Saturday, August 31, 2013

The Dark Side of the Game: My Life in the NFL by Tim Green

Sheesh, what is it with the titles on these football books? Here is yet another with an inaccurate title, this one obviously sensationalist. The title makes it sound like Green is going to tell us about shooting steroids in a teammate's ass or snorting coke out of a cheerleader's cleavage. Or maybe he's going to dig deep into a dark issue like brain damage or other lifelong physical woes of former players.

There isn't much darkness here, but The Dark Side of the Game is a pretty good book. Green played linebacker and defensive end for the Atlanta Falcons from 1986-1993 (the book is copyright 1996), and he has since written a couple dozen books, mostly fiction. This book is not his life story, though. Instead, it is a collection of essays about various aspects of the NFL, a mixture of recollections and opinions.

The Dark Side of the Game is a well-written and thoughtful survey of pro football circa 1995. Although a few chapters about particular players such as Deion Sanders date this book, I think most of it is still relevant today.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

The 50 Greatest Plays in Chicago Bears Football History by Lew Freedman

For what turned out to be my grandparents' last Christmas, the task of procuring gifts for my grandfather somehow fell to me (money-wise we all went in together on most of their gifts but I usually didn't do the shopping). I found The 50 Greatest Plays in Chicago Bears Football History and thought it was something he would like as a lifelong fan. It was something I thought I'd like, too, and I hoped to read parts of it when I went to visit. Alas, I don't think he ever got to read it since it was sitting in the same spot on the piano in the living room every time I went over there. After he died, I got the book.*

I didn't plan it when I chose August as football month, but when I found myself looking for the next book to read a couple days before my grandfather's birthday it seemed fitting to choose this one. Plus I had just finished a book about the Steelers, and I felt that I had to read at least one Bears book this month.

The title of this book is inaccurate. Mostly it's the greatest games, not plays. From the X-O diagrams I saw while flipping through, I was hoping for something more technical, a book that took apart the Bears' best plays and analysed why they succeeded.** Instead it's just a gimmicky format used to tell the history of the team while shaking up the chronology.

This scrambling can be jarring to the reader (going from 1926 to 1973 to 1925 to 2006), but maybe it makes the team's long history more accessible by mixing the old and unfamiliar with newer games that readers may have seen. In spite of its misleading title, The 50 Greatest Plays in Chicago Bears Football History works pretty well as an informative, easy-to-read account of the team's finest performances.***

* I ended up with almost everything I gave to my grandparents. That's how things were divided up. Do all families do this? It's like gifts are on loan until death or something. And what am I supposed to do with a thank-you card I sent to them in 1988?

** Ironically, I have shied away from reading Ron Jaworski's The Games That Changed the Game: The Evolution of the NFL in Seven Sundays because it looks too technical. I hope to read it someday, but I won't have time this month.

*** Freedman also wrote Chicago Bears: The Complete Illustrated History which was released by a different publisher only two weeks after this book. Way to milk one research project for two books, dude!


The Ones Who Hit the Hardest: The Steelers, the Cowboys, the '70s, and the Fight for America's Soul by Chad Millman and Shawn Coyne

When I was a kid, I used to play football in the backyard. By myself. That demonstrates my lack of friends/social skills but also (I like to think) my creativity. I would narrate the games like a TV broadcaster as I tossed a pass in the air to myself or ran a few yards and tumbled in the snow as if I'd been tackled by some non-existent playmate. And when I wasn't calling out a reception by Brian Baschnagel* or a run by Walter Payton, I'd be announcing a pass from Terry Bradshaw to John Stallworth.

I've always been a Chicago Bears fan, but my second favorite team is the Pittsburgh Steelers. I remember buying a Super Bowl book at a school book fair and reading it over and over. Of course, back then there had only been 13 or 14 games—in those days the Roman numerals were still novel (now they're kind of unwieldy). The Steelers were the guys who put the Dallas Cowboys in their place by beating them in the Super Bowls of the 1970s, and I've always hated the Cowboys and that "America's Team" crap. Hence I grew to love the Steelers.**

I couldn't help feeling sentimental when I saw this book on the shelf at Borders (albeit not sentimental enough to read it promptly). I wanted to love The Ones Who Hit the Hardest, but I could only like it. I think the authors had too many topics for the level of detail they wanted to provide. The story suffers with lots of gaps. For example, the founding of the Cowboys is covered in depth, leading the reader to expect a lot about the Cowboys in the book (they are second in the subtitle after all). But aside from Tony Dorsett (who grew up near Pittsburgh in Aliquippa like Mike Ditka), the Cowboys story line is pretty much dropped except their Super Bowl appearances.***

The best evidence that the authors took on too much is that they eliminated Super Bowl XIV, which Pittsburgh also won. Maybe they thought it didn't matter since the Steelers didn't play the Cowboys? It's absurd to tell the story of a dynasty noted for winning four titles without even mentioning one of them (seriously, Super Bowl XIV isn't in the index). They also left out any explanation of how the Steelers wound up moving to the AFC when the NFL and AFL merged.**** Instead of taking on a grandiose four-topic subtitle, they should have focused solely on Pittsburgh (city and team), which gets the bulk of the text anyway.

Most true Steelers fans and/or Pittsburgh residents probably don't need to read this except perhaps the younger ones. It was worthwhile for me, though. I learned a lot, especially about the steel industry and its labor woes. Actually, I liked The Ones Who Hit the Hardest a lot more while I was reading it. It was only after I finished and thought about what had been left out that I felt disappointed.

* Wow, looking at his stats reminds me how pathetic those Bears of the late 1970s and early 1980s were. They had Walter Payton but little else. Imagine playing nine NFL seasons as a wide receiver—including several as the team's #1 receiver IIRC— with only nine touchdowns! And in three years he played in all 16 games yet caught six or fewer passes for the season! Even in his prime, he only had about 30 receptions per year.

** I would never root for them against the Bears, and I don't pay much attention to their roster moves and such. I'm not a hardcore fan, but if they're playing anyone else I like to see them win.

*** Maybe that isn't the best example for me to offer because I didn't really want to read much about the Cowboys anyway.

**** That seems like an especially relevant topic considering that this longtime NFL franchise ended up representing the AFC in so many Super Bowls, and the merger/move occurred within the main time-frame of the book.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Blindsided: Why the Left Tackle is Overrated and Other Contrarian Football Thoughts by KC Joyner

Joyner aspires to be the Bill James of football. Though Blindsided is an interesting book for the average fan who wants to read opinions about the game, I don't think Joyner is anywhere near James as a statistical analyst.

Of course, football is very different from baseball. It isn't difficult to isolate and analyze pitching and hitting while controlling for a small number of variables, but it is nearly impossible to statistically compare individual performances in a sport as team-oriented as football. The stats of a running back depend on his blockers and the offensive philosophy. The stats of a linebacker depend on the scheme implemented by the defensive coordinator. And as the titular chapter shows, the stats of a lineman depend on the abilities of his fellow linemen.

In most chapters Joyner starts off with some statistical analysis and then gives his opinions. One can't help but wonder whether the stats are selected or massaged to match the outcomes he wants, a cynicism bred by too much statistic abuse. Plus a lot of the statistical analysis is pretty basic; it seems to get weaker as the book progresses. To determine who should be in the Hall of Fame as well as to resolve other disputes, he merely counts the number of times a player was named All-Pro. That's the kind of analysis I did collecting football cards as a fifth-grader. It's been many years (decades) since I read The Bill James Baseball Abstract, but I seem to remember that book having a lot more math, as one would expect in statistical analysis.

Blindsided is decent for what it is, but I'm disappointed because of what I expected and what it could have been. Instead of really pushing the statistical envelope, Joyner comes across as just another sports fan with strong opinions. Still, he offers some alternate ways of considering questions and makes some good points. Most football fans will learn something worthwhile, but the statistically obsessed probably will be disappointed.

Friday, August 23, 2013

Where Dreams Die Hard: A Small American Town and Its Six-Man Football Team by Carlton Stowers

In some states, small high schools that can't field a regular football team with 11 on a side compete in six-man football instead. In 1953 there were 30,000 high schools playing six-man football, but closings and consolidation have reduced that number to less than 250. This story takes place in Texas, of course, because where else is high school football as important as it is in Texas?

This book is as much about small-town life as it is about football. Penelope, TX has a population around 200, and people are much more interconnected than in cities and suburbs. Heck, I thought I went to school in a small town, but that town was 15 times bigger than Penelope (now it's 150 times bigger than Penelope thanks to sprawl).

I wish Stowers had written more about the game itself and how it differs from regular football. He tells its history, but he doesn't say much about plays and strategy. Instead he includes a lot of small town/school drama. I guess he was targeting a more general audience rather than just football fans. Also he should have left out the subplot about his father dying. Dedicating the book to him was enough. Stowers didn't write a lot about it, but authors inserting their irrelevant personal lives into their books is a pet peeve of mine. Just because you experienced something while you were writing a book doesn't mean it should go in the book (unless it's a memoir, of course).

Despite my minor complaints, Where Dreams Die Hard is an entertaining book that gives insight into a little-known sport and a disappearing way of life. At the end, I felt like I had been right there on the sidelines watching the Penelope High Wolverines for the whole season.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

NFL Unplugged: The Brutal, Brilliant World of Professional Football by Anthony L. Gargano

I kicked off football month (sorry) with this inside look at the NFL. Gargano leads the reader through a generic game day and season from the perspective of the players and coaches. This isn't a book about football games; it's about playing the game. It's about preparing oneself mentally and physically. It's about the dirty stuff that goes on at the bottom of a pile after a fumble (hint: watch your nuts). It's about inflicting and dealing with pain. It's about fighting the nervous urge to pee every 15 minutes.

The author is from Philadelphia so there is more about the Eagles than other teams. Some reviewers criticize this, but I think the NFL is the same everywhere so it doesn't really matter. He could have collected these stories in Miami or San Francisco and only the names would have changed.

While there are some interesting stories, Gargano tends to meander from tale to tale and obfuscate with uncommon words. Perhaps he has a thesaurus fetish or maybe he really does have a broad vocabulary, but either way it isn't appropriate to the subject matter or the audience.* His writing style didn't hold my attention very well. I'm also concerned that two weeks later I don't remember much of anything from the book (aside from the scrotum-twisting, but guys don't forget stuff like that).

* This reminds me of a ridiculous comment I heard during a game on TV a few years ago. I don't remember the context or the broadcaster, but a player was waiting for some reason and the broadcaster said it was like he was waiting for Godot. Yeah, I'm sure that's exactly what the dude on the field was thinking!

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Rosco's Last Patrol

Our backyard isn't much. City lots are small enough, but with a 3-car garage and an addition to the house, our yard is especially tiny. There is no grass since the previous owner paved it with bricks (probably just as well since grass wouldn't grow in the shade, resulting in a mud pit).

But Rosco loved our backyard. Our other dogs would do their thing and then run up the porch stairs to come back inside, but Rosco often lingered out there sniffing and/or looking for mischief (such as eating organic fertilizer out of the flower pots). We joked that he was a coydog (coyote-dog hybrid), and that's why he liked being outside so much. Sometimes he would ignore my wife's calls until she offered him some sort of treat/bribe. He would always come in for me, though—I was his person. In his later years, all I had to do was stare down at him. He'd look back, and if I kept staring he would run up the stairs, as if he wanted to be sure I really meant it before responding.

On Rosco's final night, his breathing was a bit labored, but I thought he would make it until morning. I spent the evening with him, then I went upstairs to use the computer around midnight when my wife got home from work. She fed the dogs and let them out. A while later she said I'd better come downstairs because Rosco's condition had deteriorated rapidly.

She told me how when Rosco had gone outside, he had walked slowly all around the backyard. Then he stood at the bottom of the stairs, too weak to climb them. She had to carry him up. Now he was lying on the kitchen floor struggling to breathe. We knew he wouldn't make it through the night, so I carried him to the car and we took him to the emergency vet to be euthanized.

I've been thinking a lot lately about Rosco checking out the backyard one last time—walking, sniffing, surveying his grassless kingdom. He must have known it was his final chance to do what he loved in the place he loved, and he mustered his last bit of strength to do it. I imagine it was like an old Babe Ruth taking a final lap around Yankee Stadium or an elderly George Washington strolling the grounds of Mount Vernon.*

After Rosco died, I questioned, as I have with all our pets, whether we did the right thing at the right time. I fretted that he wouldn't have suffered on the kitchen floor if we had taken him in earlier that night. But now I am certain that we did the right thing by giving him that opportunity to say goodbye to the place he loved. Thinking about Rosco's last walk around the backyard makes me cry, but it also makes me very happy.

* Those are poetic images, but after writing them here I thought I should actually look this stuff up.** It turns out that Ruth last visited Yankee Stadium two months before his death. And Washington rode around Mount Vernon on horseback just prior to his death, but that is likely how he contracted the illness that killed him. Their deaths are both interesting stories that I didn't know before.

** Write first, research later—it's the Internet way!

Thursday, August 15, 2013

July Wrap-Up/August Theme

July was a fun month. I have lots of books about rock music, and I've been waiting all year to read them (though I did slip in one or two under other themes earlier). I read a total of eight books in July including four very enjoyable memoirs from folks with varying degrees of fame. The only book I would classify as a dud is the first one I read, The Year the Music Died, mostly because of numerous inaccuracies (it wasn't awful, I just can't trust it). It's going to be hard to go five more months without reading another rock book. Maybe I'll find another genre-bender that I can squeeze into a different theme.

I also have a lot of books about football*, and that will be my theme for August in honor of the NFL preseason. Most of my books cover the pros, but I may read a book or two about lower levels as well.

* I have heard that football books are not nearly as popular as baseball books. But golf books are the most popular of all. I don't think I have ever read a golf book and I probably never will. I have bought some baseball books, but I rarely get around to reading any of them. Pro football is the only sport I pay much attention to these days.

Sounds Like Teen Spirit: Stolen Melodies, Ripped-Off Bits, and the Secret History of Rock and Roll by Timothy English

In this year of theme months, I usually start the next month early if I finish a book on the 29th or 30th. But I was enjoying rock and roll books so much that I didn't want to stop when I got done reading In Search of Elvis. It turned out that Sounds Like Teen Spirit was a good choice because I read it in two days so I could still start August's theme on time.

The lengthy subtitle pretty much describes the book, except the "secret history of rock and roll" is a reach.* The author provides background stories to go with the songs, so it isn't just a boring list. Some of the sound-alikes are obvious, but others I hadn't considered before. Infamous thieves like Led Zeppelin and Oasis get their own chapters. Overall, it's an entertaining book that also provides lessons in copyright law, and how many books can you say that about?

* By the way, I have another book by that title, but I have not read it yet. Maybe it's a reach, too.

Monday, August 12, 2013

In Search of Elvis: A Journey to Find the Man Beneath the Jumpsuit by Charlie Connelly

This is the kind of book I love: the author gets a notion and embarks on a grand quest looking for answers. Englishman Connelly isn't looking for Elvis at Burger King in Kalamazoo (he doesn't believe Elvis is physically alive), but rather he wants to explore the continuing impact of Elvis three decades after his death. The King's history makes Tupelo, Memphis, and Las Vegas obvious destinations*, as well as Hawaii and Germany (where he served in the U.S. Army). But the author also seeks Elvis in unexpected lands such as Uzbekistan, Wales, Finland, and Israel.

Connelly doesn't spew out a ton of facts about Elvis—he rightly leaves that to the biographers—but here is something I didn't know: aside from a few shows in Canada in 1957, Elvis never performed outside of the United States. Nowadays we take world tours by famous performers for granted (at least the U.S. and Europe, plus Japan and/or Australia).

Despite the tourism described in the footnote below, I'm not a big Elvis fan. The myth and mystique of the man has always interested me, though. That made In Search of Elvis a lot of fun to read. In some ways it reminds me of Hey Buddy by Gary W. Moore (about Buddy Holly), but I enjoyed this book more.

* I have been to all three: Tupelo in 1990, Memphis/Graceland in 1990 and 1999 (before and after it switched from a live guide to a pre-recorded tour), and Las Vegas in 2003 (though that visit had nothing to do with Elvis).  I also went to that Burger King in Kalamazoo in 1993. I was young and looking for offbeat places to go.


Friday, August 09, 2013

The Allure of Wind and Bugs

I just don't understand the desire to dine al fresco. First there's the obvious de-evolutionary issue—we have buildings now so we don't have to eat outdoors! Yet people want to eat outside so badly. I'm in a restaurant that's about 30% full. A couple came in and asked about patio seating. The host said it would be 25 minutes. So they sat on a couple of tree stumps outside to wait. What the hell? It's a nice day, but why would someone waste 25 minutes waiting for a table outside when they could be eating their cheeseburgers by then if they sat inside?