'75,' a look back at NFL, is book worth tackling

August 24, 1994|By PHIL JACKMAN

Most bulky publications of the coffee table genre, books of the "75 Seasons" ilk, are expensive. But maybe "75," the complete story of the NFL on the occasion of its LXXV anniversary, has solved the problem:

Go out and buy four legs with necessary hardware and affix them to the back cover. Voila! You've saved yourself the price of a coffee table . . . and landed yourself a terrific pictorial that gains with age.

It's the latest in a series of books extolling the virtue of a pro game born in a garage in Canton, Ohio, starting with "The Game" in 1963 and proceeding through "The Pros," "The Game That Was," "The First 50 Years," and "The Gladiators," and is probably the best of the lot.

Usually, you don't have fun with a book. You read it, enjoy it, recommend it and pass it on. If it weren't for the sheer size (and expense) of this one, after just an hour you feel like taking it outside and passing it around or tucking it under your arm and heading around end.

Right off, you start with a dramatic picture of a game just starting -- indoors. Yes, the NFL title game in 1932 was played inside the Chicago Stadium, the weather outside being too rugged even for the Chicago Bears. Thence to a fine shot of both offensive and defensive play as a Brooklyn Dodgers runner heads off tackle against the Giants in 1936.

Next is Chuck Bednarik standing over an unconscious Frank Gifford following a famous clothes-lining in 1960 . . . and Y. A. Tittle kneeling on the ground in Pittsburgh, bald, groggy and bleeding, as a long and brilliant career slips away.

In the final analysis, it's always the pictures that make these books special, but the text more than holds up its end in "75," beginning with the introduction by Dick Butkus entitled, "The NFL is in my blood."

Most introductions are for skipping, right? Not one by Butkus. Recall how the man played middle linebacker for the Bears? He brings those same qualities to his words describing the pro football experience.

As he says, "You could feel the tradition the moment you stepped into the Bears' old, cramped offices at 173 West Madison. There were old pennants and trophies, but nobody had to offer you a history lesson . . .

"Seeing all those old photos of Bronko Nagurski and other early players made me wonder what it would have been like to play in that era. I think I would have fit right in. I like the informal quality those days seemed to have."

Perfect.

The all-time great concludes, "I know it sounds crazy, but my life could have ended right there on the field and I would have been happy." With Butkus, this is not understatement.

The words, not too numerous, are quick, bright and breezy as the decades starting in 1920 are covered. Each has a best squad, confined to just 11 players in the age of two-way football and you shudder sensing the intensity of such as Turk Edwards, Paddy Driscoll, Cal Hubbard and Ernie Nevers.

You want a picture of something that probably will stick in the mind forever? Check out the shot of Cleveland Rams players in heavy coats and under blankets beneath bails of hay in the 1945 title game played in zero weather.

The centerpiece of the anniversary book is the all-time team. There's only one problem with the 48-man squad: The selection committee left precious little space for argument as to why Bulldog Turner wasn't one of the two centers instead of Mike Webster. And Kellen Winslow, Ronnie Lott, Mike Haynes and Jack Ham? Please.

The thumbnail sketches of the best of the best are a joy. The yarns about Nagurski running the ball and being forced out of bounds where he flattens a policeman's horse, or missing a tackle and slamming into a Model-T and shearing off one of its fenders leave you awestruck.

Whoever heard of Roosevelt Brown of Morgan State until his name cropped up on the 27th round of the 1953 draft? But the Giants saw a note in a Pittsburgh paper and with a phone call learned that Rosey weighed 255 pounds with a 29-inch waist, ran like a deer, lettered in baseball and was a champion wrestler.

How good was Butkus? The last two years he played, he couldn't practice so bad were his injuries. His leg was taped in a bent position so he could run. He was still All-Pro.

"It was the best time of my life," Jim Thorpe says of his time with the Canton Bulldogs in the '20s. This from a guy who won the decathlon and pentathlon at the 1912 Olympics, played major-league baseball for six years, was in the movies and accomplished everything else he wanted.

The book will provide a fine time for you, too.

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