Football tale more 'Geraldo' than history

October 25, 1994|By Vito Stellino | Vito Stellino,Special to The Sun

They've broken up the old gang in Philadelphia that made the Eagles such an entertaining team a few years ago.

Owner Norman Braman has sold the team, coach Buddy Ryan is in the desert in Phoenix, Jerome Brown died in an auto crash, and most of the big-name players -- including Reggie White, Keith Jackson, Seth Joyner and Clyde Simmons -- have scattered to the four winds.

When they were all together in Philadelphia in the late 1980s, there was no team that created such a storm off the field but was so disappointing on it.

Even though they never managed to win a playoff game, they were always a high-profile team noted for making headlines, whether it was Mr. Ryan treating the owner with disdain before he got fired or the defensive players treating the offensive players as if they were second-class citizens.

It would obviously make good fodder for a book, which explains why Mark Bowden has written "Bringing the Heat."

The worst thing about the book is its rather mundane title, but it captures the flavor of the whole Buddy Ryan era and its aftermath, although it centers on the 1992 season after he had departed.

Mr. Bowden, who graduated from Loyola and once worked at the News-American, got the inside look while covering the team for three years for the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Not surprisingly, the book has created controversy in Philadelphia.

This time, the controversy centers not on the team, but on the media. Mr. Bowden, who doesn't usually cover sports, doesn't hide his disdain for sports writers. He dismisses them in the book as the "pack."

The members of the pack are quick to point out that while Mr. Bowden was looking for the big picture, he failed to report such stories as Keith Jackson not showing up for the first day of training camp.

In an interview with a Philadelphia columnist, Mr. Bowden shot back by calling the rest of the reporters "a motley collection of amiable parasites." He said his reporting was a "big hit and a big success at the paper."

He also said covering the team gave him a chance to "See, and observe, and think, and ask questions and find out what it [pro football] was really like."

The problem is that most people who follow pro football know what it's really like. And the controversies of the Buddy Ryan era were already well-chronicled, although for historical perspective, it's interesting to have them compiled in one book.

Mr. Bowden, though, still doesn't appear to understand football even after being around it three years. He writes at one point, "With few exceptions, the player who makes it to the pros was not the best athlete in his high school." Two pages later, he reports, "Even the most unknown free agent hopeful was a flat-out superstar at the high school level." The truth is somewhere in between.

Mr. Bowden is better at delving into the off-the-field lives of the players.

He points out that big salaries tend to alienate players from their boyhood friends.

Since so many of them were raised by single mothers in tough circumstances, they tend to build for their mothers what Mr. Bowden calls the DHM -- Dream Home for Mom -- even if it's three or four times the house she really needs.

Mr. Bowden also adds the dimension that every sports book needs if it's to attract more than the devoted sports audience -- sex and soap opera in the form of marital strife.

It's no secret that adoring women are a fringe benefit for most athletes. Marriage doesn't usually change that.

Mr. Bowden got two bitter ex-wives -- Erika Hopkins and Jennifer Joyner -- to chronicle the stress that comes with coping with the infidelity of their husbands.

Erika Hopkins got into two fistfights with one of Wes Hopkins' girlfriends -- one at Veterans Stadium during a game and once in a hotel room. She got a separated shoulder in the second fight. Wait till Geraldo hears about this.

But she would still appear with him at press conferences when he signed a new deal to give the appearance that they were together.

Jennifer Joyner, meanwhile, took a $600,000 settlement -- about one-fifth of the salary Seth Joyner will make in Phoenix this year -- and left with their daughter to go back to her native Holland.

The point Mr. Bowden misses in all this, though, is that it's less a story of pro football than of money. If you take any group of young men and pay them millions of dollars -- whether they're rock stars, movie stars or football players -- they're not going to live average lives. The players portrayed in this book certainly don't.

BOOK REVIEW

Title: "Bringing the Heat"

Author: Mark Bowden

Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf

Length, price: 432 pages, $25

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