A look at four books on football

Posted April 10, 2010 @ 11:34 a.m.
Posted By Tom Danyluk

There they rest in a chaotic pile, like a net full of fish. Books on football. Unsorted. Unread. Accumulated over the years. The buildup needs to be addressed, as internal threats are being made to put a torch to the chaotic pile.

I judge a book simply by how many times I've reread it. The great ones I'll go through at least twice. Paul Zimmerman's The New Thinking Man's Guide to Pro Football fits that profile. So does the classy Vince Lombardi bio from a few years back, When Pride Still Mattered, by David Maraniss. Those are the two finest football works I've ever read.

Then there's Zim's The Last Season of Weeb Ewbank, a snappy, journal-like review of the 1973 Jets, and Dr. Robert Huzienga's almost shocking expose on Oakland Raider healthcare called You're Okay, It's Only a Bruise. Those two have always kept high honorable mention status in my library, as well.

Countless others, however, are aborted, for a range of reasons … clumsy, amateurish writing … shallow or corner-cutting research … lack of overall depth of the author. If it doesn't grab me early I won't attempt to finish it.

It's like ejecting yourself out of a theater during a rotten movie. I slipped out of The Hangover, and I hurried out of Inglorious Basterds, and it was an all-out sprint to get away from Nick Cage and that disaster called Knowing. Adios, brother. I mean, why hang in there and suffer with it? Getting your money's worth? Not me. Never been into the self-torture thing.

To me, cliché has always been a book's deadliest poison. Straight strychnine. I abandoned the loudly trumpeted The Junction Boys on a bus in Croatia for that very reason — too many "tough as nails" and "had 'em on the ropes" and "shoes shone like mirrors" descriptives. Which therefore cheapened an otherwise inviting tale, and after digesting 10,000 of them, the stomach just threw up the white feather and surrendered. A large disappointment.

Anyone can communicate through cliché. So can certain tropical birds. Just repeat what's been heard before. Listen to the army of yutzes working the network pregame shows and ESPN roundtables.  It's the Anzio invasion of cliché. Why is it always "the brash Joe Namath?" Or the square (or lantern) jaw of Don Shula … or Bill Cowher? Or this piece of brilliance, when talking about one of the sport's good guys, it's "What a class act — both on and off the field!"

I wonder how Hemingway would have handled a straight football assignment, something like the playoffs or Super Bowl, machete-ing his way through the layers of hype and BS to get to something real. What would he have done with Peyton Manning, one of this era's great enigmas and a Hemingway character for sure? Imagine something similar to his early Toronto Daily Star dispatches, when the writer's palate was more of a newsman's than of a novelist …

Don't go back to visit the old front, quarterback. If you have pictures in your head of something that happened in the night in the mud at Foxborough or of your final charge at the bulwarks of New Orleans, do not try to go back and verify them. It is no good … Go to someone else's front, if you want to. There your imagination will help you out and you may be able to picture the things that happened. But don't go back to your own front …

The point being that triteness is a death sentence to the printed word. Oscar Wilde offered a prescription for it long ago:

"Never write a sentence that you've already read." A lot of writers just can't handle it.

One scribe who can … could … can handle it is Pat Toomay. His was the first book plucked from the stack, and it's an oldie called The Crunch, printed way back in 1975.

Basically we're talking about a diary here, with Toomay recapping his first few seasons in pro ball on a day-by-day basis, and the whole thing is a delight. There are true brains behind this one, a crisp sarcastic intelligence. You get that sense right away, from the book's opening quote from the Polish scribe Stanislaw Lec ("When smashing monuments, save the pedestals — they always come in handy") through his opening descriptions of Tom Landry and Dallas rookie camp (1970), and it just dances along entertainingly from there.

Toomay focuses not so much on the hut-two business of football but on the zoo-like array of characters he encountered in his early career. And there were plenty of them — the culturally awkward Austrian placekicker, Toni Fritsch … the tepid, pie-chart CEO that was Landry (who gets smartly tweaked in the book's photo section; he's shown yawning during practice), the insecurity, near-paranoia of safety Cliff Harris … the blustery dopiness of offensive line coach Jim Myers …

One afternoon a piece of fan mail showed up, addressed to Toomay:

"Dear Pat … I watch you every time you play. I like your style, but I'm not really too smart when it comes to judging ability …"

"Basically I was keeping a journal in training camp for my father, who was a huge football fan," says Toomay, still freelancing today from his home in southern New Mexico. "I happened to send a copy to a columnist I knew from college, a friend of mine. He sent it to a publisher. One day the publisher sent me a letter — 'Do you have any more?' So I continued taking notes for a few years and handing them over.

"You know, I grew up in the '60s, highly influenced by NFL Films, the Facenda-narrated clips and the drama and the grandeur of pro ball. Then I get there and find out that everybody's human, that the image was much different than reality."

Active players typically don't issue blunt tell-alls, but by the time The Crunch was released Toomay had played out his option and was sacking passers for Buffalo, away from the testy heat that was simmering back in Dallas.

"Yes, the book was controversial, in a quiet way," he says. "I received very clear messages that the people upstairs, meaning management, were pissed, particularly [Cowboys GM] Tex Schramm. But I was always running into problems with things I'd say while I was there. I poked the system. Let's say there wasn't a lot of appreciation for its content by the league's image makers."

Next volume for selection — a biography of the great coach Paul Brown, appropriately named Paul Brown: The Rise and Fall and Rise of Football's Most Innovative Coach. This was put together back in 2008 by a writer named Andrew O'Toole, whose other recent project was a look back at the old Pittsburgh prizefighter, Billy Conn.

Paul Brown is quite thick with the facts, but clearly not an attempt to drill deeper into any of the man's complexity. O'Toole doesn't try to peel away layers, like Maraniss was wonderfully able to achieve with Lombardi. What he does offer is a guided tour of the coach's life, a straight Paul Brown timeline — from high schooler to Ohio State coach to the Browns and Bengals to the tee boxes of retirement. With Maraniss you got a 10-part mini-series that exposed Lombardi through his relationships as well as his formative influences; instead, O'Toole sums up Paul Brown like a two-hour documentary. Heavily researched, for sure, but a very linear approach to the project.

I liked the book. No real deadspots; OK, maybe a few during the recaps of the players' strikes and lockouts of the early '70s. But overall there was good flow to it. And I picked up some details about Brown, odds and ends that I never knew about his career. Which means for O'Toole it's pretty much mission accomplished.

But what I did miss were the offbeat tales, quirky stories about Brown from those who knew him, the type of sidebar work that may have revealed deeper glimpses into his makeup than what you could extract from pure newspaper and magazine research. In that way the book left me a little cold.

For instance, I remember a discussion I once had with Charlie Jones, the longtime NBC play-by-play man, about Brown, and he gave a sharp piece of insight on how it was to deal with the old coach.

"PB was always good to me," Jones said, "during our pregame interviews and such. He always gave me very good insight as to what was going to happen on Sunday.

"I actually did Paul's very first game with the Cincinnati Bengals. They were playing the New York Jets at Nippert Stadium. Tom Bass was his defensive coordinator, who I'd known for years, but I had never met Paul Brown. I asked Tom when I saw him Sunday morning if he would introduce me to him to 'Coach Brown.' He said, 'On one condition — that you call him Paul.'

"I said, 'I can't do that. I would be very uncomfortable calling him by his first name."

"He said, 'Then I won't introduce you. Because if you call him Coach Brown, Paul will immediately set you at a level in your relationship and it will always remain that way. If you come in and he's Coach Brown and you're Charlie, in his mind he's going to be up here and you're going to be down there, and that will never change. But if you come in and he's Paul and you're Charlie, then you're on the same level — and that will never change.'

"And so it was — Hello, Paul."

"Oh, Paul Brown was our hero," says Art Rooney, Jr., who handled the Steelers' talent department for two decades. "We read and listened to everything we could get about him. A great organizer, no details too small … Chuck Noll always said that about him. Noll was one of Brown's messenger guards and he had trouble with that setup, along with some of PB's conservative play. But Noll had patterned himself after Brown, although he wouldn't admit it."

In 1987, Art was suddenly dismissed by his brother Dan, then the team president, after disagreements over the path of the Pittsburgh drafts. The move caused great fractures and resentments within the Rooney clan.

"I remember when I was having all that trouble with Dan," Art continued. "I was close friends with Frank Smouse, one of the top Bengal scouts, and he told me about this Combine workout he attended. PB and two of his sons, Pete and Mike, were there. PB called Frank over to join them, and he asked him, 'You're a close friend of Art, Jr. What exactly happened over there?'

"Frank gave him my side of the story, and when he was finished Paul turned to his boys and said, 'That will never happen to us, do you understand? That will never happen here!'

"I was very moved when Frank told me that."

And now, introducing a title from the current shelves. It's by New York Daily News sportswriter Gary Myers and he calls his effort The Catch. 49ers versus Cowboys in the '81 NFC championship games, the buildup and the aftermath. Here we witness San Fran's ascension as an NFL power, in nearly exact parallel with the collapse of the Tom Landry-era Cowboys.

Unfortunately, it's a heavy rehash. Same songs, different singer, like a new album of Christmas carols … "Jingle Bells" and "Frosty the Snowman" and the "Little Drummer Boy." You've heard 'em all before, like …

Bill Walsh being skipped over for the Bengals' job … Joe Montana the comeback kid at South Bend … Walsh sporting the bellhop gear in the days before Super XVI … Sprint Right Option … Landry's abrupt firing on the golf course … and God help me, the foulest of all those spoiled yarns, the "Hey, isn't that John Candy" reset from Super Bowl XXIII.  

But in fairness to Myers, there are several portions of this book which are terrifically revealing. One was the explanation behind Montana's controversial departure from San Francisco in 1993. At the time the trade occurred, very few details behind the deal were fed to the mainstream press. It was a murky transaction, namely because the key persons involved — Carmen Policy, Eddie DeBartolo, Carl Peterson, Dwight Clark, Montana himself — were such pros at keeping things hush-hush. And ultimately Montana became a Kansas City Chief instead of a Phoenix Cardinal, or staying to fight off Steve Young in San Francisco, and Myers clears up that murkiness nicely.

The other chapter of The Catch that held me was the "Whatever-Happened-To" business on former Cowboy Drew Pearson, who nearly stole the '81 title game back for Dallas with his late strike in the final moments. Pearson had been the finest clutch receiver in Dallas history — my, the list of final-gasp rescues he accumulated — but suddenly, after the 1983 season ended, you never heard his name again. He disappeared from the public. Which has always been a rare feat for any of those old Cowboys stars.

Myers tracked Pearson down and pried out the details, which include a hellacious car accident in March of '84 and a heavy clash with depression that essentially buried the man in a life of reclusion. A respectable piece of detective work.

Last up, another fresh release entitled Gridiron Gauntlet: The Story of the Men Who Integrated Pro Football In Their Own Words by Andy Piascik. Twelve black Americans trying to bust into pro ball at a time when they weren't really wanted. Mysterious names. Joe Perry and Bobby Watkins and George Taliaferro and the post-WWII NFL. An oral history project. Tough stories, tough times. And damn tough ballplayers.

Books and books on football. A pile-minus-four to go.

 

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