One of the more successful pieces of narrative nonfiction this year, distinguished by Torgovnick’s impeccable ear and canny,...

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CHEER!

THREE TEAMS ON A QUEST FOR COLLEGE CHEERLEADING’S ULTIMATE PRIZE

Turns out there’s more to college cheerleading than just rah rah rah.

Throughout high school, Torgovnick had nothing but disdain for school spirit, blowing off every mandatory pep rally. Cheerleaders weren’t on her radar, until one of her classmates fell from a human pyramid, bled all over the gym floor and suffered a concussion. Suddenly, the rebellious writer-to-be thought the whole cheerleader thing was kinda interesting. Fast-forward a decade or so, when Torgovnick’s editor at Jane magazine assigned her a story on the rise of cheerleading-based injuries, and the reporter was sucked into a subculture whose members were more obsessive and competitive than she had ever imagined. A book on the college cheerleading scene was essential, she decided, so she followed cheerleaders and their squads at Stephen F. Austin University, Southern University and the University of Memphis through the trials and tribulations of tryouts, the 2006-07 football season and finally the NCAA Nationals competitions. Just as Stefan Fatsis did in Word Freak: Heartbreak, Triumph, Genius, and Obsession in the World of Competitive Scrabble Players (2001), Torgovnick strategically incorporates her subject’s history into the narrative, giving context and even a bit of gravitas to what otherwise could have come off as the print version of a reality show. Also like Fatsis, she finds value and even some charm in off-center, damaged individuals, such as Casi, the anchor for the human pyramid, or Mary, a gaunt former coke sniffer. By the time readers finish “The Cheerleader’s Dictionary,” which closes the book, they’ll have gained real appreciation for the sport—and yes, it is a sport.

One of the more successful pieces of narrative nonfiction this year, distinguished by Torgovnick’s impeccable ear and canny, original choice of subject matter.

Pub Date: March 11, 2008

ISBN: 978-1-4165-3596-6

Page Count: 384

Publisher: Touchstone/Simon & Schuster

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 15, 2007

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Like eavesdropping on the team bus, sports enthusiasts will enjoy reliving a time when college football was top national...

THE UNDEFEATED

THE OKLAHOMA SOONERS AND THE GREATEST WINNING STREAK IN COLLEGE FOOTBALL HISTORY

A rousing look at the colorful coach and players who achieved an amazing 47-game winning streak for the Oklahoma Sooners.

In order to have present-day readers understand the true significance of the Sooners, Texas journalist Dent (The Junction Boys, 1999) gives helpful background information about the state where “Big Oil was a dream. But football was a religion.” Oklahomans, still suffering from effects of the Great Depression, also had to contend with the popular perception (perpetuated by Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath) of destitution and dispossession. In an attempt to fight the stereotypic Okie image, the University of Oklahoma decided to answer with a winning football team. And win they did. With coach Bud Wilkinson at the helm, from the second game of the 1948 season to the eighth game of the 1957 season, the Sooners compiled a staggering 94–4–2 record. They had winning streaks of 31 games and the fabled 47, which ended painfully at the hands of archrival Notre Dame. Dent avoids the potentially dry, statistical tone and instead provides atmosphere with snappy dialogue and by fleshing out the team, foibles and all. Wilkinson (dubbed “The Great White Father”) believed in a strong team of 22 “lean, fast, hard-boned country boys,” including a good group of second stringers. Besides their play on the field, the team, including the coach, played hard off of it, with women and drinking figuring prominently. Some players stand out, particularly quarterback Jimmy Harris, 1952 Heisman Trophy winner Billy Vessels, Gomer Jones, and the first black player, Prentice Gautt, whose personal struggles to be accepted by his teammates and his treatment under the Jim Crow laws provide some of the more poignant moments here. An epilogue reveals how many of the key people of those teams led, and still lead, productive, successful lives.

Like eavesdropping on the team bus, sports enthusiasts will enjoy reliving a time when college football was top national news. (16 pages b&w photos, not seen)

Pub Date: Sept. 7, 2001

ISBN: 0-312-26656-1

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Dunne/St. Martin's

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 2001

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An enjoyable and insightful look at a wild and wooly era in American sports.

THE LAST HEADBANGERS

NFL FOOTBALL IN THE ROWDY, RECKLESS '70S: THE ERA THAT CREATED MODERN SPORTS

Sports journalist Cook (Titanic Thompson: The Man Who Bet on Everything, 2010, etc.) recalls “pro football’s raging, reckless, hormonal, hairy, druggy, drunken, immortal adolescence” of the 1970s and that era’s role in making the NFL the predominant American sport.

The nicknames of three Oakland Raiders defensive players give a quick idea of the nature of football in the ’70s: Dr. Death, the Assassin and the Hit Man. Pro football was brutal and violent and played (by and large) by men who made little money, lived life precipitously on the edge, played the game for keeps and partied afterward. There was no such thing as being concussed, and the use of performance-enhancing (as well as recreational) drugs, from steroids to horse testosterone, was pretty much the norm. Later, many players would pay a high physical or mental price for their football lives, yet few seem to express regrets. Cook brings to life both the outsized personalities of the era—party animal Ken “the Snake” Stabler, chain smoking Fred Biletnikoff, the troubled Terry Bradshaw, Broadway Joe Namath, Mean Joe Greene and so many others—and also the great rivalries and games of the era, particularly among the Steelers, Raiders and Cowboys. Out of this era, Cook demonstrates, came the modern game. Rule changes had made the forward pass, rather than the plodding running game, dominant. Players were becoming bigger and faster. Add a little sexiness to the carnage via the Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders, and the game was perfect for TV. A major contributor to this televisionization of football was the advent of Monday Night Football with the irascible Howard Cosell and sidekicks Frank Gifford and Don Meredith. Cook narrates the hilarious uncensored on- and off-air adventures of MNF. There may be a bit too much football lingo here—“flex defense,” “stunt 4-3,” “three-deep zone”—for the casual fan, but Cook does not go overboard.

An enjoyable and insightful look at a wild and wooly era in American sports.

Pub Date: Sept. 3, 2012

ISBN: 978-0-393-08016-2

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Norton

Review Posted Online: June 21, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 2012

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