‘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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‘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.

gunslinger

(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!

the draft

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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