‘The Cost of These Dreams: Sports Stories and Other Serious Business’ by Wright Thompson (2019)

Wright Thompson is a long time senior writer for ESPN covering multiple sports.  His profile is relatively low in Europe given ESPN’s American focus but his excellent 2016 article on Tiger Woods was shared widely in Ireland at least.  It gave the best insight into how Woods’ life and career unravelled until the excellent  ‘Tiger Woods’ by Jeff Benedict and Armen Keteyian was published last year.

The Cost of These Dreams collects many of Thompson’s best articles but with a central theme running through them – the price and struggles that come with seeking and achieving success.  The stories collected here are mostly about the off pitch lives of those involved in sports.  It includes some of the greatest figures in their sports (including Michael Jordan, Pat Riley and Bear Bryant) and some relatively unknown characters most notably Tony Harris, a college basketball star who had a mental breakdown that led him to an untimely demise in the jungles of Brazil.  The highlight for me is a moving piece about the Ole Miss (University of Mississippi) football program during the ugly time of de-segregation in US education.

Unlike many anthologies, the preface for this book goes beyond the usual platitudes about how lucky he has been to write for X or Y over the years.  Instead it is a very reflective and emotional piece about the costs to Thompson’s own personal life of his method of reporting, his constant travel and the resultant time missed with family.

The articles collected here are superbly well written. The book reveals two of Thompson’s great strengths – as a determined researcher/investigator and as a remarkable interviewer. Thompson’s commitment to research is shown most clearly by his dogged pursuit of on of Muhammad Ali’s early opponents who has gone off the grid.  He becomes obsessed with finding him and the resulting article is beautifully written.  As an interviewer, he achieves remarkable insight into the inner worlds of his subjects who often just happen to be among the greatest sports stars in history.   

Many of Thompson’s best articles are also available online and well worth checking out.  I’ve linked below to a few, most of which aren’t included in this excellent book:

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‘Beyond Broadway Joe: The Super Bowl Team That Changed Football’ by Bob Lederer (2018)

Every sports fan has a favourite specific season.  The lineup of their favourite team from that year holds a special place in their heart.  For me, it will always be the Ireland team that went to USA ’94 with the Ajax team of that generation running them close.

For Bob Lederer, the 1968-69 New York Jets have held that special place in his heart for nearly 50 years.  On January 12, 1969, the New York Jets upset the Baltimore Colts to win Super Bowl III.  As for many great NFL teams, the quarterback, in this case the legendary Joe Namath, is celebrated as the central character in the victory.  His talent, his charisma and his charm gave him the nickname ‘Broadway Joe’ and guaranteed A list celebrity status.  For Lederer  however, the rest of the Jets were a team, not a supporting cast, and he clearly has a burning desire to ensure that all of the players get their due recognition.

Beyond Broadway Joe is a must for any diehard Jets fan.  It is also a comprehensive look at one of the most famous games in football history.   Lederer had exclusive access to coach Weeb Ewbank’s playbooks and game plan for Superbowl III.  Together with interviews with a huge range of people all seemingly delighted to reminisce, the book is a fascinating study of a 50 year old game that helped establish the credibility of the American Football League.

The book is a real labour of love and the joy Lederer felt in researching and writing it shines through every page.  It is an unusual layout with the main story beats recounted in the first 50 pages before each team member is given a chapter to tell their own story.

It’s also an interesting read for anyone interested in the origins and evolution of the NFL, the Superbowl and the professional game more generally.  There seems to been a spate of books on American Football’s origin in recent years and this is a interesting, if narrowly focused, addition that growing body of work.

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‘Friday Night Lights: a Town, a Team, and a Dream’ by H.G Bissinger (1990)

Permian football had become too much a part of the town and too much a part of their own lives, as intrinsic and sacred a value as religion, as politics, as making money, as raising children.  That was the nature of sports in a town like this.  Football stood at the very core of what the town was about, not on the outskirts, not on the periphery.  It had nothing to do with entertainment and everything to do with how people felt about themselves”. 

Friday Night Lights likely needs no introduction for anyone who would read a blog about sports books.  H.G. Bissinger chronicles the 1988 season of the Permian Panthers, a high school football team in Odessa, Texas.  The book spawned both a movie and a very successful TV show and the phrase ‘Friday Night Lights’ has become synonymous with the idea of high school football in the USA.

Often proclaimed the greatest sports book of all time, Friday Night Lights is that rare book that fully lives up its praise.  It is also a book that is just as rewarding when read for the second or third time – the tension about how the team will perform is reduced, and the broader story Bissinger sets out to tell comes even more into focus.

Bissinger zooms in on the lives of 6 team members – some black, some white, some poorer than others.  Around these narratives he tells the story of the town – its schools, its history, its people, its politics and its prejudices.

Aside from the gripping football narrative – will the team make it to State – there a number of underlying stories that Bissinger focuses on.  At its core, Bissinger wants to talk about the idea of worshiping high school sports and athletes and the damage that can be caused.  But he cannot resist the allure, the passion and the drama that results from a town putting kids playing football at the very centre of civic life.  Bissinger openly admits that the games he attended remain his happiest sporting memories.

Reading this book in 2018, it’s impossible not to have today’s political environment in mind.  Many books have tried to chronicle the factors that led to Trump’s election, to capture the ‘Real America’, but reading this account from 30 years ago gives you more insight than any of the recent books.   Replace Reagan’s name with Trump and the social commentary could easily have been written today – it’s eye-opening how consistent the issues, concerns and arguably prejudices of everyday working class American’s have been over the 30 year period.

Fundamentally we see a society where life hasn’t lived up the hopes and dreams of many. Bissinger talks about how the town “absolutely worshiped Ronald Reagan, not because of the type of America that Reagan actually created for them but because of the type of America he so vividly imagined” – it’s easy to see Trump as the darker side of that same impulse, rather than helping people forget their problems by imagining a better future, Trump gives his supporters a licence to blame those problems on ‘the other’ – liberals, elites, Mexicans, globalists etc. etc. etc.

Above all, this book is superbly written. The descriptions of the matches are intense, the imagery is vivid and the heartbreak and joy feels very very real.  It’s a gripping, entertaining and simply wonderful book.

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“All-American Murder: The Rise and Fall of Aaron Hernandez, the Superstar Whose Life Ended on Murderers’ Row” (2018) by James Patterson, Alex Abramovich & Mike Harvkey

All-American Murder is a rare non-fiction book churned out by the world’s best-selling author/book-factory James Patterson.   It tells the tragic tale of the late Aaron Hernandez, the young New England Patriot tight end who was found guilty of murder and eventually took his own life in prison.

Hernandez story is a tragic one.  It ultimately is the story of a young man who never recovered from the loss of his father and made terrible violent choices.  It may also be another piece of evidence on the growing story of the brain damage caused by constant hits being taken by American Football players.   His behavior was bizarre and paranoid and this aspect of the story merits further exploration in time.

Reading the book, I was left baffled by Hernandez’s decisions.  Was he really as stupid as his behaviour seems, was he already brain damaged, or was he so damaged by his father’s passing and so used to being lauded as a hero that he lost the ability to understand that actions have consequences?  Ultimately these questions may never be answerable.

The book reads like a mix of newspaper reporting and Patterson’s trademark style of short sharp chapters that finish with a hook to make you want to keep reading.  While this works well for fiction, it dilutes the quality of a non-fiction book for me – putting storytelling above the story itself.

At times there is a fair bit of speculation – for example, the authors appear convinced that Hernandez was also guilty of an earlier double murder for which he was acquitted.  The book appears to be heavily researched – it certainly goes into a lot of detail about characters motivations – but there aren’t any sources cited in the book, which is always a concern with non-fiction.  However, looking online, Abramovich has commented about the extensive levels of research, interviews and FOI requests that fed into the book which is good to see.

Ultimately, this feels more of a true crime book than a sports book.  It’s easily readable but not an easy read given the events.  There is probably a more in-depth analysis of Hernandez and the relevance that his brain injury had to be written with the benefit of more time passing but as an act of reporting and story-telling, this book is pretty good.

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‘Gunslinger: The Remarkable, Improbable, Iconic Life of Brett Favre’ by Jeff Pearlman (2016)

I’ve written before of my fondness for Jeff Pearlman’s books and recently reviewed his new excellent USFL book.  But unknowingly, I’ve only read his books that cover a group of people – a team or a league but not read any of his biographies.  So I picked up Gunslinger hoping it lived up to the other Pearlman books I’ve read and loved despite having a narrower focus.

Not living in the US, my engagement with NFL varies year on year  – in college, and my heavy gambling phases after college, I watched loads but some years I’d see very little.  The three years I watched the most NFL coincided with Favre’s amazing last year at Green Bay, his temporary time at the Jets and his incredible first year at the Vikings.  So I’m much more familiar with the end days of Favre rather than his origin story and Superbowl success.

Favre’s story is the classic sports narrative of the overlooked kid nearly didn’t make it but the right coach/scout believed in him and took a chance.  After spending his high school career handing off to a star running back, Favre very nearly didn’t get a Division 1 college scholarship.   After a pretty successful collegiate career  – where the relatively tame high-schooler turned into a party animal – Favre was overlooked in the first round of the NFL draft.

After an uneventful year on the bench of the Falcons, he was traded to Green Bay where he very soon became a legend.  Setting all sorts of NFL career records, and leading the Packers to two Superbowls (winning one), Favre was adored by Packers fans and seemed to have a home their for life. Despite hard drinking, womanising and stays in rehab, he never missed a game and had many more successful seasons than bad ones.

After seeming to be on the downhill slide, Favre’s form improved remarkably and he cam agonisingly close to getting back to Superbowl.   While flirting with retirement, he forced his way out of the Packers and, after a poor year in NYC, did the one thing guaranteed to piss off his former fans and sign for Green Bays greatest rivals.

Pearlman, as is his trademark, interviewed an astonishing amount of people for the book.  The level of detail in his research is reflected in the incredibly comprehensive nature of the book.

Favre comes across as a man who is both likable and dislikable in almost equal measure.  For long parts of his career he put his own addictions, desires and career well ahead of his family life.  However, his wife ultimately stayed with him and he seems to have somewhat mended his ways in later years.  The intro to the book sums up Favre very well  by highlighting conflicting stories that show both the good and the bad.   It feels like an objective account of a complicated man who will long be remembered as one of the great NFL quarterbacks.

Overall, Gunslinger is a really enjoyable read.  Pearlman’s ability to take a huge volume of information and condense it into a fast paced and gripping narrative is on full display.  It’s an interesting, fun and really good book that I’d recommend for anyone with even a passing interest in NFL.

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(I’m writing this review as I have NFL Redzone on in the background and Drew Breese has just passed Favre’s NFL record for most completed throws in a career – an interesting bit of symmetry).

 

 

‘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 (2006)

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,

Oilers v Giants

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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