Baseball books don’t need my help, or anybody else’s. There’ll always be waves of rhapsodists and elegists waxing year after year about the aesthetic virtues and time-tested verities of what used to be The National Pastime. Football books are another matter. For whatever reason, the literary/intellectual muse can’t get as revved up by what is now certified, for better and worse, as America’s Game.
A example, slight, perhaps, but mine own: In the 1992 Norton Book of Sports, edited by that would-be quarterback George Plimpton, there are roughly 70 stories, poems, essays and book excerpts covering baseball, boxing, basketball, horse racing and even skiing. Football, by my count, gets just three items. (Just saying…)
People give lip service to the idea of “beauty” emerging from the jolting, amoebic flow of a block-and-tackle football game. But most of the books published about that sport seem to have more to do with business than with beauty. The sport itself is often used as a metaphor for corporate culture with CEOs imagining themselves as the true legatees of Vince Lombardi and Bill Walsh, the heart and brain, respectively, of football coaching Valhalla. The push-pull collisions get taken as analogies for the rest of us working stiffs sticking our heads into the morass for the risk of reward and, as has become distressingly clearer in recent years, the reward of risk.
Rarely do I encounter a printed account of a breakaway run or a two-minute drill as lyrical as, say, John Updike’s oft-anthologized valedictory to Ted Williams’ final at-bat. But there may be built-in limits as to how best such moments can be persuasively rendered on a page. Baseball prose is allowed to bend and pitch to Mozart-ian levels; Prose about boxing, since we like stretching analogies till they scream in pain, can, at peak performance, surge ahead like a big-band swing orchestra blasting away in 4/4 time on a printed page.
The best, most evocative writing found in Football: Great Writing About the National Sport (The Library of America) comes across like vintage rock-and-roll with varied applications of blues, country and even a little gospel. Because I happen to know that the anthology’s editor John Schulian is a knowledgeable patron of blues and country music, I suspect he did as much reading with his ears as with his eyes when choosing selections. Even the elegies (Frank Deford’s homeboy-from-Ballmer memoriam to Johnny Unitas; Wright Thompson’s “Love Letter” to Ole Miss football; John Ed Bradley’s impassioned reverie about walking away from playing days at LSU) emit streaks of syncopated roughhousing. (“Unitas” Deford writes, “was some hardscrabble Lithuanian, so what he did made a difference, because even if we [Baltimoreans] had never met a Lithuanian before, we knew that he was as smart a sonuvabitch [sic] as he was tough. Dammit, he was our Lithuanian.”)
Schulian’s jukebox carries lively, varied selections that dare you to mix them around at will. You can punch up vivid reminiscences of pro football’s primordial days from gypsy leatherhead Johnny Blood (as rendered by the late Steelers broadcaster Myron Cope) or watch as Richard Price struggles to shake free of goddam-Yankee self-consciousness before entering the lair of Alabama demigod Bear Bryant. Coaches, generally, are the strangest of all the characters in this anthology, whether it’s George Allen, blustering and fidgeting his way through New Year’s Day 1968 after being ash-canned by the Rams (His daughter Jennifer is affectionate without being indulgent towards her dad’s fulminations) or Tom Landry, an oracular icebox of contradictions and piety who both bemuses and exasperates Gary Cartwright.
The editor’s own portrait of the greatest of Philadelphia Eagles, Chuck Bednarik is so richly textured that you stop regretting that he didn’t include the all-but-definitive description of Bednarik’s shattering 1960 tackle of Frank Gifford found in Frederick Exley’s A Fan’s Notes, a segment of which otherwise shares space in this collection with chapters from Paper Lion, the aforementioned account of George Plimpton’s adventures in training for exhibition football; Instant Replay, Green Bay offensive guard Jerry Kramer’s journal of the Packers’ last championship season under Vince Lombardi and Friday Night Lights, Buzz Bissinger’s by-now-canonical examination of playing out the fall season at a Texas high school.
Of the articles from magazines and newspapers selected by Schulian, I’m especially partial to the flamboyant deadline artistry Dan Jenkins deploys in his wry dissection of the hype-deflating Greatest-Tie-Ever-Played between Notre Dame and Michigan State in 1966 and to the consummate reportorial chops Arthur Kretchmer shows in his 1971 account of an up-and-down season in the career of the Chicago Bears fabled middle linebacker Dick Butkis. All the game’s elements — the harsh drudgery of practice, the moments of grace emerging from the sloughs of serial bashings, the grim spoils of brutality and their stoic acceptance by players – are contained and elucidated in Kretchmer’s masterly profile, whose closest counterpart in baseball is Al Stump’s landmark account of Ty Cobb’s final desperate days (even though Kretchmer’s subject is far less psychotic, if almost as mean.)
One feels like an ingrate to submit a qualm or two. Still, I wish Schulian hadn’t locked out entries more fictional than Exley’s novelized memoir. It would have been intriguing to see how the climactic football game from Richard Hooker’s M*A*S*H* would have stood with this crowd along with that venerable warhorse from Irwin Shaw, “The Eighty Yard Run” and some metaphysical hors-d’oeuvres from Don DeLillo’s End Zone.
Also, speaking from a racially chauvinistic perspective, I would have liked some representation in this book from such influential African-American sportswriters as Michael Wilbon or the late Ralph Wiley, whose gaudily Kafka-esque examination of O.J. Simpson’s guilt or innocence (though it likely doesn’t belong here anyway) remains for me the most thorough and persuasive dissection of that sordid episode in American celebrity jurisprudence.
But as George Blanda might have said if he were doing a commercial for Football: Great Writing About the National Sport, I can’t kick about a collection whose rapture over the written word and romance with a endangered species of sports journalism don’t prevent it from acknowledging, as Schulian writes in his introduction, the “storm clouds hanging over both the NFL and the NCAA” that are “bigger than any before them.” The collegiate clouds, mostly having to do with both abuses of NCAA rules and the association’s often myopic efforts at enforcing them, don’t get taken up in the anthology. But the NFL’s clouds are resolutely explored in such pieces as Mark Kram’s 1991 study of veteran players’ physical deterioration and Paul Solotaroff’s 2011 coroner’s report on Dave Duerson’s melancholy post-career slide into psychological despair in which the one endeavor the ex-Chicago safety was certain would have lasting value was taking his own life – and making sure his damaged brain was left intact for scientists to continue their inquiry into long-term effects of concussions.
The more one is made aware of cases like Duerson’s, the more one wonders if there’s any point in looking at football at all, much less remaining a steadfast fan. In addition to Football, there are new books that embody both these variables and I’ll tell you about them in the next installment.