Already missing pigskin? Phil Hanrahan, author of Zola’s special edition of Life After Favre, recommends 6 gridiron reads to tide you over till fall—or at least till training camp.
“Roy Blount Jr. was in his early 30s, a writer for Sports Illustrated, when he moved to Pittsburgh in 1973 and followed the Steelers for a season. He hit paydirt. The personalities, the access, the welcome from owner Art Rooney and family. And the era – drinking, smoking, gallivanting. Terry Bradshaw. Mean Joe Greene. If you had crusty coach Chuck Noll and the upstanding Rooneys on one side, they were more than counterbalanced by freewheeling eccentrics on the player side. Who can forget Frenchy Fuqua? The book is hilarious. The writing marvelous. ‘The best of all football books,’ wrote Adam Gopnik in The New Yorker. Where’d the title come from? Blount and a reserve lineman were standing on the sideline (the sideline!) during the mother of all mud games in Oakland. The men looked out at players rolling in slop, blinking through turf-clotted facemasks, soaked to the bone, and the bigger man roared, ‘We’re all about three bricks shy of a load!’ Plus, you can’t beat the book’s opening sentence: Pro football players are adults who fly through the air in plastic hats and smash into each other for a living.“
“Stefan Fatsis – you might know Word Freak, his competitive Scrabble book, or his Slate sports podcasts – played soccer in college. This informed his belief that although he’d surely appear foolish he might not make a complete idiot out of himself were he to start training as a field-goal kicker, get in fighting shape, convince an NFL team to take him on during training camp, and…kick, run windsprints, get teased and carry bags like other rookies. Taking a page of out George Plimpton’s Paper Lion playbook, Fatsis convinced the 2006 Mike Shanahan-coached Denver Broncos to let him saddle up. The result? Astonishing access to the lives and emotions of NFL football players. His portraits of philosophical kicker Jason Elam (‘Hours and hours of boredom surrounded by a few seconds of panic,’ said Elam of the kicker’s life), up-and-down quarterbacks Jake Plummer, Jay Cutler, and Bradlee Van Pelt, and prickly, swaggering punter Todd Sauerbrun are indelible. While investigating issues of race and football’s meat-grinding economics, Fatsis delivers a witty, vividly observed account of a 43-year-old, 5-foot-8 Ivy League grad pursuing what seems a comically impossible dream: to play in the NFL.”
“John Feinstein takes his trademark year-in-the-life approach to Baltimore and the 2004 Ravens in Next Man Up. And the team opened all doors. Feinstein sits in on top personnel meetings. Draft debates. Coaches’ strategy sessions. Roster cuts. The Ravens’ new 44-year-old owner Steve Bisciotti along with then-coach Brian Billick were confident enough to give Feinstein cart blanche, and he took advantage, spending weeks in General Manager Ozzie Newsome’s office as the former player conducted business. Don’t expect big laughs or playbook-mining game analysis. What you get is a stimulating insider ride, deftly told player biographies, and a steady focus on the physically perilous lives of football players: one torn ligament and that might be it.”
“David Maraniss likes complicated subjects – Bill Clinton, Barack Obama – and the Wisconsin-raised writer has a knack for arresting, faceted portraits. Hard to say which Lombardi storyline here is more compelling: the coach’s extraordinary turnaround of a floundering football franchise or the flaws he fought when it came to being a husband and father. Hot-tempered, rigid, authoritarian, this son of a Brooklyn butcher could also be innovative, broad-minded about race, laughter-loving, curious. He seemed to understand others more than himself. In master-class prose, When Pride Still Mattered tracks the numerous surprising transitions in Lombardi’s life while painting an unequalled portrait of Green Bay itself: city of bars, spires, paper mills.”
“Schaap’s collaboration with Packers right guard Jerry Kramer began with a book of poetry, or so the story goes. A publisher asked Schaap to recommend a football player for a life-in-the-NFL diary and Schaap remembered Kramer sitting on a bed reading poetry the first time they met. Their partnership yielded an unimprovable book. It was the 1967 Lombardi-led season. Kramer recorded, Schaap shaped. Not only did the Packers win the Super Bowl but to get to Miami they won the legendary ‘Ice Bowl’ in minus-15-degree weather at Lambeau. Guess who threw a key block on the winning touchdown? Read the book for the living-hell training camp scenes alone. Or taskmaster Lombardi dealing with hell-raisers Paul Hornung and Max McGee. The book is full of wonderfully deadpan lines. ‘I went to jail today,’ writes Kramer/Schaap of moving into the training-camp dorms. And: ‘We’ve never had anybody die during grass drills.’ Sometimes there’s no irony at all: ‘It’s impossible to put into words how horrible I feel,’ goes an entry filed after a day’s second practice during 90-degree heat.
“Schaap triumphed again on his return to Green Bay in ’96, another Super Bowl-winning season. Brett Favre, Reggie White, Coach Mike Holmgren, GM Ron Wolf – all are expertly drawn. Schaap writes with unapologetic love for the team and town. The book is warm, funny, loose in a good way. The bond between the Packers and the people of Green Bay: Schaap finds it beautiful. Other notes are struck as Schaap considers what it’s like for African-American players in a town this homogeneous but he doesn’t try to score any big-city-perspective points. Did I mention the book is warm and funny? Plus, Schaap’s work at the sentence level is invariably sure. He gets in a groove and rides it all the way to the Super Bowl in the Big Easy.”