Nine weeks after the Super Bowl and three weeks before the draft, we officially enter Football Withdrawal season! Sure, the break has been nice, the basketball was fun, and other diversions abound to keep us busy. But seriously: When the holy eff does football start again? Four months, you say? What? In an effort to stay sane, we will spend part of the next couple of weeks offering you a handful of gridiron related gambits to tide you over until the fall. Here Mike V. provides a list of five football books every sports fan needs to read.
With a legendary offensive performance (or an offensively bad defensive performance), a trick play that will be highlighted in the annals of football for generations, and a nation left mostly confused about which team they wanted to win less, the fifty-second iteration of the common era of our national pastime came to an abrupt end this February.
The Eagles were coronated as World Champions—or, as literally everyone in Philly says it, in an echo of the great Chase Utley, “World Fucking Champions”—some of their fans may or may not have eaten horseshit, and, within a week, the confetti and empty Yuengling bottles that littered Broad Street were swept up, putting an official end to the 2017-18 National Football League season.
And as we settle now into our long and football-less offseason, we collectively wonder, or perhaps wander, through the early spring, looking for something that might give us any indication or hope that our beloved and most American game is coming back.
We listen as draft-pundit blowhards Mel Kiper Jr. and Todd McShay revise and release enough variations of their mock drafts to ensure the impossibility of being wrong. We follow closely the free agent market and debate until we’re blue in the face whether the Giants should keep or deal Odell Beckham Jr.
We ignore the start of baseball season in favor of nightly airings of NFL Live and hope that the budding sports sections of our favorite regional alt-weeklies consider coverage of our local university’s spring game (we are). We wonder what we might do until we have football again.
If watching football is not an option, and talking and listening about the game are already covered, that leaves reading.
We can spend the offseason reading about football.
Often free of politics or posturing, football literature can paint beautiful portraits of often ugly tales, eloquent stories about a violent game. Be it the concepts of Xs and Os, the true stories behind some of the game’s most brilliant minds, or a tale that tells of a bigger lesson, when the game is used only as a backdrop, the intricacy and beauty of football provides a most brilliant storytelling platform.
That you don’t need to know a goddamned thing about football to enjoy a great story is what makes the following good. That you may rethink whether or not you knew anything about football to begin with makes them brilliant.
The Perfect Pass: American Genius and the Reinvention of Football by S.C. Gwynne
A detailed account of how and why Hal Mumme, a relatively unknown journeyman football coach, left an indelible mark on the game of football at all levels, from high school to the NFL. With the aid of football outsider and highly regarded college coach Mike Leach, Mumme created the now-famous “Air Raid” offense, shifting the focus of their game plan from ground to air.
Mumme is the reason the four-thousand-yard passing season is now commonplace, and his vision, passion, excitement, and indefatigable mind is examined eloquently in this story.
Why Football Matters: My Education in the Game by Mark Edmundson
Mark Edmundson was not a great football player. Most high school football players aren’t great football players. That’s not the point of high school football.
Winning is fun and greatness is unparalleled, but what high school football does best is teach us about life, about becoming a man, about being accountable for your actions and to your brothers, and about what it means to be part of something that is bigger and more important than yourself.
I haven’t played organized football in almost two decades, yet I still show up to everything five minutes early, still understand that the team around me is only as strong as our weakest link, as fast as our slowest player, and I still recognize how deeply my life has been affected by playing football as a young man. This book explains that in a far more elegant way than I ever could.
Sweetness: The Enigmatic Life of Walter Payton by Jeff Pearlman
One of the most complex men I’ve ever read about, Walter Payton was a singular personality and, for my money, the greatest football player that ever lived. His game was as artful as it was brutal, as punishing as it was graceful.
A devout family man who kept concubines in myriad cities, a faithful friend who selfishness was unparalleled, he was as equally duplicitous off the field as he was on it.
He had a photographic memory which could easily recall the names of young fans he’d met at training camp years before and a warm, casual demeanor that made him easily approachable, yet he was a ferocious competitor and a hugely self-involved man.
Slighted by Jim Crow, college recruiters, and frugal NFL ownership, the chip on Payton’s shoulder was gargantuan and a driving force in much of his life, and in these pages, Sweetness attempts to unravel the labyrinth story that was Walter Payton, the player, the citizen, the philanthropist, and the man.
Blood, Sweat, and Chalk: The Ultimate Football Playbook—How The Great Coaches Built Today’s Game by Tim Layden
Football’s evolution is one of its most important subjects. How we’ve moved from “Pop” Warner’s single wing to USC’s Student Body Right, Air Coryell to Bill Walsh’s West Coast attack to the advent of the No Huddle and A-11 offenses is examined here through in-depth analyses of a handful of the most paradigm-shifting football concepts over the last century.
Part guidebook, part blueprint, part historical biography, Blood, Sweat, and Chalk breaks down concepts that are thorough and complex with enough skill to keep even the most casual football fans engaged.
Its knowledge is deep, its storytelling fluid, and there is no other book in my library that I reference more over the course of the year.
Sidelines: A North Carolina Story of Community, Race, and High School Football by Stuart Albright
Three years ago my wife and I moved from Lower Manhattan to Chapel Hill. Rather than a guidebook highlighting sites or directing us to the best Carolina barbecue outposts, she got me this as a welcoming gift.
While I love NFL Sundays and have become more enraptured with ACC football since moving south, my passion for football manifests most in the high school game.
Dragging my wife to small country towns all over North Carolina’s central Piedmont area, we’re the odd faces in the crowd most Friday nights. We sit in the home team’s stands and cheer for the locals, but we’re the people in the crowd whom no one knows. We’re the people who just really love high school football.
It’s football at its most sincere, its most true. It’s sloppy and often undisciplined. It’s also untainted by commerce. Its coaches don’t have million-dollar contracts. Its players aren’t being bamboozled by the weighted contracts of the NFL or the indentured servitude of the college industry.
It’s young men and boys playing as if their lives depended on it, because in their fresh minds, they often do.
Through the lens of some of the Tar Heel state’s most important high school football legends, Albright tells a story about race, class, history, and the role local high school football plays therein. We often use it as a roadmap for our Friday night sojourns in the fall, but this nuanced cultural history is far more than a game-day guidebook.