Hall of Fame wide receiver Rice and sportswriter Williams (co-authors: 50 Years, 50 Moments: The Most Unforgettable Plays in Super Bowl History, 2015) turn in a lively history of the NFL.
A century ago, George Halas, the legendary Bears coach, “arguably the most influential figure in the history of professional football,” caught a train to Ohio and created a league, the American Professional Football Association, made up of teams from Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, and New York. Most of those teams—the Muncie Flyers and Rochester Jeffersons, anyone?—no longer exist, but the league itself evolved, and with it football became increasingly popular not just in pro stadiums, but also in high school and college. Early football wasn’t pretty: It was a mud-spattered mess, made messier by the fact that the first players didn’t have helmets—and many grew their hair long in the belief that “a thick shock of hair would help absorb the shock of collisions.” The authors are comprehensive in their coverage, explaining the necessary partnership of quarterbacks and receivers—you can’t have greats of either unless you have greats of both—and the machinations of the draft, with a roster of the best of all time. Rice and Williams serve up a rogues’ gallery, taking in the great and the forgotten alike. The pace of the narrative is a little herky-jerky, switching from anecdote to stats and brief biographies that threaten to induce chronological whiplash; the book could benefit from both streamlining and a little more Ken Burns–like splashiness, given the occasion. But there are plenty of locker-room stories that are worth the price of admission—e.g., Detroit Lions QB Bobby Layne’s habit of sending rookies out to buy beer just ahead of curfew, which was sure to bring on a fine, since they “couldn’t refuse the best, most influential player on the team,” and Rice’s own habit, maddening to equipment managers, of trying on every pair of pants in the place before a game: “Everything had to be spanking new.”
A treat for gridiron fans.