I’m prescribing a list of summer reading books for those fortunate to get away, whether you make it to the North Beach in Rush, Co. Dublin or to a cabin in the woods in Washington State. This selection of fine football books can also be read as you leave shelter in place and begin that staycation. They take us behind the scenes in the league, provide historical context for the growth of each franchise and give you an insight into the relationship between the NFL and the military. One memorably shines a light on life in small town America, where the local football team carries the hopes of the community on its shoulders. Another book features a celebrated writer going behind the scenes with an NFL team and even taking a snap as the last string quarterback in a preseason game. And promptly falling on his face. As it was hard to trim my recommendations to four books, I’ve included a wider reading list below. Consider it essential homework before the new season starts. Enjoy.
Friday Night Lights: A Town, A Team, and A Dream by H.B. Bissinger H.B. ‘Buzz’ Bissinger, the Pulitzer Prize winner, left his journalism job at The Philadelphia Inquirer and moved to West Texas in 1988 for a year to assimilate and infiltrate. He even enrolled his children in the Odessa school system. What translates to the page is the magnitude of high school football in small town America and the weight of pressure on the young players, the Permian Panthers, as they juggle expectations of the local community. It is an astonishing insight into football culture and how middle America often hitches its breeches to the child prodigies in its midst. This story plays out each year not just in Texas, but in cities and rural parts of Ohio, Florida and California. Racial and social divide play a part of the West Texas story.
Bissinger described Odessa as a dusty, gritty place that had a stadium in it that looks like a rocket ship in the desert. “For a lot of kids, life peaks at 18 in Odessa, it just does. You're playing in front of 19,000 people, you're the god of the town, you're a rock star, but you don't spend the rest of your life being that kind of star,” he says.
Friday Night Lights was a major motion picture and a quality, highly successful TV series followed in the decades after the book, but neither came close to what Buzz Bissenger was able to achieve, which is stunning prose style, married to a compelling story featuring every player, coach, janitor and fan in the community. He starts out writing about high school football culture in Texas and ends up dealing with the core values in society. A town, a team, and a dream. And a complete masterpiece. "America's Game: The Epic Story of How Pro Football Captured a Nation" by Michael MacCambridge The reader is taken back to the early origins of the game and escorted through pro football’s struggles through World War II, to its near present catch-all hold on America and beyond. MacCambridge's definitive history of the NFL catalogues franchise turmoil, the AFL-NFL merger which sent football into orbit and finishes with Janet Jackson’s notorious ‘wardrobe malfunction’. Football, the author argues, overtook baseball as the national pastime by making smarter business decisions at almost every point post-World War II. The book delves into why shrewd businessmen dole out vast sums to take control of teams. Vanity and ego play their part as do juicy broadcast deals and sponsorships. While chronicling owners and coaches, he paints a rich picture of the power plays that underpinned the game. There, to preside over a league that featured colorful characters like Vince Lombardi and Al Davis, was an erstwhile PR executive who became NFL Commissioner for thirty years and was one of America’s great marketeers of the twentieth century - one Pete Rozelle. The modern NFL, with any team capable of winning on any given Sunday, owes much to Rozelle. Required reading for casual or diehard fans looking to dive into the NFL’s past and understand how the modern league came about. Paper Lion: Confessions of a Last-String Quarterback by George Plimpton
In 1963, George Plimpton, a pioneer in 'participatory journalism', was granted access by the Detroit Lions to try out as a quarterback with the team during training camp while working for Sports Illustrated. The coaches were aware of Plimpton's role but the players were not.
Plimpton, the scrawny Harvard graduate, had never played football but he was determined to find out what it would take to become a pro-quarterback. Full of insight and humor, Paper Lion is considered a seminal book in American sports. He brilliantly captures how an average fan might feel if they were given the chance with a professional football team. Or that of a genuine NFL rookie, for a number of those were in Plimpton’s midst in the cafeteria and in meeting rooms. Giants of 1960s football like Alex Karras and Dick ‘Night Train’ Lane are brought to life as characters and real people, rather than ‘cardboard cut-out’ jocks. All the rivalries, insecurities and tensions of football emerge, as does the brutal nature of the game. When the cost of jelly doughnuts and hired cars come up, the reader realizes how we are a million miles from the present day NFL. The book has aged remarkably well. When he gets inserted into a game at quarterback, Plimpton loses yards. Most fans dream about auditioning with their favorite team. Plimtpton actually got to live this.
Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain There’s no place to hide when you come home from war, above all when you’re standing beside Destiny’s Child at the Dallas football stadium halftime show. Dubbed the Catch-22 of the Iraq war, the heroes in the book come back from Baghdad and after the valor of battle, they are rewarded with an awkward, beauty parade in front of a vulgar Jerry Jones-type, Dallas Cowboys owner and a stadium full of fans. The disaffection with America in 2004, when the novel is set, is palpable. “Being honored for the worst day of your life,” Billy Lynn concedes, is the part of the underlying absurdity of the novel which covers a single day in his life, with flashbacks to battle. Unlike the better-known writers of his generation including David Foster Wallace and Jonathan Franzen, Ben Fountain bloomed later as a writer, yet captured the ability of his contemporaries to lace his style with irony and sharp profane language, while leaving enough sincerity in his characters that you could root for them. It’s an exhilarating debut from Fountain and a devastating take down of George W Bush’s America. Best of the Rest:
A Fan's Notes, Frederick Exley - The antithesis of most sports books, this visceral, seething in alcoholism and totally self-absorbed theme, leads the doomed narrator to concede it was his destiny “to sit in the stands with most men and acclaim others. It was my fate, my destiny, my end, to be a fan.” Nick Hornby fittingly pens the introduction.
The Education of a Coach, David Halberstam - An all but authorized biography of Bill Belichick, America’s sublime 20th century chronicler turns his attention to his Nantucket neighbor: the best football coach of all time. All the Belichick nuances are teased out.
Bringing the Heat, Mark Bowden - A fine season long, Philadelphia Eagles crusade for glory, featuring Reggie White, Buddy Ryan and co. Hearing a football writer I greatly admire, Chris Wesseling, quote the book in the relation to the violence of the Myles Garret incident on the Around the NFL podcast remains a stand out football moment from last season.
When Pride Still Mattered: A Life of Vince Lombardi, David Maraniss - Lombardi wanted you only to focus on three things in this order - God, family and the Green Bay Packers. The world is managing just fine with no new word from God but Maraniss beautifully captures the Lombardi and the myth behind the family man.
The Score Takes Care of Itself: My Philosophy of Leadership, Bill Walsh - Written by the head coach of the great San Francisco 49ers team of the 1980s, it contains a fine warning about perfectionism and some of the best tips about team building and leadership. No wonder the world of business has raided this book repeatedly since publication.
The New Thinking Man’s Guide to Football, Paul Zimmerman - Football writing and analysis of the highest level from Sports Illustrated’s great football scribe, Dr Z.
Football Scouting Methods, Steve Belichick - The bible for scouting techniques written by the ablest football scout of his time from Navy days. Steve’s son, the football icon Bill Belichick, would learn to analyse tape from his father at the 7 years of age. Remarkable.