‘The Draft: A Year Inside the NFL’s Search for Talent’ by Pete Williams (2006)

The concept of a professional sports draft has always been intensely fascinating to me.  In theory it offers an ideal method to ensure that competitive balance remains in a league, particularly when combined with a salary cap.  Seeing Juventus win their 7th Serie A title in a row recently makes you think what soccer in Europe would be like if youth development was handled by schools and not professional teams and the best players divided up by draft.  It’s clearly not possible, but it would sure be interesting!

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The Draft is a long and detailed account of the 2005 NFL draft told through the experiences of key people at every level – top 10 draft picks, lesser players, Atlanta Falcon’s General Manager, coaches and a whole host of sports agents. It’s a very thorough account that covers every aspect of draft day preparation by all those whose futures are heavily tied up with this two day extravaganza.

It is an interesting read and certainly achieves its goal of shining a light on the draft process.  Reading it at more than 10 years remove is fascinating with some players being instantly familiar from their subsequent achievements in the NFL – particularly someone like 49er’s great Frank Gore who didn’t get picked up until the 3rd round.

Frank Gore

The book’s length however becomes a weakness.  There is a lot of repetition gets tiresome if you read the book over a fairly short period.

The other big weakness of the book is the excessive focus on agents.  While the coverage of the role of agents and their interaction with players is interesting, there is far too much focus on which agents were successful in building their own rosters of players.  It’s very hard to care about which salesman managed to get himself a big payday and the book would have benefited from a lot of this material being cut.

All in all, however, it is an interesting and enjoyable read. It may inadvertently work best as a book to dip into – like a series of newspaper columns – otherwise the excessive detail and repetition could get annoying.

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‘The Blind Side: The Evolution of the Game’ by Michael Lewis (2016)

You have probably already read this book or seen the movie.  If you haven’t then stop reading and go get the book.blind side

The Blind Side interweaves two stories. The first story is the evolution of American football towards a passing game where quarterbacks rose in value, became targets and finally needed greater protection.  The second is the story of a lost boy taken in by a white Southern family and given an opportunity to pursue his gifts that he seemed destined to be denied.  Those gifts just happened to make him ideally suited to provide the now much more valued quarter back protection.

Lewis is a wonderful writer whose books are informed, accessible and entertaining.   The Blind Side works brilliantly as football history – Lewis traces the journey from Bill Walsh’s 49ers, through Lawrence Taylor and the rise of great linebackers to the realisation on the launch of free agency that teams would pay a lot more money for a left tackle than they were paying so far.  It’s the type of narrative that, as a casual NFL fan, I was unaware of and one I had not seen captured in the wonderful NFL / America’s Game TV series. Lewis is able to tell a compelling story and educate the less knowledgeable football fan without coming off as condescending,

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The heart of the book however is the story of Michael Oher – a kid who seemed destined to be a lost cause, born in a place and a system that was destined to fail him.  The Tuohy’s, who adopted Oher into their lives, emerge as a kind and loving family who belie the worst stereotypes of southern wealthy evangelicals.  While the book could be read as an uplifting tale of the difference that kindness can make in the life of someone less fortunate. For me however, the fact that it took such an unusual interest from a white family to give Oher any chance in life paints the United States economic system as the villain of the piece  –  a shocking state of affairs for the richest country in the world where inter-generational poverty is both expected and accepted.

The cynic in me can’t help but wonder about the motives of Sean Tuohy in taking Oher in.  Lewis is friends with Tuohy which makes him a less than objective judge.  However, on balance I choose to accept Lewis interpretation of the Tuohy’s motivations in taking Oher in.  It certainly seems evident that Leigh-Ann Tuohy went above and beyond in how she cared for Oher while he was in her care.

Overall, The Blind Side is simply a thoroughly enjoyable book and well deserves its regular placing on lists of the greatest sports books of all time.  While less influential than Lewis’ other great sports book Moneyball, it’s a more entertaining read for non-die hard fans of the relevant sport.  I can’t help feeling however that Lewis had an opportunity to go deeper into the reasons – socioeconomic, education, and the collegiate and professional sports system operating in the USA – why the outcome for Oher was different from the outcome for so many others.  Lewis touches on the key damning statistic around how many great athlete fail to take their lifeline due to the education system failing them.   Some deeper exploration would have been a welcome addition.

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‘The Education of a Coach’ by David Halberstam (2005)

It is a very rare gift to turn your hand from being a defining voice on foreign policy to writing truly great sports books.  Possibly as difficult as winning 5 Super Bowls. In terms of achieving their own personal greatness, Halberstam and Belichick make a perfect match.

Written in 2005, The Education of a Coach is not a simple biography of Belichick.  It is first and foremost a Halberstam book – it jumps around in time and place, it digs deep into his family history and contains chapters that would stand alone as superb and insightful magazine profile pieces.

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The title is apt – Halberstam primarily seeks to understand how Belichick was formed as a coach.  Its a focus on a him as a person and coach with less discussion on the impact that Belichick had on the game of football than you might expect.

What emerges is a portrait of a singular man who wants to be the best coach he can be. He emerges very much as his father’s son, having begun his education at a young age at his father’s side. Steve Belichick was a legendary scout and coach who proved the perfect role-model for his son. As Halberstam himself notes, it is a book about two journeys; the Belichick family’s journey into the centre of American life after their arrival from Croatia and Belichick’s own journey to the top in the world of professional football.

Other key influences on Belichick were his friendships with fellow football obsessives, in particular his long time assistant coach Ernie Adams. Halberstam captures something that Belichick learned from each of the coaches he worked with. In particular, his complex relationship with Bill Parcells is analysed with the senior Bill emerging in my less favorable light.  The book only begins to look at his success at the Patriots in the final 2/3rd’s – as by then Belichick had learned the lessons that would help him achieve such great things.

It is a relatively short book – less ambitious in scope and length as Halberstam’s basketball masterpieces.  As with all of Halberstam’s books, it is superbly well written, incredibly easy to read and thoroughly enjoyable. It leaves with a real sense of a man  obsessed with his sport and destined to be successful.   Halberstam clearly likes his subject, but the book feels like a fair and honest telling of how Belichick became Belichick.

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It is hard to overstate the level of Belichick’s achievement.  Its rare the coach (or person) that merits a significant biography who then continues to achieve great things for more than 13 years after that biography was published.  In terms of seminal achievements, only Sir Alex Ferguson springs to mind.

There is another great book to be written capturing the greatness of what Belichick has ultimately achieved at the Patriots.  The Education of a Coach was published in 2005 after Belichick and the Patriots had won 3 Super Bowls in 4 years.  In an era where the sport was designed to prevent dynasties, the odds on the Patriots remaining at the top of their game post 2005 must have seemed low.  Yet, as we all know, Belichick would go on to reach 5 more Super Bowls (so far), winning 2 of them.  The Education of a Coach is a highly recommend starting point for anyone seeking to understand Belichick and the Patriots.

Any recommendations on later books on Belichick would be greatly appreciated. And if you enjoy this, do seek out all of Halberstram’s other great books.

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