As millions of Americans settle in on Sundays, Mondays and now Thursdays to watch what has become the most prominent national sport, what do we actually know about football beyond the fleeting glimpses we’re afforded of high octane athleticism? We know it’s a rough game, we now know that years of play can have long-term health-effects and we also know that some get bullied and some do the bullying. But are most of us aware how football works as a process, discipline, art-form and family dynamic?

Nicholas Dawidoff’s Collision Low Crossers: A Year Inside the Turbulent World of NFL Football decodes the seemingly spontaneous inspiration, dedicated and tireless effort and then explosion that most of us witness only on game-day. Through the 2011 NFL season, Dawidoff spent one full year with the New York Jets. He writes that the team’s management gave him “a security code, a desk in the scouting department, a locker, and the freedom to roam.” His level of access was unprecedented. 

Collision Low Crossers was honed from 8,000 pages of notes, 12-to-18 hour days spent with coaches, players and staff and built from outlines and indexes of these myriad pages of notes that took him months to construct. Dawidoff’s obsessive dedication mirrors his subjects’ commitment and illuminates the effort it takes to dig into something that’s a mystery to the uninitiated.  

“I was really taken with something that was so present in people’s lives, and so popular, and yet so in its way clandestine,” Dawidoff says. “I found that it’s sort of a mysterious thing…the players are masked and wear these suits of armor,” he explains. Its almost as if “the game has its own language that’s sometimes difficult for players to understand, let alone fans.”

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Dawidoff was more than privy to that language. In an incredibly engaging and gripping three acts (Before, During and After), he crafts a complex story of family life. “Being with a football team, even in my unusual capacity, is an extremely intimate experience…you have to sort of become a part of the group,” Dawidoff says.

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From the beginning of his reporting, Dawidoff became integrated into the family of the Jets first by matter-of-factly identifying himself during the first team meeting. Rex Ryan, the head coach, asked everyone to announce his position on the team. “It’d be like ‘Mark Sanchez, quarterback, USC,’ you know, ‘Jim Leonard, safety, Wisconsin’ and it got to me and I just said, ‘Nicky Dawidoff, book-writer, Harvard’ and they all turned around and looked at me.”

What makes Collision Low Crossers a transcendental read is how thoughtful and thorough a guide Dawidoff becomes. “It wasn’t my intention to write a proscriptive book,” he says.

Dawidoff says that as he began to grasp the left-brained and right-brained process of building a football game plan, it began to feel familiar to him and actually holds similarities to the ways a painter would begin to create a painting, or a writer a book. “Whatever it is, that’s the creative endeavor these people are engaged in. It was striking to me the similarities in how people approach it,” he says.

At the heart of Dawidoff’s work is an incredible emphasis on human relationships and longing. Football is “borne of a kind of imaginative spontaneity, but that spontaneity is not grounded in just a moment when something occurs and it all falls into place. It’s born of just long, dedicated, deliberate work,” Dawidoff explains. “I loved the way in which football coaches worked; I liked how much effort was in the service of imagination.”

Evan Rodriguez is a writer living in Georgetown, Texas. You can follow him on Twitter.