Thursday, 7 November 2013


Note: This essay appeared in September, in the first issue of a new British online American football magazine, Gridiron ( It was a sidebar, alongside my column, which has continued through the next two issues, and is worth checking out (issue 2 on concussions, issue 3 on NFL nepotism). I've done listings of baseball books, and an essay on boxing books for Radio 4's Open Book, but this is my first one on football. I've made a few small changes to the published version....


Essential reading for anyone interested in the overall history of the NFL is Michael MacCambridge's America's Game, a comprehensive survey of the rise of the league to its position of dominance in American sport. It's particularly well-written, and as far as I can tell, accurate on the issues of business that are so important behind the scenes; it is also scrupulously balanced in its portrayals.

In stark contrast, Jeff Miller's Going Long is a very entertaining oral history of the American Football League, patterned after Terry Pluto's classic Loose Balls, which did the same thing for the American Basketball Association. The players aren't quite as wild as the ABA stars were in their day, but the owners probably are, and it's eye-opening to see exactly how disorganised top-flight American sport was in those days, in contrast to today's corporate world. I often make the comparison between the pre-Rozelle NFL and the Rugby League in Britain: this book shows you the truth of that analogy—while the MacCambridge shows you just how far the NFL has gone since then.

Breaker Boys by Dave Fleming comes from the days when you'd be hard-pressed to separate pro football from early rugby league. It's the story of the 1925 Pottsville Maroons, who were the best team in the fledgling NFL, but still are not recognised as the champions, because they played an exhibition game in Philadelphia, territory of the Frankfort Yellow Jackets, and just as it does today, money talked and the Maroons walked. It's somewhat repetitive in its writing, but it's a great story.

My favourite football biography is J. Brent Clark's Third Down And Forever, the story of Joe Don Looney, an immensely talented running back who lived up to his surname. It was perhaps his misfortune to come to the NFL in the Sixties, when his non-conformist nature was both confronted by the military and could be indulged out of it. Dave Meggyesy's 1970 Out Of Their League tells a somewhat similar, but much less moving and tragic story, about the changing times of the Sixties; it was billed as a football version of Jim Bouton's Ball Four but is much more than that. Weeb Ewbank called it 'communist hogwash', which is a good enough endorsement for me.

I'm lucky enough to have a copy of Pro Football Chronicle, which Dan Daly and Bob O'Donnell published in 1990, in the wake of the Bill James Baseball Abstracts. It's less statistical than historical, and loaded with surprising info. The most interesting stats book is probably John Maxymuk's Quarterback Abstract, which was published in 2009 and which I almost wish were updated (see his website for info). He's not always complete about things like players in WLAF/NFLE, but in terms of putting passers into the contemporary context, he's brilliant. Allen Barra's Big Play is worth the price just for its essay on Notre Dame vs Michigan State in 1966, but also has interesting valuations on Bart Starr vs John Unitas, the YA Tittle/Allie Sherman New York Giants, and some very thoughtful essays, including the first one on the story of Marcus Dupree. Barra sometimes lets his own Alabaman roots show, and gets the old 'ruffians and gentlemen' rugby vs soccer quote backwards, but he's a fine journalist, and author of one of the very best books on the Gunfight at the OK Corrall, Inventing Wyatt Earp.

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