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On Sports

‘Coaching Confidential,’ ‘Long Shot’ and ‘The Longest Race’

Stephen Dunn

Perhaps not much of what’s revealed in “Coaching Confidential” was confidential.

Veteran NFL head coach Tom Coughlin told Gary Myers in this behind-the-scenes look at the league through the eyes of about 20 current and former coaches that making it to the Super Bowl was worth the struggle. “I’ll take the lumps to get what’s at the end of the rainbow anytime,” he said.

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Of course, his lumps weren’t literal. Lots of the players who made it possible for Coughlin to reach the rainbow might not share that sentiment, assuming they can remember the Super Bowl.

This is not to suggest that being a head coach in the NFL is easy, even though nobody is trying to tear your knee apart or knock you senseless. These are men, after all, who sleep in their offices, men who can slide from genius to unemployed if the wrong giants on their rosters get caught using performance-enhancing drugs.

Myers would certainly agree, and as evidence he cites “the phone call every coach fears when his players are not under their control.” In Coughlin’s case, the call came on the night after Thanksgiving in 2008, after one of his stars, Plaxico Burress, had illegally carried a handgun into a nightclub and shot himself in the leg.

Myers goes on to say that “there is nothing in the playbook” to tell a coach how to deal with “the phone call.”

Perhaps there should be. Maybe somebody should tuck into the playbook an addendum advising coaches not to employ players witless and clumsy enough to shoot themselves.

All the business about injuries, firearms, and unwelcome phone calls notwithstanding, the single line in “Coaching Confidential” evoking the most gruesome image concerns the evening Denver coach John Fox first met Tim Tebow. Fox told Myers, “You could see the intangibles. They just oozed out of him.”

Was that more troubling than what oozed out of Burress in that nightclub in New York? You decide.

Mike Piazza (pictured) maintains that he wrote his memoir “Long Shot” “with the ambition that it would make its mark as inspirational.” Some readers will be inspired by the fact that Piazza was drafted less for his potential as a baseball player than because his father and LA Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda were close friends.

To his credit, Piazza parlayed that act of kindness into 16 years in the major leagues, most of them spent with the Dodgers or the Mets. When he retired, he led all major league catchers in home runs.

He was less successful at throwing out base runners, making friends, and convincing people that he’d never used performance-enhancing drugs.

That’s why Piazza did not gain admission to the Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility, which probably irked him. In the epilogue to “Long Shot,” he acknowledges that “I still feel the need for validation. Someday, I can only hope, election to the Hall of Fame will take care of that.”

Piazza was paid $120, 776,002 over the course of his career as a ballplayer, endorsements not included.

In a capitalist system, where one’s “validation” is popularly defined at least in part by earnings, it might be logical to consider Piazza thoroughly validated, and further to assume that if he needs the votes of a collection of baseball writers to shore up his self-esteem, he should seek professional help.

Early in chapter 15 of “Long Shot,” Piazza describes his shock when he was traded from the Dodgers to Miami. He writes, “I slipped into a narcissistic haze.” It could be argued that he did that 14 chapters earlier, and that he has yet to slip out.

In “The Longest Race,” Ed Ayres, a journalist and environmental editor, makes a case for long-distance running as a metaphor for the more general determination and endurance required to live consciously and sensibly on a planet the future of which we have threatened.

Ayres argues that we have “increasingly marginalized and even abandoned our bodies,” and that in running in ultramarathons, he has found a way to reclaim his humanity, at least for the duration of the race.

By competing in the JFK 50 Mile, he discovers how to combat with joy the despair that might otherwise overwhelm him when he considers that we are “in the midst of the largest mass extinction of species since the dinosaurs died out.”

“The Longest Race” provides hope to people who’ve noticed “the civilized world seems to have been blindfolded by thieves and sent speeding toward a wreck,” and it ought to be required reading even for people who have never run a step.

Bill Littlefield hosts NPR’s “Only A Game” at WBUR in Boston. He teaches at Curry College, where he is also writer-in-residence.
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