Thursday, 29 August 2019

FOOTBALL IS UPON US: MUCH MORE MIKE

The NFL season is rapidly approaching, and I've done a couple of deep previews of it. The first. which I wrote at the beginning of August, has just been published in The American magazine here in the UK. You can read it in print or online; go to this link for details. It picks all the divisions and also previews the four games in London this fall.

Then this week I did another, more detailed, preview for Betfair: grouping teams by Elite, Contenders, Dark Horses, Pretenders, and Forget It. Where did your team get slotted? Check it out at Betfair here. There will also be a Betfair video podcast up next week just before the season starts.

And of course if you're really hard-core and want complete run-downs you can go to my patreon site right here and read my off-season run downs of each team. They're done division by division, with looks at the full roster. There will be a feature or two next week before I start picking every game of the season with my Friday Morning Tight End column--67% right last year.


Monday, 26 August 2019

JIM BOUTON: THE LAST WORD

Although I'd recorded the interview with Matthew Bannister a month ago, my appreciation of Jim Bouton has just been broadcast on BBC Radio 4's Last Word. It's a wonderful show: it begins with Peter Fonda and ends with Bouton: two icons of Sixties rebellion, of counter-culture, from different ends of the American spectrum. You can listen to the show on BBC IPlayer (actually now rebranded Sounds! to appeal to those too young to seek out obituary programmes) with this link . Fonda leads off the show; my bit is at the end, starting around 21 mins. The rest of the show is as interesting as usual, but I do love the way Fonda and Bouton play off against each other.

In case you missed my story at Arc Digital, going into more detail, you can link to that here.

Monday, 19 August 2019

NICK BUONICONTI: HIS FOOTBALL LIFE

Nick Buoniconti was unique in being a player from the era before free agency who is remembered a being crucial and beloved by fans of two teams. Nowadays we are used to players who move from team to team, often at their peaks, often collecting rings along the way. Previously, talented players were moved only when their original teams either thought they were on the decline or suffered a personality clash. Norm Van Brocklin from the Rams to the Eagles and a title. Sonny Jurgensen from the Eagles to the Redskins, and beloved by both sets of fans. Some moved toward the ends of their careers (coaches like George Allen specialised in picking them up) but their peak at their new clubs was short (think Sam Huff, NY Football Giants to Washington). Buoniconti went to from the Patriots to the Dolphins when he was still at his peak, and stayed there for another six seasons that brought two Super Bowl titles and of course the only undefeated, untied season in NFL history.

He went to Notre Dame, who recruited him out of Springfield (Mass) Cathedral High, which had produced Angelo Bertelli, the Irish’s first Heisman winner. He played both ways, at guard and linebacker/middle guard, but was overshadowed on the line by big tackle Myron Pottios. He was considered undersized for the NFL. Which wasn’t an exaggeration; he basically played at 5-11 220. He wasn’t much smaller than someone like Lee Roy Jordan, but southern players had the reputation of being faster harder hitters.

He wasn’t picked in the NFL draft, and went to the Boston Patriots in round 13 of the AFL draft (pick 102 overall). The Pats might have taken a flyer on him because as a former all-stat player from Massachusetts, he was relatively local. Mike Holovak was the head coach and Marion Campbell might have been the guy to see the potential for him at linebacker. Remember the original 4-3 defenses often had middle guards simply step back and play off the line; Bill George is sometimes called the first, Huff was another. In an odd front, the nose guard basically played a read and react game; if you watch Buoniconti you’ll see how that transitioned into playing MLB.

Buoniconti;s instincts were perfect, his pursuit relentless, but he also had ball skills; he intercepted 32 passes over his career. Dolphin fans might compare him to someone like Zach Thomas, especially if he hadn’t been pumped up to carry more weight, smoother in his drops and better with his hands. London Fletcher might be another good modern comparison.

In 1963 he played in the AFL All-Star game; the next four seasons he was also first-team all-AFL. In 68 he played only 8 games (second team all-AFL), but someone on the Pats , probably owner Billy Sullivan, felt he was on the decline, and he was traded to the Dolphins in 1969, for LB John Bramlett and Q, B Kim Hammond. Bramlett was a decent player but Hammond, the key to the deal, never made it. Nick, meanwhile, was again first-team all AFL.

The Dolphins were acquiring some of the core of their great teams: they traded for Larry Little in 69, and in 1970 for Paul Warfield and of course head coach Don Shula, each of whom cost them a first-round pick (they were fined for ‘tampering’ with Shula before his Colts’ contract had expired). With Bill Arnsparger as the defensive coordinator, Buoniconti became the perfect middle linebacker in what became the 53 D: with an outside backer used as a rush end. When I consider one of the starting OLBs on that team was Doug Swift, against whom I played when he was dominant at D3 Amherst, but who had previously been cut by the CFL’s Alouettes, it gives me huge respect for the quality of the coaching and the smarts of that D, and Buoniconti was its core. Don Shula once said that after their 1972 season, when he and Arnsbarger reviewed the film of the season, they found only 11 mental errors all season. That was 11 from the whole defense.

It was also finally his chance to play on a winner. His three varsity years at Notre Dame under Joe Kuharich had all been losing seasons—Kuharich never was able to recreate his success at San Francisco, about which I wrote a few months ago, anywhere else. The Pats went to the AFL championship in 1963, where they were smashed by the Chargers, then lapsed into mediocrity.

Buoniconti had gone to law school while he played for the Patriots, and after retiring he was for a time a lawyer. He acted as an agent for baseball players (Boston fans needed to think twice about his representing the Yankees’ Bucky Dent) and he was for a time president of the US Tobacco Company—who secialised in the smokeless tobacco which caused mouth cancers; he was a leading figure in trying to dismiss such studies.

But the fulcrum of his later life came in 1985 when his son Marc, playing linebacker at The Citadel, suffered a spinal cord injury and was left a quadriplegic. He set up a charity, the Miami Project to Cure Paralysis, and became a public spokesman. Later in his career he would turn to media and present Inside The NFL, where his analysis of games was just as sharp as it had been as a linebacker.

Buoniconti himself began showing signs of CTE in his later years, and he joined the campaign to limit youngsters to playing flag football. He donated his brain to CTE research at Boston University. HBO made a documentary, The Many Lives Of Nick Buoniconti, which aired this year. His life is a catalogue of the high and lows of the sport,
just as his career was. And he is a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, as well as the team halls of both the Patriots and the Dolphins.

Friday, 16 August 2019

ANDREAS NORMAN'S SILENT WAR

Many of the greatest writers of espionage fiction have been fascinated by the idea of betrayal, and the ways in which its being stock in trade for a spy means it must necessarily become part of the personal lives of those involved in the great game. It is the essence of John LeCarre, but he is far from alone in building on E.M. Forster’s famous dictum about having the courage to choose friend over country.

For starters, a spy must keep his or her work secret, which means having secrets, lying, to those you supposedly love. And of course, because they are practiced liars trained in deception and, by definition, believers in ends justifying means, it is no surprise that this paradox rears its ugly head frequently.

But few writers have put it at the centre of a novel quite the way Andreas Norman has in The Silent War, which opens with the head of Swedish intelligence in Brussels, Bente Jensen, being passed files which reveal a British programme of torture carried out at a secret site in the Middle East. This will put her at odds with the Brussels station chief of MI6, Jonathan Green, and the scene is set at an embassy reception in which quick glances and a partner absent for just a short while begin a tale in which every relationship is never quite what it seems.

What makes it work is the way the personal morality gets in the way of the larger issues of political morality, and it is odd that Norman, a former Swedish diplomat, is most cutting in the relationship of Green and his MI6 friend and colleague with whom he is at least nominally competing for a deputy directorship, Like honourable schoolboys, theirs is perhaps the most telling and coldblooded in the book.

What doesn’t quite work is the nature of Jensen and Green’s past, of which there are hints but no definition—it seems personal from the start, but it doesn’t go that far. Green’s operation in Syria and his final efforts to contain the leaked documents add action to the story, but the real action is what takes place behind the scenes. The book is best when it is focused on betrayal, and in the end, those who are the best at it are the ones who gain the ultimate victory.

The Silent War by Andreas Norman
translated from the Swedish by Ian Giles
Riverun, £20, ISBN 9781784293628
published 5 September 2019

NOTE: This review will also appear at Crime Time (www.crimetime.co.uk)

THE WOODSTOCK JAZZ BAND THAT WASN'T: THE FIFTIETH ANNIVERSARY

Looking yet again at Woodstock for its 50th anniversary, I was struck by the full lineup of musicians who played – those who missed the cut for the movie have assumed a sort of ghost form in the public memory. What jumped out at me was that you could have formed a nice ECM-style trio there.

Tim Hardin lived in Woodstock, and because he was there the organisers apparently wanted him to open when scheduling acts were showing up late because of the traffic jams. But Hardin had two longer journeys to make that day: first he was a junkie and second he suffered from stage fright. It is not inconceivable those two conditions were related.

He played with a band the first day that included Ralph Towner on guitar and piano and Glen Moore on bass. A year later, those two would found Oregon, which preceded the jazz-rock fusion with a kind of acoustic, eastern-influenced jazz that prefigured both ECM and, at the other end of a similar spectrum, the new age mood music of George Winston. Towner’s Solstice band included Eberhard Weber and Jan Garbarek and was a regular on my turntable as I wrote the poems of my master’s thesis.

Hardin’s use of jazz musicians wasn’t unusual. His album Tim Hardin 3, the year before, had included Mike Manieri on vibes, Warren Bernhardt on piano and Eddie Gomez on bass (as well as warning, in the liner notes, about the bells drummer Donald McDonald was wearing being audible! But I remember Bernhardt explaining once that because of nerves and being strung out, Hardin would rarely play as rehearsed, missing beats, adding things, and there was often as sense of their being out of time with him. This is also how his set at Woodstock was described, and it’s a shame, because the band also included Richard Bock on cello: Hardin was way ahead of his time in bring a wider palette of sounds to what had been 'folk' music: another  junkie Tim, Tim Buckley, was doing something similar too.

Arlo Guthrie played the next day and his drummer was the late Paul Motian, another of the mainstays of ECM but someone who had already played with Bill Evans, Paul Bley and Keith Jarrett before a brief stint with Arlo that included the festival. Interestingly, he would go on to play mainly with guitarists in small group situations, including an amazing trio with Bill Frisell and saxophonist Joe Lovano, and wonderful stuff with bassist Charlie Haden.

Towner, Moore and Motian would have been a fantastic trio. I’m not sure if there would have been a smooth way to fit David Sanborn into that group, but of course he would go on to a huge career in jazz fusion. At Woodstock he was still playing in the Paul Butterfield Blues Band’s horn section, with Gene Dinwiddie and drummer Philip Wilson. I’d maybe float them bassist Jim Fielder, one of the overlooked great rock bassists, and trumpeter Lew Soloff from Blood Sweat and Tears and make them some sort of fusion group. 

It's not surprising that google reveals little in the way of pictures of back-up bands from Woodstock. It would have been nice to illustrate this exercise in building fantasy band lineups from 50 years ago...

Wednesday, 7 August 2019

DON WINSLOW'S BORDER

NOTE: This is the 1,200th post to this blog since I first posted a review of George Pelecanos' The Turnaround in July 2008. I like that symmetry, in part because I have written about Don Winslow often, going back before this blog, and I have been pleased with the way he has taken his career, much as Pelecanos did, from insider's favourite to major best-seller. As you'll see from this review, his success is well-deserved.

I was partway through The Border, following along with the battles between cartels and gangs to fill the power vacuum left in the Mexican drug trade, when I found myself, trying to keep track of who is a cousin of whom, and which section of Mexico they control or wish to control, wishing for a list of the characters, the kind of thing you would find at the start of an epic Russian novel. And it occurred to me at that moment that Don Winslow's War On Drugs trilogy, of which this is the final volume, is a crime fiction version of War And Peace.

No, Don is not Tolstoy, but as the scope of the narrative widens in his story, he manages to do the most crucial thing any epic novel needs to do: balance the stories of its main protagonists on the wider stage with the stories of those affected by what happens on that stage. The Border is balanced finely between Art Keller, the agent who has battled through two novels and 40 years against the Sinaloa Cartel and its rivals and successors, and the newly-embattled drug rivals. Keller, the rebellious, uncontrollable agent, is now head of the DEA, and mired in the Beltway politics which have always been at the heart of the failure of drugs policy. Meanwhile Mexico is breaking out in full-scale warfare between rival drug lords, with the body counts threatening Keller's always tenuous position.

Meanwhile, a new administration is taking over in Washington, a property developer turned reality TV star, whose son in law deals with laundered money. You may see the possibilities for conflicts of interests arising. This plot strand attracted plenty of attention in America, for obvious reasons, and Winslow to some extend has become a visible spokesperson against 'The Wall' as well as on drug policy. It speaks to his intimate knowledge, gleaned from agents and from journalists, and one thing his writing makes clear is how dangerous a profession being a journalist is among the cartels in Mexico; The Border is dedicated to dozens who've sacrificed their lives.

For Keller, whose fight against the cartels has cost him a family, the new job includes a new turn in his relationship with Dr Marisol Cisneros, herself physically a victim of drug violence. Keller has always had at least a foot in both worlds, now he has his entire existence there. But beneath that story, Winslow works the other end of the drug world: the cops and dealers, the junkies and those who try to help them, the refugees fleeing for safety to El Norte, their trip dangerous along the way and difficult once they get there, because you cannot follow the progress of the war without being aware of the lives torn apart on its battlefields. This is epic writing at its layered best, and at times the personal becomes almost unbearably tragic, even as the large scale violence seems unbelievable, except that its real.

As impressive as The Power Of The Dog was in 2005, it was impossible to conceive then that, 15 years later, the story would have been continued through two more novels, each getting better, more nuanced, more textured even as they grow more epic. Sadly, this trilogy may have concluded, but the drug wars, the border crisis, have not.

The Border by Don Winslow
Harper Collins, £20, ISBN 9780008227531
note: this review will also appear at Crime Time (www.crimetime.co.uk)

Tuesday, 6 August 2019

THE MOON, MANSON & MUSIC: THE SUMMER OF 69

I've done a long essay on the Summer of 69 and the Age of Aquarius, the Moon, Manson and Music, which has just gone up at Medium. You can link to it, without joining, here. Please do, and if you like it, give it a clap...

Monday, 5 August 2019

THE IMPORTANCE OF NOT BEING EARNEST: A VERY ENGLISH STORY

In today's Torygraph we learn that Boris Johnson went on an Oxford Union debate beano to the USA in 1986. In the team of four was also the incoming head of the NHS, Simon Stevens. Over to theTelegraph:

"Boris Johnson, an Old Etonian, has been the centre-Right president of the Oxford Union, employing his waggish charm to cultivate loyal 'stooges' hanging on his every word. Simon Stevens, on the other hand, was from a Birmingham comprehensive, a member of the Labour Club and was far more earnest in his approach to student politics."

What more does a Telegraph reader need to know. As Kate Fox (and George Mikes before her) has pointed out, one of the first principles of Englishness is the importance of not being earnest.

But it gets worse: when they debate the Yanks, the debating styles were, according to the third member of the Four Englishmen of the Apocalypse,, Angus McCullough (now) QC, "glaringly different...the English relied on being entertaining, there was no greater sin than dullness, while the (Yanks were) seething with facts and statistics but tended to be turgid.

Oddly enough, however, the fourth member of the team was one Frank Luntz a double-ringer in that he was an American and also a graduate student, having already received his degree from Donald Trump's alma mater, the University of Pennsylvania. Luntz is now, of course, a leading political pollster, and frequent pundit on the BBC (obviously unconnected with that time at Oxford).

The article says Luntz is said to 'speak regularly with the Prime Minister*'. Although it identifies Michael Gove as one of the Stooges, it does not confer that honour onto Luntz. Note too, in the picture above which accompanied the article, Boris is actually dancing with his future first wife, Allegra Mostyn-Owen, but the paper declines to remind its readers of that.No need to be turgid.

ROBERT MORGENTHAU: THE DAILY TELEGRAPH OBITUARY

My obituary of Robert Morgenthau, the long-time district attorney for New York County, is in today's Telegraph, you can link to it online here; it is behind a paywall but you can do various deals with them. If you have the paper paper, note too the obit of Marcel Berlins, whom I knew as the crime reviewer for the Times, and who was always a welcome sight at book launches and the like. It's a excellent tribute to a fascinating erudite polymath.

My piece on Morgenthau is basically as I wrote it. The only thing missing was a slight mention of how, as DA for Kings County, he was able to transform the office into one that had the same remit as his previous post as US Attoryney for the Southern District of New York has enjoyed. He other words, he expanded its reach, particularly in terms of financial crime, often stretching the boundaries of jurisdiction with great effect. I alsoassumed his straightforward approach to nepotism would appeal to the English, though I refrained from saying that.

Saturday, 3 August 2019

KEITH LINCOLN & THE CHARGERS: A TRIBUTE

It's hard for anyone now to get an idea of what the San Diego (nee Los Angeles) Chargers did to football in the early 1960s. Keith Lincoln's death at 80 reminded of that, because Lincoln, along side Lance Alworth, were the glamorous face of the exciting Chargers team, with their lightning bolt uniforms and helmets and Sid Gillman's passing concepts, that seemed to shine a bright sunny light on football. They were both movie-star handsome, and had the Chargers stayed in LA I don't doubt they would have been offered acting careers: if Merlin Olsen, Roman Gabriel and Fred Dryer of the Rams, could, why not?

Lincoln played for the Chargers from their second year, 1961, through 1966, when they were probably the best team in the AFL. And boasted a number of my favourite players. Their defense had the original Fearsome Foursome, before the LA Rams stole the term: Ron Nery, Bill Hydson, Earl Faison and Ernie 'The Big Cat' Ladd. The first game I ever saw Faison he wreaked havoc from the end position; I was in awe of him from then on. I had already watched Ladd wreak havoc in the wrestling ring. Their O line had the best pair of tackles in the NFL in Ernie Wright and Ron Mix 'The Intellectual Assassin'. Mix, the first of the dominant tackles from USC remains one of the top half-dozen or so of all time (see him, 74, leading Lincoln in the picture bottom right. The tight end was Dave Kocurek. Alworth, known as Bambi, would be the third receiver on the all-century team, alongside Jerry Rice and Don Hutson. They had Jack Kemp, then Tobin Rote and finally John Hadl at quarterback. Hadl and Alworth, with their single-bar helmets, Alworth wearing 19 and Hadl 21, were cool beyond words. And they had Paul Lowe at halfback, which meant Lincoln (6-1 215) nominally played fullback, and the two shared carries.

The Chargers 1963 team, who beat the Patriots 53-10 for the AFL title, were probably the best AFL team until at least 1966. In fact they would have been a tough matchup for the NFL champion Bears. Lincoln was the MVP of that title game. He rushed 13 times for 206 yards and a TD. He caught 7 passes for 123 more yards and another TD. The total yardage record was broken with the aid of overtime by Ed Podolak, the rushing mark by Eric Dickerson two decades later. He also completed an option pass for 20 yards.

Lincoln came from California, but went to Washington State as a quarterback. He was soon moved to halfback, where he held school records for rushing and punting, and threw for 511 yards and 8 TDs on options. He would have been, just a few years earlier, a single-wing tailback. His nickname was 'the Moose of the Palouse,' Palouse being the farming area encompassing the southeast part of Washington and parts of Oregon and Idaho. After his career he moved back to Pullman, eventually becoming an alumni director.

In 1964 the Chargers lost to the Bills (and Jack Kemp, whom Gillman had let go by trying to sneak him through waivers) and Lincoln was knocked out of the game by Buffalo line-backer Mike Stratton. It was a swing pass, and Lincoln had bobbled the ball when Stratton laid him out with a hit often likened to Chuck Bednarik's on Frank Gifford, the AFL's 'hit heard round the world'. Lincoln left the game with bruised ribs, though a week later he came back to take the MVP trophy home from the AFL All-Star game.

The Chargers success seemed to flip on that moment, but really it was a combination of things. Gillman lost his defensive mastermind, Chuck Noll, to the NFL's Colts, who became a great defensive team in the late 60s. Al Davis, another Gillman assistant, was turning the Raiders into an upstate version of the Chargers, with even more emphasis on the deep game. The Chiefs and Jets were building strong teams. But Gillman also had an edgy relationship with some of his players, especially those who wanted more money. Ladd and Faison both held out and were traded to Houston; they were both becoming less effective due to injuries. Lincoln wanted out too; after an off-year in '66, in 1967 he was traded to Buffalo even up for all-league defensive end Tom Day. He had an excellent season with the Bills, rushing for 'only' 601 yards but catching 41 passes for 558, a 13.6 yards per catch, and five TDs. But he was hurt in '68, released by the Bills and played briefly for the Chargers again before retiring.

Lincoln was first team all-AFL in 1963 and 64, and an all-star for five years, 62-67, except 1966. That twice all-league/five all-star record matches up well with the 'official' all-AFL team, which has Clem Daniels (2/4) and Lowe (2/2) as first-team running backs, and Abner Haynes (2/3) and Cookie Gilchrist (3/4) but not Lincoln. It' a tough call, especially because both Cookie and Lincoln were both fullbacks, but I'd be tempted to list the two as my first-teamers. I like to imagine them together on the same Buffalo team. But I think Lincoln is really only a border-line Hall Of Famer, especially because, like baseball's Roger Maris, he's remembered for one big game above all else.More likely he will remain in the Hall of the Very Good, and first teamer on the all glamour football squad. And he will remain in my mind as part of the most exciting football team of my youth, and the kind of All-American triple threat football player who doesn't seem to really exist, without the hype, these days.

And I was somehow pleased as well as touched to discover that Lincoln is survived by two sons, named Lance and Keith.

BELFAST, BOXING & EAMONN MAGEE: MY MEDIUM/LONDON REVIEW OF BOOKS ESSAY

Last November I was commissioned by the London Review Of Books to write a long essay on The Lost Soul Of Eamonn Magee, a biography of the Belfast boxer. As I filed the piece, the book was joint winner of the William Hill prize for sports book of the year, which I thought might get it into print quickly. As it happened, I got the proofs of the story, very nicely edited, in March. But it got bumped from its scheduled publication then, and when I checked on it four months later, was told it was now out of date, and with summer holidays at the paper about to begin, it was killed.

The story itself is certainly not out of date: whether you consider it about Magee himself, about boxing in general, or about Northern Ireland and the society and culture in which Magee grew up. So the essay is now up at Medium, you can link to it here. Read it and if you like it, please give it a clap.