In my family, it’s a running joke how my brother Reid, a former high-school football star, is big on football metaphors. We don’t meet; we “huddle up.” We don’t manage; we do “basic blocking and tackling.” Sometimes we throw a Hail Mary. So reading all about pro football, the metaphors flying like coolers of Gatorade, was a homey experience. Enlightening too. I cheered my head off at Reid’s games decades ago (“Beat ’Em, Bust ’Em, That’s Our Custom!”). Two weeks back, I cursed the Pats’ loss to those evil Ravens. And today, Super Bowl Sunday, I’m going to blitz you (sorry) with some super football books.
Let’s start with the modern classic “America’s Game: The Epic Story of How Pro Football Captured a Nation” (Random House, 2004). The great sportswriter Michael MacCambridge explains how football displaced baseball as America’s most popular sport. Baseball is what we wish we were. But football is who we really are: energetic, speedy, territorial, team-spirited, violent. There’s a reason its rise paralleled the post-World War II years; football fed the warrior need of returning soldiers-turned-civilians. Indeed, Johnny Unitas called it the “closest thing there is to all-out war.” In our age of concussion-related lawsuits and Bountygate, this rings unnervingly true.
Its rise also mirrored the rise of television. MacCambridge quotes Baltimore Colts lineman Art Donovan on how the game went “from being a localized sport based on gate receipts and played by oversized coal miners and West Texas psychopaths to a national sport based on television ratings.” As for the event with the biggest rating of all, it seems that Lamar Hunt, the oil-tycoon scion and founder of the AFL, got the name for 1967’s big new championship game by watching his kids play with a fad toy: the Super Ball. Here’s his note to NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle: “I have kiddingly called it the ‘Super Bowl,’ which obviously can be improved upon.”
The name stuck, but we go on to learn just how much football was “improved upon” from the start. It broke the color barrier before baseball, for instance, and its economic structure was downright socialist compared to the MLB’s economic disparity. Meaning that (well, back in 1992 anyway) all football players shared in two-thirds of the TV profits, no matter their team’s level of marketing or national appeal. Financial symmetry was in football’s DNA. There’s no monopolistic-Yankees equivalent in football, and no shared-wealth-Packers equivalent in baseball.
Not that football players haven’t fought for greater rights. In 1987, when player reps tried to negotiate for free agency, the owners dug in. As Dallas Cowboys general manager Tex Schramm bellowed, “Don’t you see? You’re the cattle, we’re the ranchers!” And the metaphors just keep coming. Indeed, “How Football Explains America” (Triumph, 2008) offers a pile-up. ESPN correspondent Sal Paolantonio likens the first down to Manifest Destiny. The huddle is linked to the “right of the people peaceably to assemble” in the Bill of Rights. Football also apparently explains Daniel Boone, Alexis de Tocqueville, John Coltrane, and the Battle of Midway. Yes, it’s a reach, but I will give Paolantonio this: He’s right that TV isn’t the sole explanation for football’s popularity. If that were so, American-style football would be big in other countries where they watch the box. But it doesn’t travel well (the NFL’s European league and the Tokyo Bowl have both petered out). It’s fully ours.
In Sportsbooksland, there’s always a title about “the best game ever.” Lucky for us, the football one is by the guy who also wrote “Black Hawk Down.” Mark Bowden’s “The Best Game Ever: Giants Vs. Colts, 1958, and the Birth of the Modern NFL” (Grove, 2008) is so good. And wow, what a game! The league’s top offense (the gritty Colts) vs. its top defense (the glamorous Giants), featuring 17 future Hall of Famers, and the first sudden death contest in NFL history. So many great scenes, but I’ll single out Colts coach Weeb Ewbank’s Clear Eyes-Full Heart-ish pregame speech. He booms out each player’s past rejections: “Detroit didn’t want you…The Rams didn’t want you . . . The Browns cut you after one scrimmage.” And then he whips them into an I’ll-show-them frenzy.
The play-by-play is smart and adrenaline packed, but the most thought-provoking part comes at the end when Bowden asks coach Andy Reid (now with the Chiefs, then the Eagles) to analyze the game film. It’s all so meat-and-potatoes! Back then, remember, players had to take offseason jobs (Unitas worked for Bethlehem Steel) and didn’t have time to memorize hundreds of plays, as quarterbacks do today. And each side repeatedly lined up in the same formation, unthinkable now.
To time travel a bit more, read the funniest football book ever: “About Three Bricks Shy . . . and the Load Filled Up” (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2004). It’s the anniversary edition of 1974’s “Three Bricks Shy of a Load,” in which humorist Roy Blount Jr. hangs out with the Pittsburgh Steelers for a season. We get Terry Bradshaw’s cracker dialogue, Franco Harris’s lumbering nobility, and Frenchy Fuqua’s fashion statements (lavender jumpsuit! sequined arm sling!). I quite enjoyed the wink-wink literary allusions too. There’s Proust: one section on wide receiver Lynn Swann is called “Swann’s Way.” And there’s Yeats: when the Steelers’ center Ray Mansfield whines about holding penalties, Blount deadpans “Things fall apart, if the center cannot hold.”
But enough of the glory days. For modern football, turn to “More Than a Game: The Glorious Present and Uncertain Future of the NFL” (Scribner, 2009). Brian Billick, the ex-Ravens coach, gets top author billing, but he wrote it with Michael MacCambridge. That’s one great combo — sharp coaching insight plus lucid prose. I especially liked their stuff about the sovereign importance of drafting the right quarterback: 12 of the 18 first-round throwers from 1992-2001 were flops. Within three years, not one of the flop’s coaches had a job. (Tom Brady was a 6th-round choice, let’s not forget).
“More Than a Game” is more than candid about the cross-purposes of coaches and players, too. Put simply, the coaches want to win above all else (their job depends on it), and the players want to pump up their stats above all else (their career depends on it). Don’t blame the players. They “are keenly aware that their shelf life is ridiculously short” (the average is three and half seasons), and few have guaranteed contracts. Likewise, “The Games That Changed the Game: The Evolution of the NFL in Seven Sundays” (Ballantine, 2010) uses a handful of games to trace how we got to the modern era of ever more fakes, explosive plays, no-huddle offenses, and personnel changes. Plus the talent differential between the teams has become “razor thin,” according to author and former NFL quarterback Ron Jaworski of Monday Night Football. One of the games dissected by Jaworski (with co-authors David Plaut and Greg Cosell) — is Super Bowl XXXVI, Patriots vs. Rams, 2002. They’ve got lots of great dirt on Bill Belichick’s master plan to constantly pummel Rams star running back Marshall Faulk “like a piñata at a kid’s birthday party.”
OK, so bring this last one to the stands (or your couch). “Take Your Eye Off the Ball: How to Watch Football by Knowing Where to Look’’ (Triumph, 2010) taught me all kinds of cool stuff. Who knew that linemen “flash their helmets” to their opponents as a feint before the snap, cocking their head the opposite way they plan to move? Or that rookie quarterbacks fumble a lot since they play in the shotgun in college and aren’t used to taking snaps? Author Pat Kirwan, an ESPN analyst and former coach, produced this book with writer David Seigerman. They cover yards and yards of complexity and nuance. It’s only right. As Kirwan says of football, “[w]hat used to be a checkers game is now a chess match.” I’ll share that metaphor with my brother.Katharine Whittemore is a freelance writer based in Northampton. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.