The first three weeks of this year, I got a brief, superficial but more intimate than usual glimpse into the National Football League recruiting process and practices. I came to the conclusion that the owners were two-sided thornless slugs; head coaches stab in the back; egocentric and egocentric players; and the fans thought they knew the game better than the entire NFL organization.
According to Michael MacCambridge, I’m right! His meticulously researched book, America’s Game: The Epic Tale of How Professional Football Captured a Nation is a close look at the history of football from the end of WWII to the present day. Like Anya Seton, another author who uses exhaustive research for her stories, MacCambridge begins slowly, almost painstakingly, in the first two-thirds of the book, laying out facts, figures, and events in somewhat chronological order until about 1970, about 25 years. . He tends to go back, jump forward, and then go back through chapters. The pace picks up dramatically towards the end of the book, spanning over 30 years in the final third.
I understand the need to build a foundation for the book, but it looks like MacCambridge has skipped some important post-1970 era football events and information. Of all the great coaching accomplishments, Tom Landry is only mentioned a handful of times. But he did better than other greats like Mike Ditka, whose name only appears once as possessive; or Bill Cowher, mentioned twice in the context of an unwritten no-sleep rule. Instead, MacCambridge favors many quotes from less tall coaches like Brian Billick.
Deion Sanders (billed as marking the start of a new era in the NFL, which is the era of self-centered, self-centered players) garnered almost as much impression as Roger Staubach, which is very annoying to me. Staubach has always been one of my heroes, on and off the pitch. Neon Deion goes NEVER be the legend or the man that Staubach is.
America’s game is not written for the casual football fan. MacCambridge assumes that the reader has much more than basic sports education. I am not one of those readers and I am unfamiliar with terms such as: “downhill pass”, “1-2 pass pass”, “shallow drag roads”, or it hit the receiver “on a output model “.
I haven’t memorized the names of every owner, head coach and general manager. MacCambridge’s tendency to revert to a person, identified only by the last name pages after their last conversation, made necessary proofreading and appreciation of the book more difficult. Who is Thomas (p. 351)? I had to refer to index to find a person mentioned on the last page to find the last reference to them in the prologue. He also chronicled the matches using only the names of the players and not the teams. No more proofreading to find out who won this one.
Another aspect of MacCambridge’s writing that makes this difficult to read is his flair for the dramatic. When Frank Borman, orbiting Gemini 7 in 1965, told Tommy Nobis to “sign with the Oilers,” MacCambridge dubbed it an “interstellar” bidding war. Being in orbit above the Earth is hardly called interplanetary, let alone interstellar. He describes a Jets-Colts game as a “harmonic convergence of elements”; and a dispute over the Properties Trust had the feeling of the “Spanish Civil War”.
Some sentences just didn’t make sense. For example,
“On the pitch, the control system allowed the quarterback to have a different play on the line of scrimmage if the defensive line threatened the one called up in the clique.” (p. 201)
Huh? For audible? I know what the sentence means, but it could have been worded much more clearly.
He described the midnight convoy of the Irsay Colts defection from Baltimore as “limned in the radiant lights …” Baltimore rayon the Colts as they left?
Despite these obstacles, the book offers several fun moments in the form of very candid quotes from players and coaches.
But there are just as many examples of two-sided owners: Rosenbloom moving the Rams from LA to Anaheim for orders from the NFL or Irsay swapping Elway to Denver without consulting Coach Accorsi.
How about the trainers stabbing the back? Bill Walsh discovered that the reason he was squeezed out of the top spot was because his own head coach Bill Johnson had spoken badly about him to many interested teams. Al Davis and Jerry Jones, Nuff said.
Kudos to MacCambridge, however, because he’s addressing those fans, who think they know the game better than anyone involved in the NFL, in a very diplomatic way:
“So we had the big enigma of the popularity of professional football: the fans, without access to the team playbook, scout reports, game plans and game films, do not really have the tools to fully understand the actions and responses of their team. ” (p. 412)
The best part of the book for a former Cowboy fan like me was the claim that I’ve known for decades is that Cowboy fans are in good weather! MacCambridge documented quotes from Staubach and facts surrounding Jones’ selfishness among other statistics to clearly illustrate this.
If you are an avid football fan, you will always find this reading interesting. For the rest of us, it gives us a better insight into the confusing world of football. But at least when we’re done reading it, we’re fully aware that we don’t know everything.