Review: Is There Life After Football?

Is There Life After Football?: Surviving the NFL

James A. Holstein, Richard S. Jones and George E. Koonce, Jr.Is There Life After Football

I couldn’t have known it at the time, but in one night I met two athletes who would become prominent figures in the modern NFL concussion narrative: Mike Webster and Jack Tatum. At the time, Tatum was recently retired, but Webbie was still playing for my hometown Steelers, and of the seven or so players I met at this banquet, these are the only two I remember.

Because I bleed black and gold, I was happy to meet Webster. I remember him being incredibly friendly, shaking hands with both my father and me and penning a thoughtful autograph. But as cool as that was, I was really excited to meet the notorious Tatum, the icon of NFL villainy for permanently paralyzing wide receiver Darryl Stingley.

This had earned Tatum one of the coolest sports nicknames of all time, and he was at this banquet promoting the first of his three autobiographies, They Call Me Assassin.

Tatum didn’t just look mean–the air around him chilled, the energy darkened. Something repulsive oozed off of him and kept the crowd at a distance. He didn’t crack a smile, had none of Webster’s warmth. When I handed him my autograph sheet he literally just signed his name. No message, no greeting. Just “Jack Tatum.” He was terrifying, and I came away from that encounter star-struck.

Of course, my opinions of both men are much different now.

Nevertheless, both men symbolize the celebrity and consequence of football’s golden age: Tatum the intimidating aggressor whose ferocity and win-at-all-costs mentality are prized attributes and Webster the tough-as-nails scrapper who attained on-field glory at the cost of his mind, body and dignity off of it.

In the past decade, we’ve learned about the long-term health risks of playing professional football. With every early death, suicide and descent into darkness and bankruptcy, it becomes more difficult to enjoy a Sunday slugfest with a clear conscience. In another two decades, we may not recognize professional football, because we’re just now recognizing the toll it takes on its players.

An important new book on the subject, Is There Life After Football?, considers not only the physical and neurological toll of the sport, but also the psychological impact of job-mandated violence, short careers, and the wild financial swings common among players.

Penned by two sociologists and an unexpected scholar (former Green Bay Packers star George Koonce–that is, Dr. George Koonce), Is There Life After Football? provides a sobering and insightful view of this transition through the personal anecdotes of Koonce and the research of Holstein and Jones. Most jarring is Koonce’s admission of a reckless act at the end of his career. It wasn’t exactly a suicide attempt, but he did drive his car off the road just to see what would happen.

This anecdote is all the more poignant when considering the recent driving death of Rob Bironas.

Though not as accessible as the prose styles of Malcolm Gladwell and Michael Lewis, the authors do a great job of distilling difficult material into a digestible form. It’s also a treat to read for anyone who enjoyed watching those plucky Packers of the 1990s. Juxtaposing those dynamic teams with Koonce’s experiences gives the book a Behind the Music vibe.

The takeaway is the same. Just as those we see on stage and screen are real people, so too are the men behind the facemasks.

Perhaps in a box, somewhere, at my parents’ house is a slip of paper with Webster and Tatum’s autographs. If I ever find it, I’ll frame it, perhaps donate it to a museum, where it can memorialize a different time, alongside bare-knuckle boxing and Crack the Whip as American pastimes whose time has passed.

Review: Rock ‘n’ Roll Soccer

Rock ‘n’ Roll Soccer

The Short Life and Fast Times of the North American Soccer League

Ian Plenderleith

I recall, from my childhood, soccer on television, cheering for Pelé and watching him slow-motion bicycle kick his way through Nazis alongside Sylvester Stallone. And then it was gone.Rock n Roll Soccer

I don’t remember when it went away, but in the early 1980s, my attention turned to music and girls. So long, Pelé. Farewell slow-motion bicycle kick. We hardly new ye. It didn’t even occur to me, until Major League Soccer started play, that there was no longer an elite professional American league.

Fast forward to 2014, and soccer in America is once again on the rise. It’s now expected that the U.S. men’s team will not only qualify, but advance to the knockout rounds of the World Cup. The bar is even higher for the medal-winning women’s club. MLS is approaching its 20th season, and the future is looking bright.

Couple that with the self-immolation of the NFL and in a few decades Monday Night Football might be a whole different ballgame. Literally.

The groundwork for today’s soccer popularity was laid by the North American Soccer League, the subject of Plenderleith’s Rock ‘n’ Roll Soccer. This is required reading in a World Cup year, and a treat to read anytime.

Plenderleith documents the folly, effrontery and ultimate failure of the NASL—an impressively thorough tome that benefits from solid research and a witty outsider’s perspective (though now living in America, Plenderleith is British and brings a European’s passion and insight to football writing).

One of Plenderleith’s great accomplishments in this book is his ability to zoom in and out of the action while keeping the reader engaged. This is not an easy task. At times, he’ll be recounting the exaggerated drug- and drink-fueled antics of over-the-hill international stars and young Americans performing in a flamboyant, fly-by-night federation that defied, in equal measure, rules, tradition and, ahem, sound business practice.

Then Plenderleith will step back and establish the international and cultural context within which the NASL was operating. At first, the international audience mocked the upstart Americans, and FIFA pushed back against the young league that was tinkering with tradition.

But as the NASL achieved early success, the world took notice. While it didn’t reinvent the sport, the outlaw league reinvigorated it by making it a fan-friendly experience and drove rule changes that increased substitutions and decreased back passes.

The model, though exciting, was as unsustainable as that alcohol-fueled borderline relationship you had in college. The peaks were unforgettable, but the valleys unbearable. Sure enough, the NASL folded following the 1984 season.

It was an experiment and experience that was thoroughly American, and though the league didn’t last, it left a lasting impression on the game and paved the way for MLS success.

Rock ‘n’ Roll Soccer is an excellent work of sports journalism and, regardless of whether you follow football or futbol (or both), it is worthy of any fans’ bookshelf.

Review: About Three Bricks Shy of a Load

About Three Bricks Shy of a Load

Roy Blount Jr.

Many have described football as an encapsulation of America itself (see Sal OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA BOOK COVERPaolantonio’s How Football Explains America), and I’m inclined to agree. Of course there’s a time lag, since Europeans arrived on this continent four centuries before the birth of American football.

For historical synchronicity, let’s say the 19th-century invention of the sport parallels the arrival at Plymouth Rock; the 1920 formation of the National Football League (then known as the American Professional Football Association) was the Continental Congress; and the years leading up to and including the early Super Bowls was the Wild West. Since then, football has enjoyed the popularity and profit of post-WWII America.

The bridge between the NFL’s lawless pre-history and current glory days is the 1970s, when the organized mayhem of the sport electrified color televisions across the nation. It was the decade dominated by the Pittsburgh Steelers.

In 1973, author Roy Blount Jr., whom many will know as a regular panelist on National Public Radio’s Wait Wait… Don’t Tell Me!, spent the season with the Steelers at a crucial moment—months after the Immaculate Reception and a year before their first Super Bowl victory.

The result was the gonzo-style About Three Bricks Shy of a Load, which has been re-released in honor of the book’s fortieth anniversary.

I have a personal interest in this book: I was born in western Pennsylvania in 1972, and you bet your ass I bleed black and gold. Possessing that strain of superstition unique to sports, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the Steelers won a grand total of 0 postseason games prior to my birth and since then have been the winningest team in football.

As a youth, I idolized the ’70s Steelers, but didn’t yet have the sophistication (or skepticism) to consider the lives of the men behind the facemasks. It was with great interest, then, that I read About Three Bricks Shy of a Load to learn more about the incubation of a dynasty. What sets this apart from similar books (such as Their Life’s Work and Steel Dynasty) is that it captures the highs and lows of the 1973 season without the sentimentality of age or the foreknowledge of future championships.

However, this isn’t a yearbook. This is an in-the-trenches account of the players and personalities that epitomized professional football of that era—a time before the NFL became PG rated. Blount’s embedded reporting is remarkable, from the openness of alcohol, drugs and sex to the lingering racial and culture divides of the 1960s. I’ve learned more about the team I idolized in this one book than I did growing up an hour from Three Rivers Stadium.

However, this is still a book of general interest. Although its emphasis is on one team, it is a pivotal bit of prehistory to the NFL’s dominance. A raw, unfiltered look at a free-wheeling sports league before it became a tight-lipped, humorless corporation.

Of course, there are shadows that loom over this narrative. Just as nobody in 1973 could have foreseen the success of the Steelers and the NFL, also unknown was the physical toll of steroids and repeated blows to the head. The significance of this book will likely increase with age, especially as the NFL finds itself at a crossroads—its popularity has never been greater, but lawsuits, science and dropping youth enrollment portent a shaky future.

History is always a work in progress, and the definitive narrative of the NFL has yet to be written. But when it is, About Three Bricks Shy of a Load will be a document of a special time in a special place, the story of a team on the cusp of greatness falling just shy of its goal.

Review: Newton’s Football

Newton’s Football: The Science Behind America’s Game

Allen St. John and Ainissa G. Ramirez

Here’s a book combining two of my favorite things: science writing and football. Turns Newtons Footballout they go together as naturally (and tastily) as Dorito’s and M&Ms, and like that classic combo, I binged on it until it was all gone. The authors write with passion and knowledge, and in every chapter there was something I didn’t know, either about science or the sport I love.

It begins, fittingly, with an interview with Stephen Wolfram (the theoretical physicist and author of A New Kind of Science), who explains the role chaos theory plays in your team’s game plan. I had always considered the 12th man to be the home crowd, but it turns out to be initial conditions. “Change the initial conditions and the outcomes diverge exponentially,” Wolfram says, leading the authors to extrapolate that “The no-huddle offense was chaos theory at work.”

My new dream is to hear Chris Berman reference initial conditions during a highlight reel.

The ball itself has an interesting history—and a physics all its own. There is no such thing as a tight spiral, for example, since the pigskin (which isn’t really pigskin) requires gyroscopic torque to remain in flight. Knowing that, you might just feel empathy rather than outrage the next time your quarterback lofts a lame duck over the middle.

This book transforms the gridiron into a laboratory. And much like those “Eureka” moments in the lab, serendipity and circumstance had a hand in the game’s innovation, such as the introduction of the West Coast offense and the soccer-style kick. St. John and Ainissa also prove that not all penalties are created equal: The more important stat is not penalty yardage but the breakdown between offensive and defensive infractions.

There is a serious side to Newton’s Football as well. While advances in neuroscience have revealed the extent of football’s brutality, many are wondering if football will exist in another 25 years—and if so, will it be recognizable to today’s fans. The authors explore the current concussion research and uncover some possible solutions.

Along the way, the authors revisit some of the game’s most famous plays and players, and combine physics and football with narrative journalism in one of the easiest and most interesting reads I’ve encountered all year (and that’s no small amount of books). Definitely in my top 10.

Newton’s Football is a must-have for fans of football and/or science. Not everyone is a fan of both, which is all the better because this book offers a chance to expand one’s horizons.

By the final page it will have armchair quarterbacks running statistical analysis and lab rats rubbing elbows at the sports bar. Does it get more interesting than that?