texas). Part sociological study, part football book, Friday Night Lights excels at showcasing the team's huge impact on local morale and business and the experience of playing for a huge and elite Texas high school football squad on and off the field.

Friday Night Lights is enhanced by the elements of uncertainty and tension for the reader. The book isn't recounting a major NFL or college football team's campaign, and unless you have an encyclopedic knowledge of west Texas high school football in 1988 you probably don't know how the Panthers' season is going to go. I won't spoil anything (though if you showed enough interest in the list to get this far you've probably already read Friday Night Lights) but it is quite exciting. The reader also becomes really connected and emotionally invested in these players from decades ago, and I found myself actively rooting for the team and reacting to the team's ups-and-downs like any self-respecting Odessa resident would (passionately).

Bissinger wrote a post-script of sorts with After Friday Night Lights which mainly focuses on how former Panthers star Boobie Miles has fared after the book's publication and coming to terms with reconciling his football dreams with the harshness of "depressed west Texas" reality. It's a very quick read (probably clocking in under an hour) but worthwhile if you want to see how Miles is faring today.

Books You Should Buy for Your Dad: Football History and Biography
There aren't a ton of selections here, as a good amount of football histories and biographies are team-specific and aren't compelling enough to recommend to the general football fan. Here are 2 notable exceptions.

America's Game: The Epic Story of How Pro Football Captured a Nation by Michael MacCambridge
Anyone reading one of the older selections from this list will realize that the NFL has evolved tremendously from its humble beginnings as a smattering of Midwestern teams in the 1920's to a money-minting (more on that later) economic powerhouse that has somehow managed to turn even the 20-hour conference call that is the NFL Draft into a flashy television spectacle. MacCambridge has penned the authoritative tome on the complete history of the league and its development over the years. The book is strongest when it covers the war between the NFL and AFL in the 60's, when the leagues bitterly fought for the attention and dollars of the American populace, occasionally through some kooky means. While I felt the chapters on more recent NFL developments were a little weaker, this is still the best history of the league by far.

When Pride Still Mattered: A Life of Vince Lombardi by David Maraniss
Maraniss is an Associate Editor at The Washington Post and perhaps best known for his hefty and meticulously-researched biography of Bill Clinton. In When Pride Still Mattered, he provides a richly-detailed biography of the legendary Packers' coach that showcases Lombardi's personality (including his religious devotion, stringent perfectionism, and openness to race and sexual orientation, among others) and his experiences coaching the Packers and Redskins. It's a long read but if you want to better understand Lombardi (he is one of the few football figures who really warrants such a comprehensive biographical treatment) and why the Super Bowl trophy is named after him you should give this a read.

X's, O's and Prose: The Strategy of Football 
Starting an MBA program has provided me with a lot more exposure to people from other cultures, and thus, the opportunity to explain the basics of American football. These often-bungled attempts at education have reaffirmed that teaching the sport is hard (though not as hard as cricket, of course, which is completely impossible to grasp and I reject any contentions stating otherwise). The sport is remarkably complex, and I find it enriching to delve deeply into the tactical weeds to better understand why teams and coaches do the things they do. These next few books are for advanced football fans who are looking to deepen their knowledge of the X's and O's of the game.

The Games that Changed the Game: The Evolution of the NFL in Seven Sundays by Ron Jaworski 
Jaworski has been a mainstay on ESPN's excellent NFL Matchup series, breaking down game film and analyzing the strategies employed by NFL teams and excitedly narrating the continual playing and rewinding of a few seconds of a play. In The Games That Changed the Game, Jaworski traces some key strategic developments in the sport through deep-dives on seven transformative games. The selections aren't always Super Bowls or playoff games, but rather the best examples of each concept: the magnitude of the game is less important that the gameplans employed therein. The book covers strategies such as Sid Gillman's Vertical Stretch, Dick LeBeau's Zone Blitz, and Bill Walsh's West Coast Offense, which all have influenced current NFL schemes. Each concept gets its own chapter where Jaworski provides a bit of background and then gives an in-depth breakdown of what happened in each game. Everything is explained clearly and Jaworski will also frequently diagram plays and formations to help comprehension, and the book definitely improved my knowledge around the sport, as well as a greater sense of appreciation for some of its coaching trailblazers.

Take Your Eye Off the Ball: How to Watch Football by Knowing Where to Look by Pat Kirwan
I'm not going to provide a laundry list of achievements and feats of nerdiness to establish my football knowledge bonafides, but I will mention I played high school football, made a 7-round mock draft in eighth grade, and have read enough football books to feel sorta qualified to write a long post about my favorites in the genre. Having said all that, Take Your Eye Off the Ball was the book that most improved my understanding of the game and taught me a huge amount about a sport I already knew pretty well. Kirwan began as an NFL scout and worked in a couple of NFL front offices in the 90's before moving to journalism, and he brings a wealth of insider experience on the game. Kirwan's goal with this book is to improve fans' viewing experience by providing tools to learn about the game at a higher level. Even if you balk at adopting his involved game-charting system while you watch games, there is a lot to take away from the book.

The book is structured similarly to something like "Football for Dummies," providing a comprehensive overview of virtually every aspect of the sport (the quarterback, the NFL draft, special teams, officiating, and so on) with the occasional "Ask Pat" where he riffs on some random point about the game. The basic format and topics covered isn't original, but Kirwan goes deeper into these subjects than any book I've read. Some of the material is probably going to be review for die-hard fans, but there should be enough novel material for virtually any reader to learn a good bit about the finer nuances of the game.

The Perfect Pass: American Genius and the Reinvention of Football by S.C. Gwynne
This book doesn't fit as well into the category as the other 2 books. While Hal Mumme's "Air Raid" offense does feature prominently, and Gwynne adeptly devotes some pages to explaining the offense and how it transformed the modern passing game and led to today's pass-happy offenses, The Perfect Pass is more than an instructive tome. The heart of the book is the dual-narrative of coaches Hal Mumme and Mike Leach and the peripatetic paths they followed up and down the ranks of college football. Mumme bounced from high schools and NCAA minnows such as Iowa Wesleyan to developing 1999 first overall pick Tim Couch as head coach at Kentucky, with Leach eventually landing the head coaching gig at Texas Tech and leading some absurdly-proficient passing attacks based on "Air Raid" fundamentals. A lot of the book is about being a coach on the lower rungs of college football and the tremendous chasm between effort put in and actual take-home pay (the mind boggles at how any small-school college football assistant in the 80's and 90's stayed married). Mumme, a stubborn genius who has seemingly bounced around everywhere, and Leach, a well-read law school grad who can converse extensively on anything from pirates to World War II battles, are both fascinating characters and it is enjoyable to track their personal and professional development as well as the evolution of their offensive approach.

Fly on the Chalkboard: The Best "A Season With _____" Books
There existed a time when journalists offered some degree of protection for athletes when it came to off-field activities and indiscretions and their writing was strictly limited to what happened during the game. In the 60's, a new generation of journalists pejoratively dubbed "chipmunks" by the sportswriting establishment began to peel back the curtain and leverage their access to provide a rounder portrait of players and teams and offer more intimate reporting on franchises' inner-workings. The release of Jim Bouton's Ball Four in 1971 both further advanced this "all-access" approach as well as illustrated its economic potential, selling like crazy. Teams across all sports began to broaden their access to reporters, allowing for a plethora of "fly-on-the-wall" books. Many of these aren't particularly good and are merely beat writers cashing in on a successful season by recycling some columns. These selections don't fall into that trap and are actually quality reads.

Bringing the Heat by Mark Bowden* 
Although Bowden is probably best-known for Black Hawk Down, which was eventually adapted into a movie, he spent many years at The Philadelphia Inquirer and was on the Eagles beat for the 1992 season. Bringing the Heat is more than a tired retelling of a reasonably-successful-but-not-spectacular season of a professional football team told by a beat writer. Rather, it is an in-depth look at the Eagles' players, coaches, and ownership and a raw and honest examination of playing in the NFL. The on-field descriptions are vivid, intense, and exciting but Bringing the Heat makes this list for the quality of its richly-detailed profiles. The book is more about the 1992 Philadelphia Eagles than their season. This was a team chock-full of personalities, including the fiery Buddy Ryan at head coach, the egotistical Randall Cunningham at quarterback, and Reggie White leading the defense. Defensive lineman Jerome Brown died before the 1992 season, and Bowden does a phenomenal job writing about how the team reacted to Brown's death and its impact on the team.

Bowden was not a football expert coming into the book, which is actually a positive for Bringing the Heat. He brings an objective, outsider's perspective to the team and the book is refreshingly free of the trite metaphors and cliches spouted by many sportswriters. It also doesn't hew to the set formula of these kind of books, emphasizing the characters over the plot if you will, but this makes for a refreshing take on a rather tired concept of football book.

Collision Low Crossers: A Year Inside the Turbulent World of NFL Football by Nicholas Dawidoff*
This is the best example of the traditional "fly-on-the-wall" genre, and probably my favorite football book released over the last 5 years. It has all the necessary components: a skilled writer, a compelling team filled with personalities (the Rex Ryan-led New York Jets), and gripping on-the-field activities, including a pretty spectacular collapse to end the season. Dawidoff spent most of his time with the Jets' coaching staff, and is able to get seemingly every member of the staff to open up to him. The amount of access Dawidoff had to the team, sitting in on meetings and clocking in almost as much as the actual coaching staff, really enriches the book and separates it from the many similar "A Season With..." books out there. Collision Low Crossers truly captures what it is like to work on an NFL coaching staff and the tremendous emotional and time investments staff make in their careers.

You're Okay, It's Just a Bruise: A Doctor's Sideline Secrets About Pro Football's Most Outrageous Team by Rob Huizenga 
This is a tough one to classify, but I'll stick it here because creating a "Memoirs by Football Doctors for the Raiders" category seems somewhat limiting. Huizenga has apparently now made a nice career for himself as a doctor on The Biggest Loser, but in the 80's he served as the team physician for the Raiders. He found that there was widespread drug, alcohol, and steroid abuse among the players and that the franchise wasn't the most organized establishment in the world. You're Okay is basically a memoir/expose of Huizenga's experiences working for the Raiders from draft preparation to treating players during games. It is a breezy read clearly geared towards the general sports fan, with medical terminology kept to minimum. The book is peppered with ridiculous anecdotes (including further insight into the unorthodox way Al Davis ran things and a particularly graphic description of Matt Millen's questionable parenting skills), but it's not a hatchet job. Yes, Huizenga has some gripes with his past-employer and how the league deals with injuries, but his beefs seem justified and in some cases prescient. You're Okay, shines a light on a vital yet underappreciated element of an NFL team and gets bonus points for being one of the more original picks on this list.

The Business of Football 
Jay Berwanger, a football star from the University of Chicago and the winner of the first Heisman Trophy, was also the first player selected in the inaugural NFL draft in 1936. Berwanger ultimately opted for a career in sportswriting, which at the time was more remunerative. 80 years later, payscales for both occupations have changed dramatically. I can't recommend any good books on why writers currently earn peanuts, but here are some of my favorite works on the big business of football.

The System: The Glory and Scandal of Big-Time College Football by Jeff Benedict
Penned by an investigative reporter, The System is a revealing look at big-time college football. Some of these findings will likely be old hat to fans of the game, (coaching politics, facilities arms races, questionable recruiting practices), but Benedict offers a remarkable level of depth and detail and at least some of The System should surprise most readers. He is also able to get some key figures to open up to him and speak frankly about current issues facing the game. The book provides an excellent overview of the current media-institutional-NCAA complex and some of its less savory practices.

The King of Sports: Football's Impact on America by Gregg Easterbrook
Easterbrook has written the outstanding Tuesday Morning Quarterback column since 2001 (it is coming back in 2017 after a temporary hiatus in 2016) where he riffs on gridiron affairs as well as an eclectic bunch of other topics that are only sometimes football-related. King of Sports is a bit of a downer in that it highlights many of the negative impacts football is having on society: public funding for stadiums, concussions, and the poor treatment of retired NFL-ers, among others. These chapters are all thoughtfully-written and Easterbrook makes some compelling points, and Easterbrook is evenhanded with his analysis. Easterbrook also spends a year with the Virginia Tech Hokies football team and holds the school up as an example of an institution doing things the right way. While Benedict's The System also looked at the problems football creates, Easterbrook outlines many similar issues but also prescribes potential solutions. Easterbrook is a real fan of the sport interested and invested in its future success, and hopefully the ideas posed in The King of Sports get into the hands and heads of major decision-makers in the sport.

SOC 350: The Sociology of Football

If I was to teach a class about the culture of football and its supporters here is what I'd include on my syllabus.

Rammer Jammer Yellow Hammer: A Road Trip Into the Heart of Fan Mania by Warren St. John*
Remember that sensible statement I made earlier about football not being the most important thing in the world? I think Alabama Crimson Tide fans are another group that might disagree with that idea. In Rammer Jammer, St. John, an Alabama native who was then a reporter for The New York Times, returns to his home state to follow the Crimson Tide for a season as a fan. St. John joins the throng of Alabama supporters who travel via RV to all of the team's football games. Rammer Jammer is basically an anthropological study of the especially passionate Alabama fans and aims to discover how a college football team can engender such strong emotions from grown adults. St. John is able to write with a sense of detachment but also compassion and empathy for his subjects and he clearly respects them. Consistently thoughtful and occasionally hilarious, Rammer Jammer is my favorite examination of why and how football teams can generate such passion among its fans.

The Blind Side: Evolution of a Game by Michael Lewis*
The Blind Side showcases 2 of Lewis' biggest strengths as a writer: his ability to adeptly juggle multiple threads in a coherent and cohesive way and shine a spotlight on truly fascinating people and ideas. You're probably already somewhat familiar with Michael Oher's story at this point, but if you've never read The Blind Side you should seek it out. In addition to covering Oher's byzantine and legitimately unbelievable path to the NFL, Lewis touches upon the evolution of the offensive line in the NFL, the nature of big-school football recruiting, and the life of a student-athlete at a major school. Moneyball had a much larger impact, but I think The Blind Side is Lewis' best effort based solely on the reading experience (the recently-released Undoing Project is also up there).

Newton's Football: The Science Behind America's Game by Allen St. John and Ainissa Ramirez
Based on the title you may think that Newton's Football exclusively deals with the physics of football (there actually is already a book about that, and it's an okay read but can be a bit dry in parts), but it actually draws from principles from a wide range of the natural and social sciences. There are passages explaining how Prospect Theory accounts for coaches' risk-averse natures and what Schrodinger's cat teaches us about the West Coast Offense. St. John is a journalist and Ramirez is a "science evangelist" with a Ph.D. from Stanford, and everything from why woodpeckers don't get concussions to the game theory of playcalling is described cogently and in layman-friendly terms. This is another questionable fit categorically but it does draw heavily from the social sciences and I don't think it's the end of the world if my theoretical sociology students get some grounding in the harder sciences that will make them (just slightly) more employable after graduation.

Trashy Player/Coach Memoirs
What kind of low-rent, disreputable blogging establishment do you think I'm running here? These books have no business appearing anywhere on this list. That said, Rex Ryan's book, despite being poorly-written and irrationally pro-Mark Sanchez, it actually kinda entertaining.

My 5 Favorite Football Books
1. Bringing the Heat by Mark Bowden
2. Collision Low Crossers by Nicholas Dawidoff
3. Paper Lion by George Plimpton
4. Friday Night Lights by Buzz Bissinger
5. Rammer Jammer Yellow Hammer by Warren St. John

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