Behind the Book: When the Men Were Gone by Marjorie Herrera Lewis

Editor’s Note: When the Men Were Gone is a debut historical novel centered on the truly inspiring story of a high school teacher who surprises everyone when she breaks with tradition to become the first female high school football coach in Texas. Set during WWII, Tylene Wilson faces extreme opposition but shows what courage really means. This inspiring story has won hearts everywhere and was chosen as our Book Club selection for October and November. We had the opportunity to discuss the book with Marjorie Herrera Lewis, which you can read about below.

This is your debut novel- what did you learn about the process of crafting a book?
The biggest lesson I learned about the process of crafting a book is that it’s hard; it’s really hard. It takes discipline, passion, skill and a willingness to learn something new almost every day.

MHLBOOKCOVER

What first interested you in Tylene Wilson’s story?
The story resonated with me the instant I was told what Tylene had done. I am a career sports journalist, and to discover that a woman had coached football in the 1940s took my breath away. I also felt connected to her in a way because I was the first woman assigned to the Dallas Cowboys beat in the 1980s. I knew firsthand what it was like to work in a male-dominated field. I was drawn to what I imagined she had endured. Continue reading

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.

Football Season is Back: Top 5 Football Film Classics

With a lot of the country coming out of a heat wave (seemingly overnight) and a full weekend of college and pro-football in the books, it is pretty easy to pick a topic to talk about this week… FOOTBALL! Giving it a quick thought, you might not think there are many football movies out there, but I have dug up my favorite gems for you to consider watching to build up your team spirit for the start of the season.

1. My top pick for football movies is the Marx Brothers classic Horse Feathers (1932). No one said football had to be taken seriously. Professor Wagstaff, played by Groucho Marx, is the new Dean of the college, and he thinks winning the Thanksgiving Day game against its rival Darwin is a top priority. Wanting to do this illegally, he tries to hire two ringers that hangout in the local speakeasy. Of course he hires the wrong men, Baravelli and Pinky, played by Chico and Harpo Marx, and the shenanigans begin. This is a true classic laugh-out-loud movie. I hope future generations go back and watch Marx Brothers’ films like this one to keep their antics alive.

2. Heaven Can Wait (1978). Nominated for 9 Academy Awards, including Best Picture, this remake of Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1941) is a well-rounded film. Warren Beaty, both the star and co-director, plays a professional football player whose life was taken too soon, and by mistake. In order to fix the problem, the angel Mr. Jordan has to find Joe Pendleton another body. Once a body is found, he proceeds to make it his goal to make it as quarterback of the Los Angeles Rams. Of course there are many other plot lines with a touch of romance and comedy. I don’t want to give anything away… No spoilers here. You just need to see it for yourself.

3. “Show me the money!” Jerry Maguire (1996) is a strong number three. This film won Cuba Gooding Jr. a well-deserved Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his role as Rod Tidwell, the disgruntled wide receiver who is trying to sign a new contract. Jerry Maguire was also nominated for Best Picture and received a Best Actor nomination for Tom Cruise, who played Tidwell’s agent. In my opinion, this is one of Tom Cruise’s best performances. Okay, maybe there is a lot of romance in this one for a football fan to wade through, but it is a winner of a movie with lots of great, quotable one-liners.

4. Okay, now one for the die hard football fans: The Longest Yard (1974) – but not the junk put out in 2005. The original is a guy movie all the way, staring Burt Reynolds as recently imprisoned ex-pro football player Paul Crew, who wants to put together a football game – the cons against the guards. Eddie Albert makes a great warden and James Hampton puts in a nice performance as Caretaker. Plenty of laughs and smash mouth football in this one. Grab your favorite bottle of suds and throw this on when it’s “guys movie night” at your house.

5. And last, but by no means least – really uncovering a hidden gem here for you – Kurt Russell and Robin Williams star in The Best Of Times (1986). Williams plays Jack Dundee, a man haunted by his high school past mistake of fumbling the winning catch in the big game. Of course the player who threw the pass was Reno Hightower (Russell), whose football career never went anywhere because of the blunder. So what better way to make things better than to replay the game again 14 years later? But the town has fallen on hard times, so convincing them to rehost the rematch is a tough sell. This might be a sleeper you’ve  never seen, but worth checking out for sure.

There are a lot of other great football films that I didn’t even mention, like The Blind Side (2009) which won Sandra Bullock her first Oscar. And if you want to see Samwise Gamgee play football for Notre Dame, check out Rudy (1994). Thank goodness fall is almost here, and even better, the NFL is back.

What are some of your favorite football movies? Let’s compare play-books. And remember no talking or texting during the feature presentation. — Jim