The author of Why Read? (2004) and other works of cultural criticism returns with a memoir/treatise about those personal virtues he traces back to his years playing high school football.
Edmundson (English/Univ. of Virginia; Why Teach?: In Defense of a Real Education, 2013, etc.) arranges each chapter in similar fashion. Each has a theme (courage, manliness, faith, etc.) that he introduces with football memories and expands with later-life examples. Throughout, the author acknowledges the dangers of the game—though for a more incisive discussion of that aspect of the game, see Steve Almond’s Against Football—and he is far too complex a thinker to simply repeat the mantras of coaches and unthinking fans (“Football builds character!”). Moreover, he adorns his text with allusions to writers and literary works. Melville, Joyce, Homer (there is a lot about The Iliad here), Emerson, Ellison, Hemingway, Dickey—these and others form his offensive line. Edmundson also employs references to popular culture (Johnny Carson is on special teams), and there are lots of engaging stories about high school. He begins with boyhood memories of watching football on TV with his father, who made a great ritual of Sundays spent watching his beloved New York Giants—though he had a great fondness, as well, for Jim Brown and Y.A. Tittle. Edmundson writes about how he was sort of disconnected when he decided to give the game a whirl and surprised himself with his assiduousness and determination. He is appealingly self-deprecating throughout and quite certain that it was on the gridiron that he learned and developed his adult virtues. Although he does have a few gratuitous (and unconvincing) comments about women (how do they become virtuous?), he does not have much to say about how non–football-playing young men develop their courage, character, manliness, loyalty and so on.
A provocative thesis bolstered by amusing and instructive anecdotes—but there is a flaw in the defensive line.