A longtime Patriots chronicler goes inside the brain trust of the NFL’s most successful team.
In the NFL, team building—drafting, trading and signing fee agents—is a multimillion-dollar business with many livelihoods and professional reputations at stake. The widely acknowledged virtuoso of this peculiar blend of art and science is Bill Belichick, GM and head coach of the New England Patriots. Holley (Red Sox Rule: Terry Francona and Boston’s Rise to Dominance, 2008, etc.) traces the genesis of Belichick’s “Big Idea” back 20 years when, as the new head coach of the Cleveland Browns, he began piecing together notions—particularly, the idea of a uniform player-evaluation system—about how best to construct a consistent winner. Working for him then were scouting assistant Scott Pioli and young groundskeeper Thomas Dimitroff, both of whom, after extended apprenticeships under Belichick in New England, would go on to helm NFL franchises elsewhere, spreading the gospel of The Patriot Way. With Belichick as the principal and Pioli and Dimitroff in supporting roles, Holley dives deep into the complexities of the draft and the subtleties of an appraisal system sufficiently exact to rely upon, flexible enough to allow for exceptions. There’s plenty of inside-football, but the narrative soars when the author’s in storytelling mode, drawing sharp portraits of the three very different franchise architects and other prominent NFL figures, supplying behind-the-scenes anecdotes about the Patriots’ glorious run (three Super Bowl championships, one perfect regular season), the team’s infrequent failures (e.g., the notorious Spygate episode), the contributions and departures of key assistants and pivotal players, the abiding brilliance of quarterback Tom Brady and the emerging efforts by Pioli in Kansas City and Dimitroff in Atlanta to reshape the football culture—to replicate, albeit with their personal stamps, Belichick’s master plan.
A deeply reported, thoroughly engaging look at what it takes to succeed in the NFL—and a perfect complement to the NFL Network’s compelling miniseries Bill Belichick: A Football Life.
Texas journalist and author Patoski (Willie Nelson: An Epic Life, 2008, etc.) delivers an oversized history of one of sport’s greatest franchises.
The Dallas Cowboys’ on-field achievements—five Super Bowl wins, 10 conference championships, 21 division titles and 30 playoff appearances in their 52-year history—have arguably been overshadowed by their impact on professional football and popular culture in general, earning them the nickname “America’s Team.” Patoski’s in-depth study gives readers everything they want to know about “The Boys” and much more, from the field to the front office, the media and, of course, the famous Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders. The author also tracks the parallel development of the city of Dallas, with a focus on business and politics. For a book about a football team, there’s surprisingly little football, though the author briefly recaps the triumphs and tragedies of star players like Don Meredith, Roger Staubach, Troy Aikman, Michael Irvin and Emmitt Smith. Patoski barely mentions the subpar teams of the 1980s, though he does document the most recent edition’s struggles, highlighted by the drama surrounding talented and camera-friendly quarterback Tony Romo. Patoski spends a surprising amount of time discussing the media coverage of the team, but the majority of the narrative belongs to the ownership and front office, with the first two-thirds dominated by the man most responsible for the Cowboys’ success and for much of what an NFL franchise looks like today, team president and general manager Tex Schramm. Schramm and legendary coach Tom Landry got pushed out when “reptilian” Arkansas oil-and-gas baron Jerry Jones, a cartoon villain of a franchise owner, purchased the team in 1989, beginning the modern era of the Cowboys and keeping them in the headlines with controversy and equal measures of success and failure on and off the gridiron.
A fittingly exhaustive history of a larger-than-life franchise.
High school football players and other residents of hardscrabble Belle Glade, Fla., fight for their pride and their lives in this chronicle from veteran reporter Mealer (All Things Must Fight to Live: Stories of War and Deliverance in Congo, 2008, etc.).
The rich soil of the region around Lake Okeechobee, known to locals as “muck,” produces cane sugar and other valuable crops. It also produces professional football players (including current star Santonio Holmes) at a surprising rate, especially considering the equally staggering rates of crime, disease and poverty in the area. Glades Central Raiders and their attempt to win a state championship in the 2010 season are the focus of this entry in the inspirational sports genre. At the center is former NFL wide receiver Jessie Lee “Jet” Hester, who has returned to Belle Glade a hero and agreed to take over as coach of his former team in an attempt to give back to his hometown. The book also spotlights two of the players—wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin, expected to follow Hester to NFL stardom, and linebacker turned underdog quarterback Jamarious “Mario” Rowley—as well as the head cheerleader, Jonteria Williams, who dreams of becoming a doctor. No one on the team or in the town escaped untouched by tragedy, and Hester learned that trying to give back is not without its own pitfalls. The source material, including some fascinating history of the Okeechobee region, is compelling enough without the author’s occasional slips into purple prose, and the chronological jumps in the narrative can be confusing. But there is real drama here, with the stakes much higher than the question of who wins or loses the big game.
Mealer tries a little too hard to tug at the heartstrings; nonetheless, he offers a stirring tale of sports as a means of escape from dire circumstances.
Turning his attention from horseracing (To the Swift: Classic Triple Crown Horses and Their Race for Glory, 2008, etc.), New York Times reporter Drape follows a high-school football dynasty.
In November 2007, the author’s front-page Times article about the Redmen—a team from Smith Center, Kan., that had clinched four straight state championships—garnered so much interest that he decided to uproot his family from New York and return to Smith Center the following year to see if the Redmen could make it five in a row. Drape’s season-long enchantment with this quaint town (pop. 1,931) at the geographical center of the continental United States colors his account as much as his detailed coverage of the Redmen’s incredible 2008 season, during which, despite having lost 12 seniors, the team averaged 50 points per game while holding opponents to a meager nine. Though much of Drape’s analysis of the Redmen’s uncanny success rests on the it-takes-a-village mentality shared by members of the close-knit Smith Center community, at the heart of this tale of fortitude is the strategic and motivational genius of Roger Barta, who, during 31 years as the head coach, has won 289 games and eight state championships. His simple mantra—“Life is not about winning or losing; it’s about competing. It’s about working hard and getting a little bit better each day”—instilled in his young players and devoted staff the work ethic required to sustain their remarkable success. Though a bit overlong—the story would probably work better as a long-format magazine piece—the book will certainly appeal to fans of Friday Night Lights and other accounts of small-town sports glory.
A feel-good story of youthful drive, great coaching and the value of unflagging communal support.
Bowden (Guests of the Ayatollah: The First Battle in America’s War with Militant Islam, 2006, etc.) takes a sharp look at the 1958 National Football League championship game, which featured “the greatest concentration of football talent ever assembled for a single game.”
The classic Baltimore Colts/New York Giants title tilt had all the elements of a memorable game: spectacular plays and miscues, controversial calls by the officials, lead changes and, notably, the first sudden-death overtime in NFL history. Still, there were before, and have been since, dozens of NFL games every bit as thrilling. What set the 1958 contest apart to make it the best ever? Although Bowden offers a serviceable play-by-play account, he wisely focuses on a few individuals—Johnny Unitas, Raymond Berry, Weeb Ewbank, Art Donovan of the Colts; Frank Gifford, Sam Huff, Vince Lombardi, and Tom Landry of the Giants—to explain the game’s singular link to the NFL’s past and future. The author deftly examines the larger historical context shaping this coming-of-age moment, which propelled professional football to its current position as America’s favorite sport. First, the country itself—transitioning from the Old Soldier Eisenhower to the New Frontier Kennedy, from U.S. Steel to IBM, from blue-collar to white-collar, from segregation to integration—was ready for a sport embodying the ethos of the new age. For years a poor stepchild to the college game, pro football had only recently begun to adopt the scientific principles of analysis and preparation pioneered by Cleveland’s Paul Brown, advancements showcased here by some of the game’s greatest coaches and players. Second, as the overtime contest bled into prime time, millions of television sets picked up the broadcast, riveted the audience and cemented the perfect marriage between football’s electric tempo and the cool medium of television. Soon black-and-white would turn to color, the small-town feel of the sport—embodied nicely by Baltimore’s Colts—would turn big time and the NFL would transform itself into the multibillion dollar enterprise whose Super Bowl has become an unofficial national holiday.
Not quite on par with Bringing the Heat (1994), among the best football books ever, but surely a delight for anyone interested in the history of the NFL.
Sports Illustrated staffer Anderson (The All Americans, 2004, etc.) chronicles a 1912 game that proved a turning point not just for college football, but for the sport as a whole.
Before Jim Thorpe had his Olympic medals taken away, before Dwight Eisenhower became president and before Glenn “Pop” Warner became synonymous with Little League football, all three men tore up the gridiron with a reckless abandon that reflected their single-minded, Type-A personalities. On November 9, 1912, the threesome came together on the field. Eisenhower was a linebacker for the Army football wrecking crew; Warner coached Carlisle Indian School’s gritty squad, including star halfback Thorpe, fresh from his triumph at the summer Olympics in Stockholm. Army was a national powerhouse, and few gave Carlisle’s team of Native Americans a chance to even keep the score close. But Warner’s troops more than held their own in this battle of styles and cultures, galvanized by their coach’s pre-game speech: “it was the fathers and grandfathers of these Army players who…killed your fathers and grandfathers…who destroyed your way of life.” Anderson’s reportage is balanced, according equal import and respect to Native Americans and military men. The three protagonists’ backstories get more or less equal time; Thorpe’s early life was by far the most fascinating, so he merits a few more pages. This evenhandedness makes the book extra-involving, since readers can simply enjoy the game without taking sides. Whether or not it was “football’s greatest battle” (many would nominate the 1982 AFC divisional playoff between Miami and San Diego), Anderson proves that this 1912 clash certainly deserves a full-length book.
Gripping, inspiring coverage of three powerful forces’ unforgettable convergence: the sports version of The Perfect Storm.
Fun memories from football greats, and some fascinating insights into the politics of the Hall of Fame and football’s evolution over the past 50 years, as compiled by McCullough (My Greatest Day in Golf, not reviewed).
Twenty-seven Hall of Famers (with the exception of Bill Parcells) were interviewed for this collection, in which McCullough asked them to describe their greatest day in pro football, greatest day in college ball, and the best players they encountered. There’s Pete Pihos, one of the best ends to ever play and an All Pro on both sides of the ball back in the 1940s and ’50s, talking about playing against Sammy Baugh and the Redskins, and Bob St. Clair (all six feet, nine inches, and 265 pounds of him) running down Emlen Tunnell of the Giants. It doesn’t come as much of a surprise that Bart Starr’s greatest game was the Ice Bowl against Dallas on the way to the first Super Bowl, or that almost every player speaks the name Jim Brown (painfully absent) with a reverential awe. Some of the material comes across as disjointed: With Steve Largent, it’s not at all clear which games he’s talking about. And although it is admirable that McCullough lets the players speak in their own voice here, some tidying was in order: “They sent me a tape with like forty or fifty of my interceptions—I didn’t even remember half of them. I only remembered maybe forty out of the fifty, you know?” Nobody speaks with such a sense of pure joy (not just about playing football but relating the entire atmosphere at the time and his part in it) as Sam Huff of the New York Giants. Fresh out of West Virginia (“I couldn’t imagine trains running underground. I mean how do you fantasize about that?”), he became the prototype middle linebacker: “The head slap was legal at that time, you know, and when they slapped me, well, I slugged them back.”
Simply not to be missed: Meat and potatoes for the football fan.
Meaty biography of Broadway Joe from sports-columnist-turned-novelist Kriegel (Bless Me, Father, 1995).
The sooty mill towns in western Pennsylvania have churned out a host of professional football players, but none left a mark on the sport like Joe Namath, the handsome bad boy, boozer, and womanizer from Beaver Falls. Just a few months ago, Namath turned to alcoholic rehabilitation and disappeared from the public eye. Good thing, too, Kriegel writes in this detailed work, for in his last public appearance on national TV, he drunkenly told a sports reporter that he could care less about the game and would rather be kissing her. But then, that was the Joe we knew and loved, “disheveled, but happy,” doing what he liked and thumbing his nose at authority (unless that authority wore the name Bear Bryant, who coached Namath at the University of Alabama). Kriegel does a nice job portraying the two Namaths. One was a football player of intuitive genius who could read the developing angles in sports where that type of calculus mattered (football, pool, golf). The second Namath had a far more difficult time reading the emotional complexity of his life, particularly all that booze and all those women. Some of his antics were stupefying, but others defined the new braggadocio beat that a few athletes brought to the culture. While not of the same ilk as Mohammad Ali, judges Kriegel, Namath was a touchstone in an age of defiance; he managed to get on the enemy lists of both J. Edgar Hoover and Richard Nixon. Plus, he was simply brilliant at what he did on the field, delivering on his promises in a way a politician never could or would. Kriegel has also uncovered a lot of terrific backstory from friends and coaches and sportswriters.
Namath was no angel, thank goodness, but this evocative portrait shows him at play in the fields of magic.
A savvy sportswriter uses the football rivalry between the University of Texas and Texas A&M to paint a lively, partial portrait of the Lone Star State.
The two schools conclude their Big 12 regular season with a passionate game over Thanksgiving weekend. Stratton builds to the 2001 climax gradually, beginning at an August Aggie football rally in College Station. Formerly a men's army college, the conservative and rural A&M maintains its military traditions. Female cheerleaders are banned in favor of the all-male Yell leaders who guide the crowd through the emotional and highly structured program of music and yells. A statue of school founder and Civil War hero Sul Ross rises over the campus. Reveille VII, the canine mascot, prowls the stadium field near where her six predecessors are buried. Ninety miles away in Austin, the urban, more liberal Texas Longhorn partisans wonder why anyone would have to practice yelling. But the condescending UT fans have Bevo, the steer mascot, take pride in their huge marching band, and love to beat the Aggies. The impartial Stratton amiably digresses as he covers the season. He wanders briefly into state politics and geography. Before the UT-Oklahoma game in Dallas, he makes an odd trip through the Texas state fair. He portrays former coaches D.X. Bible and Bear Bryant and writes a short history of the Chicken Ranch, a.k.a. The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. In 1999, the Aggies' 80-foot bonfire collapsed during construction, killing 12 students; Stratton reviews the causes and profound effect on the community. Coaches Mack Brown of UT and R.C. Slocum at A&M talk football and life between games. In the end, with the shock of September 11, the painful memory of the bonfire disaster and both teams having good but not great seasons, Stratton appropriately presents the November game anticlimactically.
Good-natured, intelligent, funny, and less bombastic than the title suggests.
NFL great Gifford (The Whole Ten Yards, with Harry Waters, 1993) reminisces about the legendary game between his New York Giants and the Baltimore Colts.
Deeply ingrained in America’s football consciousness, the author starred at USC in the early ’50s, played numerous positions brilliantly for the Giants, was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1977 and anchored the greatest announcing triumvirate ever on Monday Night Football. Gifford’s glamour even extends, famously, to his appearance as the narrator’s obsession in Frederick Exley’s classic novel, A Fan’s Notes. Here he’s regular guy Frank, telling stories about friends, teammates and opponents, using the most renowned game in which he ever participated, the 1958 title contest, as the centerpiece. The players’ conversational reflections re-create the sort of banter that likely occurred among the Giants as they gathered during the ’50s at some of the Manhattan watering holes—Toot’s Shors, P.J. Clarke’s—they helped make famous. The play-by-play account vividly recalls the game’s vicissitudes, from the comically inept first quarter through the thrilling overtime. The players remember the almost small-town, family atmosphere inhabited by two professional teams in a postwar era in which many of the players were combat veterans, and all had to take off-season jobs to pay the mortgage. Nobody imagined the money and glory that lay ahead for professional football. The subtitle notwithstanding, how “the greatest game ever played” changed football is better examined in Mark Bowden’s recent The Best Game Ever: Giants vs. Colts, 1958, and the Birth of the Modern NFL (2008). Gifford trains the spotlight on the people: Charlie Conerly, who the author says is the greatest player not in the Hall; Kyle Rote, so beloved by teammates that they named their children after him; Gene “Big Daddy” Lipscomb, who carried around ghastly photos of his murdered mother; Vince Lombardi, before his mythic tenure as head coach of the Green Bay Packers; Sam Huff, who led the Giants’ defense and a pre-game argument with Gifford over playoff shares for a bench-sitting teammate—the then-unknown, future vice presidential candidate Jack Kemp.