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.