Football season is upon us! This means weekends of loading up on wings and beer, tossing around the ol’ pigskin, and even reading up on the love of the game. Here, Michael Weinreb, author of Season of Saturdays: A History of College Football in 14 Games, calls out five of his favorite pre- and post-game reads.
There are dozens of great and underrated books about football. These may or may not be my favorites (that list shifts from year to year and moment to moment), but these are five titles that unquestionably informed the writing of my own football book, Season of Saturdays.
There’s a reason Bissinger’s book, about a year in the life of the football team at Permian High School in Odessa, Texas, has been co-opted by Hollywood as both a movie and a television show. More than any book I’ve ever read, it gets at the complicated and fraught and emotional relationship between small towns and their sports teams, and it shows us how that relationship serves as a metaphor for American life. I read Bissinger’s book in college, and it taught me that the best sports books use the game as a cipher to write about pretty much everything else. (Also: Without this book, there would be no Eric Taylor.)
Maybe the finest novel about pro football ever written, by a former wide receiver for the Dallas Cowboys in the 1960s. Bawdy and funny and real, it managed to capture all the beauty and violence and inherent hypocrisy of the sport, years before it became fodder for public conversation. (The Nick Nolte film adaptation is also very good.)
I could have (and perhaps should have) included Jenkins‘s Semi-Tough, the other great and racy football novel of 1970s; but this collection of essays and stories from Jenkins’s unbelievably colorful run as the college football writer atSports Illustrated served as one of the primary inspirations for Season of Saturdays. Somebody ought to usher it back into print while Jenkins is still around to write a new foreword.
One of my primary goals in writing Season of Saturdays was to capture the way college football—a uniquely American enterprise—so often dovetails with the national argument. This was especially true in the 1960s, and it’s surprising to me how few college football books have managed to capture that aspect. Rosenberg’s book, about the so-called “ten-year war” between Ohio State’s Woody Hayes and Michigan’s Bo Schembechler, is one of the few that does so, and it does it with grace and aplomb.
The first football book I read as a kid and the one that stuck with me the longest. Several of the chapters directly informed Season of Saturdays, including the one about Georgia Tech losing 222-0 to Cumberland in 1916, and Centre College’s 6-0 upset of Harvard in 1921. The cover art, of Alabama halfback Tommy Lewis coming off the sidelines to make an illegal tackle of Rice’s Dicky Moegle, is what I see when I close my eyes and imagine what football used to be.
Michael Weinreb has written about college football for The New York Times, GQ, Sports on Earth, ESPN, and Grantland. He has been featured on NPR’s This American Life and ESPN’s 30 for 30, and has appeared on CNN, ESPN, and ESPN Radio. His book Game of Kings won the Quill Award for Best Sports Books of 2007. He lives in San Francisco, California.