Staff Picks: Top Football Books 

Notwithstanding the protestations of the Church of Baseball guys, America’s real national pastime is football. It combines common elements of American life– namely, tedious meetings and shocking violence. This 2011 season hung briefly in jeopardy owing to a labor dispute, but was saved. Had the season been cancelled, there would have been time to read more football books; now there may only be time to read these:

Instant Replay by Jerry Kramer: It’s widely held that the big boys of the offensive line are the most intellectual group on a team. Kramer isn’t Kierkegaard, but this memoir brings the reader inside the game and into Vince Lombardi’s Green Bay locker room. It recounts the 1967 season, when the Packers won their third straight championship.

One Knee Equals Two Feet by John Madden: As a coach, Madden won a Super Bowl in Oakland. After retiring, he became a broadcaster and his first book isn’t a memoir so much as a tutorial of the game. As a color commentator for more than 30 years, Madden was often parodied for his excesses with the telestrator and his bombastic style, but when you listened closely, you could recognize a very specialized intellect at work. Madden could explain something on every single play that the layman would never have seen. This 1986 book is Football 101 by a masterful teacher.

The Best Game Ever by Mark Bowden: There are still viejos who remember the 1958 Championship Game between the New York Football Giants and the Baltimore Colts. The rosters for the two teams read like the VIP list for Canton, if not Valhalla. This book contains individual excellence, team accomplishment, and the historical relevance of the game being both the first overtime game in NFL history and nationally televised. Bowden, author of Black Hawk Down and Killing Pablo is deft at writing men of action in a pitched battle.

Education of a Coach by David Halberstam: One of the preeminent journalists of the 20th Century, Halberstam, turned his attention to one of the finest minds in football, Bill Belichik, giving us a peek into the guarded Patriots coach. Halberstam rose to prominence covering the American war in Vietnam and he subsequently made a long career chronicling fiercely driven people competing at the highest levels – battlefields, corridors of power, the hardcourt. Here he shows the development of a coach’s mind, an intellect engaged in the pursuit of excellence.

North Dallas Forty by Peter Gent: This 1973 novel isn’t as much fun as you may remember the movie being. Neither is it beloved by any with a romanticized vision of the NFL. Gent was a receiver for the Cowboys from 1964 – 1968 and this first novel is understood to be largely autobiographical, displaying a world where the use of painkillers and guns are common.

Wildcard Round:

Johnny U: Life and Times of Johnny Unitas by Tom Callahan:  If we were to be fair, maybe we should talk more about the legacy of Otto Graham and Sammy Baugh, but we don’t. However, no serious – or even beery – discussion about the greatest QBs of all time has excluded Unitas. Read this to learn why.

Namath: A Biography by Mark Kriegel: Coaches like to say that no one is bigger than the game. That may have been true – before Broadway Joe. Here we see Athlete as Celebrity, renown as much for his outrageous lifestyle as for winning. Namath’s promised victory in Super Bowl III might have been folly, not even have been a footnote, but when it happened the world changed.

When Pride Still Mattered by David Maraniss: In the 50 years since Lombardi’s Packers won the Super Bowl, other coaching schools have risen and fallen. This has always been a game of blocking and tackling, but it hasn’t always been contingent on endorsement deals.

Quiet Strength by Tony Dungy: This Super Bowl-winning coach-turned-broadcast analyst could have me fooled, but I don’t think so. When publicists shield and vet and spin and sell, nothing on TV is real. And yet and yet, Tony Dungy seems like a genuinely decent fellow.

So which coach or player do you find most interesting? Who’s your favorite team?

— Jeff W.

One thought on “Staff Picks: Top Football Books 

  1. As a baseball fan (Go Rangers!) who is not a football fan, I've read lots of great baseball books but none of these recommended football books. I'm a fan of good writing, though, so I figure I can at least check out the ones written by Halberstam or Bowden or Maraniss. Thanks for the tips!

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