Turning the page

Baseball has ruled world of sports books, but football is making a forward pass


Football, as best-selling sports author John Feinstein notes in his recent book on the Ravens, is America's preeminent game.

Its television ratings, advertising riches and weekly attendance tell us so.

And yet, football and top-notch writing have rarely gone hand-in-hand. The sports canon, most of it produced since 1960, is rife with baseball.

But relatively few football books stand out (Sports Illustrated included 10, compared to 26 for baseball, in a ranking of the 100 greatest sports books). If that trend changes, this fall could prove a notable point on the graph.

Feinstein has produced his first pro football book. Allen Barra has written an authoritative biography of college coaching titan Paul "Bear" Bryant. And David Halberstam, among the most revered of reporters, has released an incisive look at the coaching education of Bill Belichick.

The Baltimore area is a setting in both Feinstein's Next Man Up and Halberstam's The Education of a Coach, which describes Belichick's education at the knee of his late father, a longtime assistant coach at Navy.

Theories vary on why football hasn't lent itself to acclaimed or best-selling works.

"The smaller the ball used in the sport, the better the book," quipped George Plimpton, the author of the participatory football classic Paper Lion.

Perhaps true if lacking explanatory punch, but there are more practical reasons.

"It's funny how few good books get written about the passions of people who don't read books," Michael Lewis wrote in the New Republic. "There are vast tracts of human experience that, because of the sort of humans having the experience, go ignored by talented writers. Football is one of them."

Made for TV

Baseball is the older game, having risen to popularity at a time when the written and spoken word were the only ways for many fans to experience players and games. Football, by contrast, found much of its audience through television, and its early history feels cut off.

"I don't know if there's a strong connection with professional football outside of television," Barra said.

And the game is televised so relentlessly, he said, "The subject is exhausted even before the time you get to the Monday paper. What else is there to say?"

If the NFL has a poet laureate or historian, it may be NFL Films, which has dramatized the sport's characters, themes and stories more persistently and comprehensively than any writer.

"I can express it better through film - the romance, the visceral nature, the violence," said NFL Films president Steve Sabol. "It's a sport that lends itself to television and maybe television has scared off a lot of writers."

As for college football, Barra said, it has remained a mostly regional phenomenon and therefore doesn't offer the shared history essential to a great string of books.

The game's culture also has discouraged individualism and open expression.

"By nature, it's more isolated and cut off," Halberstam said. "And to master that many players would be hard.

"I didn't know quite how to get my hands around it," he continued. "But I decided I could get to the epicenter of it through the mind of someone uncommon."

Longtime Sports Illustrated writer Paul Zimmerman dissents from the view that there aren't many good football books. He doesn't buy that television has crowded writers out of describing or explaining the sport.

He said he's enjoyed books by Plimpton, Mark Bowden, Roy Blount Jr. and others who've gotten to know the players as people.

But publishers seem reluctant to acquire football books, Zimmerman said. He recently proposed a serious study of early greats like Bronko Nagurski and Don Hutson, but couldn't get a deal.

"I don't know why," Zimmerman said.

It's not that no one publishes football books. There are dozens every year, but most are nicely illustrated histories of teams, ghost-written autobiographies by the latest stars or quickie recaps of the most recent Super Bowl champion's season.

Plimpton's Paper Lion was perhaps the first to break that mold. While spending the 1963 preseason as a "last-string" quarterback for the Lions, Plimpton conveyed, with great wit, how it felt for a common man to enter the heightened, closed-off world of the NFL.

"He just had such a great eye for the small detail and such a gift for the well-turned phrase," Sabol said.

The book was a best-seller.

A Pack of interest

The next notable football book arrived in 1968 when Green Bay Packers guard Jerry Kramer wrote a best-selling smash, Instant Replay, with help from Dick Schaap. Kramer detailed the 1967 championship season in an understated, respectful tone, but showed a keen eye for details the fan would never glimpse.

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