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10 Football Books You Must Read

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Looking for a great football read this summer? Our resident bibliophile Chris Wesseling gives us his 10 football books to put on your summer reading list. 

1. A Fan's Notes, Frederick Exley, 1968

Four decades before it became customary to Google oneself, Fred Exley lamented, "It was my destiny -- unlike that of my father, whose fate it was to hear the roar of the crowd -- to sit in the stands with most men and acclaim others. It was my fate, my destiny, my end, to be a fan."

Professional sports are the ultimate domain of the insider. Fame, fortune and popularity beyond the wildest dreams await the supremely talented athlete willing to follow society's conventions, capitulate to authority and sublimate the ego to the greater goals of the team. Once a merely functional high school football player, Exley was the ultimate outsider, a dissolute soul wracked by alcoholism, depression and inescapable feelings of inadequacy in the shadow of a father whose name was "whispered in reverential tones." His saving grace is this self-styled "fictional memoir," a one-hit miracle marked by a tortured honesty and candor so unflinching that it left notorious gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson in awe.

In the annals of American literature, Exley's description of sport ranks at the top, rivaling Bernard Malumud's in "The Natural" and Richard Ford's in "The Sportswriter." Late New York Giants star Frank Gifford plays the hero to Exley's anti-hero, as the author tackles weighty, important themes.  "No one has written more revealingly than he about how Americans live vicariously through the exploits of the 'heroes' of sport," book critic Jonathan Yardley once noted, "or about how capriciously 'fame' can be awarded or withheld."

Exley produced an underground cult classic, one that has turned failed jocks of a literary bent into rabid proselytizers, continually shoving dog-eared, annotated copies of "A Fan's Notes" into the hands of fellow outsiders.

EXCERPT:

"Then I would say, "How the Giants going to make out Sunday, Leo?" Having known the question would come, Leo would smile. The nightmare of the week was over. Why did football bring me so to life? I can't say precisely. Part of it was my feeling that football was an island of directness in a world of circumspection. In football a man was asked to do a difficult and brutal job, and he either did it or got out. There was nothing rhetorical or vague about it: I chose to believe that it was not unlike the jobs which all men, in some sunnier past, had been called upon to do. It smacked of something old, something traditional, something unclouded by legerdemain and subterfuge. It had that kind of power over me, drawing me back with the force of something known, scarcely remembered, elusive as integrity -- perhaps it was no more than the force of forgotten childhood. Whatever it was, I gave myself up to the Giants utterly. The recompense I gained was the feeling of being alive.

The choice of The Parrot as a place to view the games was not an arbitrary one. There had been a time, some two or three seasons before, when I had been able to bounce up and down -- shouting, "Oh, God, he did it! Gifford did it! He caught the goddam thing!" -- in any place, in any company, and feel neither timidity nor embarrassment. But as one year had engulfed another, and still another, each bringing with it its myriad defeats, as I had come to find myself relying on the Giants as a life-giving, an exalting force, I found myself unable to relax in the company of "unbelievers," in the company of those who did not take their football earnestly or who thought my team something less than the One God. At those times, in those alien places, I felt like a holy man attempting to genuflect amidst a gang of drunken, babbling, mocking heretics."

2. America's Game, The Epic Story of How Pro Football Captured a Nation, Michael MacCambridge, 2005

Forbes recently valued the Dallas Cowboys franchise at $4 billion. How did the NFL evolve from a "localized sport based on gate receipts and played by oversized coal miners and West Texas psychopaths" to eclipse all other sports -- specifically baseball -- and become America's game? That's the theme of MacCambridge's tome, which succeeds as the definitive history of the National Football League, an afterthought in the sporting landscape prior to the 1958 Championship Game and the proliferation of television. While baseball's owners squabbled amongst themselves for the next few decades, visionary commissioner Pete Rozelle steered the NFL to the top by promoting "league think" above selfish interests.

MacCambridge focuses primarily on owners, coaches and legendary players, weaving the NFL's story through the sociological and cultural backdrop of 20th century America. It's a book that appeals to novices, casual football fans and aficionados alike, chronicling a sport that has graduated from Sunday afternoon entertainment to a behemoth that dominates the news cycle through the calendar year.

EXCERPT:

"In the great books of history, it will go down as little more than a cultural footnote: in the second half of the twentieth century in the United States, pro football's popularity as a spectator sport grew to eclipse that of Major League Baseball.

But within the narrow spectrum of American popular culture, the rise of pro football and relative decline in the popularity of Major League Baseball seems more momentous, a demarcation between past and present, not merely in sports but in the culture itself. This is true for several reasons, among them the speed with which pro football surpassed baseball, and the fact that well into the 1950s, so few people saw it coming.

To say that baseball was the number one sport in America at the end of World War II is to imply a hierarchy where none existed. Baseball towered above the sporting landscape like a colossus, the unquestioned National Pastime, the only game that mattered. Most fans had come to accept baseball's primacy as something immutable, as much a part of the natural order of things as air and water.

"Whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America had better know baseball," wrote Jacques Barzun in 1954. Barzun's words earned him a place in Bartlett's, and were still being quoted enthusiastically a half-century later. But in the span of two generations in postwar America, pro football became a truer and more vivid reflection of the American preoccupations with power and passion, technology and teamwork, than any other sporting institution in the country.

As pro football rose in stature and popularity through the '60s, it was logical to look for the simplest explanation to account for such a startling change. Many critics viewed pro football's rise as the inevitable sign of the quickening (and perhaps coarsening) of the culture or, at the very least, a simple product of one sport being better on television than the other.

Indeed, it was on television that the differences between baseball and football were most evident. The writer James Michener's Sports in America marveled at football's "almost symbiotic" relationship with television, and in 1970, when the sport became a hit on prime-time television, its incursion into the entertainment culture freed all sports to follow suit."

3. Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk, Ben Fountain, 2012

Winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction, Ben Fountain's debut novel is a penetrating microcosm of George W. Bush's Texas and an increasingly disillusioned Pat Tillman's America during the Iraq and Afghanistan war era. Fountain unfurls fluid prose, biting metaphors, pitch-perfect ear for dialogue and uncanny powers of observation into an uproarious, razor-sharp satire of "the sheltering womb of all things American -- football, Thanksgiving, television, about eight different kinds of police and security personnel, plus 300 million well-wishing fellow citizens." Although Fountain's opus has drawn comparisons to Joseph Heller's "Catch-22" for its irreverent discussion of war, the football passages at Texas Stadium are a kindred spirit to Hunter S. Thompson's gonzo-styled lampooning of the debauched Kentucky Derby crowd.

The novel covers a single day, starting with a pregame stadium tour of excesses, continuing through the NFL's Thanksgiving Day showcase with the Dallas Cowboys -- America's Team -- and closing with the post-game fallout. Fountain adroitly uses the overwrought spectacle of 21st century pro football as a metaphor for modern America's "nightmare of superabundance," best encapsulated by a ridiculously over-the-top Destiny's Child halftime show described as "porn-lite out of its mind on martial dope."

Among Fountain's bon mots: attributing a break in the football action to "the pontifical ceremony of instant-replay reviews"; gazing at the stadium's colossal Jumbotron and wondering if "maybe the game is just an ad for the ads"; strolling through the Cowboys' lavish gift shop and pondering at what point "America became a giant mall with a country attached."

Fountain didn't just capture America's obsession with sport. He also penned one of the finest works of 21st century literature. If you don't trust me, consider the rave review of "The Kite Runner" author Khaled Hosseini: "My overall reaction reading the book throughout was like, oh my God, why continue writing? The whole undertaking is pointless after this."

EXCERPT:

"Where else but America could football flourish, America with its millions of fertile acres of corn, soy and wheat, its lakes of dairy, its year-round gushers of fruits and vegetables, and such meats, that extraordinary pipeline of beef, poultry, seafood, and pork, feedlot gorged, vitamin enriched, and hypodermically immunized, humming factories of high-velocity protein production, all of which culminate after several generations of epic nutrition in this strain of industrial-sized humans? Only America could produce such giants. ... Only America could take such a product-intensive sport and grow it into the civic necessity it is today.

The players dutifully approach, and as they assemble here in the middle of the room Billy tries to imagine the vast systems that support these athletes. They are among the best-cared-for creatures in the history of the planet, beneficiaries of the best nutrition, the latest technologies, the finest medical care, they live at the very pinnacle of American innovation and abundance, which inspires an extraordinary thought -- send them to fight the war! Send them just as they are this moment, well rested, suited up, psyched for brutal combat, send the entire NFL! Attack with all our bears and raiders, our ferocious redskins, our jets, eagles, falcons, chiefs, patriots, cowboys -- how could a bunch of skinny hajjis in man-skirts and sandals stand a chance against these all-Americans? Resistance is futile, oh Arab foes. Surrender now and save yourself a world of hurt, for our mighty football players cannot be stopped, they are so huge, so strong, so fearsomely ripped that mere bombs and bullets bounce off their bones of steel. Submit, lest our awesome NFL show you straight to the flaming gates of hell!"

4. A Thinking Man's Guide to Pro Football, Paul Zimmerman, 1970 and 1984

Known to Sports Illustrated's readers as "Dr. Z," Zimmerman was the first NFL writer to routinely incorporate game-film analysis into his articles. A former offensive lineman at Stanford and Columbia, Zimmerman went on to play minor league football in the early 1960s. After his writing career was cut short by a series of strokes in 2008, the Pro Football Writer's Association instituted the Paul "Dr. Z" Zimmerman Award to recognize lifetime achievement for assistant coaches in the NFL.

Before Bill James popularized sabermetrics in baseball and Football Outsiders and Pro Football Focus introduced analytics to the football cognoscenti, Zimmerman meticulously charted each position on the gridiron, going so far as to track elapsed hang-time, distance, return yardage and coffin-corner efficiency for punters! His two guides for the thinking football fan -- released 15 years apart -- go far beyond detailed descriptions for each position on the field. Zimmerman's experience, connections and comprehensive grasp of football strategy allowed him to put star players, iconic coaches, pro football trends and even game plans into historical perspective.

To be clear, Zimmer's style isn't just for the pigskin wonks. His myriad anecdotes include the time former Chargers offensive mastermind Sid Gillman tried to convince assistant coach Bum Phillips that watching a particularly meaningful slice of game film was better than making love. "Either I don't know how to watch film," Phillips quipped, "or you don't know how to make love."

EXCERPT:

"They come into pro football all instinct and nerve, without the surgical scars on the knees or the knowledge of what it's like to get hit by a 240-pound linebacker. They burn brightly, and by the time they're 30 or so they might still be around, but they're different players. They know how to pass block, and they can run their pass routes without making any mistakes; they can block in front of a ball carrier, and they run just well enough to be considered runners. They dive -- and survive.

Running back is a position governed by instinct, and many of the great ballcarriers were never better than they were as freshman pros. It's the most instinctive position in football, the only one in which a rookie can step in with a total lack of knowledge of everything except running the ball, and be a success.

The good runners all have the quick start and the knack of avoiding objects, and a rookie can use exactly the same skills he had in college. And if he's got the physical qualifications, he will be a good, often sensational first-year pro. He hasn't learned fear -- or self-defense. The repeated hammering hasn't yet taken the zip from his legs. Everything else can be taught, the faking and blocking and pass routes, provided he has the desire to learn and the courage to executive some of the more tedious jobs.

The pure runners draw the big salaries, and their weaknesses in blocking or faking, or their fogginess on pass patterns, will drive the coaches crazy but it won't cost them a spot in the lineup. The gifted set of legs can hide a multitude of shortcomings. The pedestrian runner who is a solid pass receiver and a good blocker in front of the quarterback might last for years. But his position on the squad is always shaky. So is his salary."

5. Finding the Winning Edge, Bill Walsh, 1997

Good luck finding a copy of Bill Walsh's definitive coaching textbook for less than $200. In fact, there are leather-bound, signed editions that fetch more than $1,000. Walk into the office of an NFL coach or front-office executive, and there is a good chance you will spot a well-worn copy with more highlights than white space. Of the 36,000 copies sold in 1997, a hefty percentage have found their way to the desks of grade school, high school and college coaches throughout the country.

Walsh set out to create a comprehensive organizational guide, functioning as a playbook, coaching manual, leadership compendium and roster blueprint under one cover. "It's not a sports book," Walsh once told his son. "It's a thesis." The 550 pages can be dry and dense at times -- Walsh listed 29 factors that could help determine if a player has a drug problem. But it ultimately succeeds as a legacy piece that has advanced the art of NFL coaching and team building.

"Saying it was outstanding wouldn't do it justice. For a coach, it's a Bible," Patriots great Bill Belichick raved to Yahoo's Charles Robinson nearly a decade ago. "... If I were an owner, first of all, I would read that book. Then I would make that book required reading for my head coach, general manager or any other key executive in my football operation."

EXCERPT:

"As a coach, the primary point to remember is that a knowledge or expertise of any subject must remain dynamic. As renowned organization theorist Abraham Kaplan has noted, "As knowledge of a particular subject matter grows, our conception of that subject matter changes. This paradox is resolved by a process of approximation: the better our concepts, the better the theory we can formulate with them, and in turn, the better the concepts for the next improved theory. It is only through this succession that (we) can hope ultimately to achieve success.

An excellent example of Kaplan's progression is the interaction of ideas and theories I have exchanged with the many fine coaches with whom I have had the pleasure of working over the years. As a result, my attempts to be more knowledgeable about the game and to continually expand my offensive concepts eventually led to the next step in the evolution of, for lack of a better term, the "West Coast Offense."

Whatever label, genuine or otherwise, others want to give to it, the "West Coast Offense" still amounts to nothing more than a total attention to detail and an appreciation for every facet of offensive football and refinement of those things that are needed to prove an environment that allows people to perform at their maximum levels of self-actualization."

6. When Pride Still Mattered, David Marannis, 1999

Why is the winner of the Super Bowl presented the Vince Lombardi Trophy? Lombardi ranks with John Wooden, Red Auerbach, Knute Rockne and Bear Bryant as the most mythologized coaches in American history. The offensive coordinator on the New York Giants dynasty of the 1950s, Lombardi was hired in 1959 to resurrect a moribund Packers franchise reeling from a 1-10-1 campaign. Standing in the spotlight as the last of the small industry towns still boasting a professional sports team, Green Bay was soon atop the football world, winning five titles in nine years.

Lombardi's rise mirrored that of the modern NFL, which was born out of the 1958 Championship Game that marked Lombardi's final game with the Giants. Within a decade, the NFL had bypassed Major League Baseball as America's No. 1 sport while Lombardi became so successful that both Richard Nixon and Hubert Humphrey considered him as a Vice Presidential running mate.

Maraniss produced a masterful character study of a complicated human being, emphasizing the duality that drove Lombardi's obsession with winning. Along the way, Maraniss peppered in plenty of Lombardi's pigskin wisdom, such as the hard-earned admonition against sitting on the ball for an entire quarter no matter the score as well as the acknowledgment that football was the perfect team game "except for one glaring imbalance -- the quarterback was too important."

Memorable sports biographies are few and far between. Maraniss' treatment of Lombardi stands with Robert Creamer's "Babe", David Remnick's "King of the World" and Ken Dryden's "The Game" as the finest in their field.

EXCERPT:

"This was 1951, the beginning of what was later perceived through the lens of nostalgia as a decade of simplicity. This was West Point, garrison of traditional American values: duty, honor, country. And this was Coach Blaik, the Old Man, demanding and austere. It would be easy for someone nearly fifty years later, discouraged by the corrupted state of sports in America at the end of the twentieth century and unmindful of the cycles of history, to take a fleeting look at that combination and make a backward leap of faith: now there was a time and place where sport was honest and clean, by the rules, when pride still mattered. But history has a way of mocking attempts to make it retroactively pure.

The events of that episode are not immaterial to his larger story; they are central to understanding the mythology of Lombardi, the contradictory demands and expectations of football, and the fallacy of the innocent past.

They raise larger questions that address the core mythology of football and of the man who went on to become its patron saint, Vince Lombardi. What is the value of competitive team sports? Where is the line drawn between a single-minded desire to excel and a debilitating obsession to win? Are football teams essential to the well-being of institutions and communities? Do athletes deserve special consideration because of this? In a realm where the ultimate measurement is wins versus losses, do ends justify means?

The contradictory ideals of unity and independence, conformity and rebellion, run deep in the American psyche, and along that divide football is the sport most clearly aligned with unity and conformity, for better and worse. When asserting that football builds character, coaches invariably speak of teamwork, discipline, perseverance and loyalty. But even granting football those qualities, are they inherently positive? Or, as the Army honor code scandal suggests, can they also lead to group thinking, peer pressure, blind obedience and an emphasis on team solidarity over individual integrity?

Those were the questions raised in 1951, and in one way or another they would follow Lombardi and define him for the rest of his life."

7. The Education of a Coach, David Halberstam, 2005

A decorated Pulitzer Prize winner for his reporting on Vietnam in the 1960s, Halberstam went on to pen 20 books, the last 14 of which became national bestsellers. When he wasn't preoccupied with weighty matters such as the civil rights movement and the Kennedy White House, Halberstam dabbled in the "little entertainments" of professional athletics, producing some of the finest American sports writing of the past half-century.

Why did Halberstam choose to chronicle the rise of Bill Belichick as the topic of his only football book? For starters, he was obsessed with greatness. His most highly regarded tome was the 1972 classic "The Best and the Brightest." After watching Belichick lift three Lombardy Trophies in four years last decade, Halberstam set out to examine the influences that shaped the NFL's best coach. By the time he finished interviewing Belichick, Halberstam regarded the New England Patriots legend as the hardest-working man he had ever seen.

Whereas "When Pride Still Mattered" is a full-fledged biography, Halberstam's treatment of Belichick concentrates on the lessons learned from other coaches en route to the NFL's pinnacle. That education began with his father, Steve, regarded by many as pro football's first great scout. By the age of 9, Steve had taught Bill how to analyze game film, "a ticket into a secret world, in which you could find so much more than what was on the surface." That secret world eventually provided Belichick with the ammunition to specialize in pinpointing his opponents' weaknesses and erasing their strengths.

Nicknamed "Gloom" by the domineering Bill Parcells, Belichick makes up in knowledge and leadership what he lacks in outward personality. "He was not a man of charisma, as one expected of coaches," Halberstam decided, "but rather a quiet man of chalk." Thanks to the brilliance of writer and subject, the chalk spins the 21st century's dominant football dynasty into a defining story.

EXCERPT:

"He had mastered the playbook, added about twenty pounds of muscle to his body, and worked seriously on his mechanics. He understood the Patriots' system, one in which it was critically important to make good reads, and he knew how to operate in it. Comparing him to Phil Simms, who had been so valuable on those Giants teams, Belichick thought that Simms might have a little more arm strength and certainly came in as a more accurate passer, but he thought Brady might have at an earlier point in his career a better sense of clock management. And he threw a very catchable ball, a ball that the receivers liked.

About his ability to read what was happening on the field, that is, field intelligence, Belichick was pleased. The ability to make those reads on the defense was a hard thing to measure, as football intelligence was always hard to measure. There were some quarterbacks who were very smart, who knew the playbook cold, but who were not kinetic wonders, and could not make the instantaneous read. That was the rarest of abilities, the so-called Montana Factor: the eye perceiving, and then in the same instant, making the additional transfer from brain to the requisite muscles. The NFL was filled with coaches with weak arms themselves, who could see things quickly on the field but who were doomed to work with quarterbacks who had great arms, but whose ability to read the defense was less impressive. What Brady might have, they began to suspect, was that marvelous ability that sets the truly great athletes apart from the very good ones. Or as one of the assistants said, it was like having Belichick himself out there if only Belichick had a great arm. In the 2001 training camp Brady would come off the field after an offensive series, and Belichick would question him about each play, and it was quite remarkable: Brady would be able to tell his coach what every receiver was doing on each play, what the defensive backs were doing, and explain why he had chose to throw where he had. It was as if there were a camera secreted away in his brain. Afterward, Belichick would go back and run the film on those same plays and would find that everything Brady had said was borne out by film.

8. The League, David Harris, 1986

Observing the trials and tribulations of the mid-1980s when the NFL was tied up in litigation with Raiders owner Al Davis, the NFLPA and the nascent USFL, Harris started with the premise that Commissioner Pete Rozelle's "League Think" touchstone was eroding to the point of decay. Forget all of that. Thirty years later, the NFL is stronger than ever. The 32 NFL owners comprise American sports' most exclusive club.

The value of Harris' book is the focus on the inner circle of football's leadership, featuring mini-biographies on the NFL's power players from Rozelle's meteoric rise in the early 1960s through the strife of the early 1980s. The league's menagerie of owners was filled with enough egomania, backstabbing and palace intrigue to keep pace with the primetime soap-opera hits of the era such as "Dallas," "Dynasty" and "Knots Landing."

To wit: Less than a decade after incredibly swapping his Baltimore Colts franchise for the Los Angeles Rams, Carroll Rosenbloom drowned in suspicious circumstances while swimming at Golden Beach, Florida, thrusting his second wife, Georgia Frontiere, into the ownership role. Several years later, legendary broadcaster Howard Cosell announced at a luncheon filled with league dignitaries that he harbored a "naked lust" for Frontiere, the NFL's first female owner.

Kansas City Chiefs owner Lamar Hunt lost $1 million in his first year with the upstart American Football League. When asked how long Lamar could survive at that rate of loss, H.L. Hunt quipped, "at this rate, the boy has only 123 years to go." The pages are filled with hundreds of entertaining, eye-brow raising anecdotes along those lines.

Much like John Helyar's "Lords of the Realm" is the definitive account of Major League Baseball's business machinations, Harris' book is a powerful expose of the NFL's boardrooms. The ongoing antics of that cast of characters provide enough color to salvage a failed premise.

EXCERPT:

"Euphoria from their television contract apparently blinded a number of League members to the actual direness of their situation, but, on paper, it looked like Rozelle's worst nightmare. For the next year, the League would have to fight a trade war, a labor war, and a civil war all at the same time. Rich or not, League Think was in deep trouble.

The most immediate and pressing of those potential disasters was LAMCC v. NFL. One owner even had a parrot trained to squawk "(Expletive) you, Al Davis" stationed near the check-in counter when Davis arrived at the annual meeting.

The bad news was finally delivered twenty-one days after the annual meeting adjourned. The jury found that the NFL had damaged Al Davis by some $11.5 million and the LAMCC by some $4.9 million by delaying Davis' move south for two years. Because of the anti-trust violation, those damages would be automatically tripled. The total bill was almost $50 million in damages. On top of that, the League would also have to pay another $10 million in the plaintiffs' accumulated legal fees. It was, one NFL source noted, the first time Pete Rozelle had ever cost the League money."

9. Monsters: The 1985 Chicago Bears and the Wild Heart of Football, Rich Cohen, 2013

The title sells the work short. Sure, it's the definitive account of a colorful and compelling Super Bowl champion, the most dominant force ever to stalk quivering prey on the gridiron. The 1985 Bears were football's version of Mike Tyson in his prime, intimidating opposing quarterbacks before knocking them out cold by the end of the first round. The scope of Cohen's treatment goes beyond Chicago, though, to encompass the relevant history of pro football. Steeped in NFL lore and strategical evolution, Cohen also has a clear understanding of the finest American sportswriting.

Acclaimed journalist George Plimpton, author of the seminal football book "Paper Lion," famously advanced the "small ball" theory of sportswriting. The smaller the ball, Plimpton mused in the early 1990s, the "more formidable the literature." At the time, David Halberstam's basketball classic "The Breaks of the Game" and football offerings such as "Paper Lion," "North Dallas Forty" and "Semi-Tough" were thoroughly overshadowed by the myriad masterpieces in golf and baseball. Three decades later, Plimpton's theory has been rendered obsolete by unheralded books such as Cohen's.

It's fitting that football writing has hit its stride in the 21st century, in keeping with the NFL's dominion over the modern American sports landscape. That certainly wasn't the case when Plimpton was cutting his teeth on baseball, golf and boxing in the 1950s.

EXCERPT:

"There was an inherent weakness in Buddy's system. Or as the competing coaches put it, "The 46 is unsound." In overloading the line, the Bears sacrificed coverage elsewhere. Look at film from 1984 or 1985, you see receivers wide open downfield. Buddy's gamble was that the quarterbacks would be first too hurried, then too terrified, and finally too beat up to find the open men. As with Danny White, they would have just one thought on their mind: get rid of the ball. "The 46 became an (expletive) nightmare to coach against," Bruce Coslet, an offensive coordinator for the Cincinnati Bengals in the 1980s told Tim Layden. "It was something nobody had seen and nobody knew how to prepare for it. Buddy changed football with that defense.

"Scary" -- that's how Jaworski described it. "Abnormal. Different. It was blitzing. It was chaos. It was impossible to prepare for. Just impossible."

The 46 was the logic behind the modern T-formation come full circle: Halas had raised the quarterback to such a place of preeminence, turned him into such a finely calibrated piece of offensive machinery, that he became almost too valuable for the team's own good. Rather than cover everyone, Buddy would short-circuit the offense by taking out the QB. As the boxers used to say: Kill the brain and the body will follow."

10. North Dallas Forty, Peter Gent, 1973

Jim Bouton's 1970 classic "Ball Four" opened the flood gates for professional athletes to reveal the seamier side of sports. A wide receiver for the Dallas Cowboys from 1964 through 1968, Peter Gent's fictional contribution was one of a number of books painting an unflattering portrait of pro football in the early 1970s. Unlike the more radical critiques by Dave Meggyesy and Bernie Parrish, Gent's novel seems to find football's salvation in the exhilaration that counteracts the inherent violence and dehumanizing elements of football in the pre-merger era.

Gent's apocalyptic vision -- in the vein of famous contemporaries such as Kurt Vonnegut and Don DeLillo -- might not hold up well, but it's the Catch-22 concept borrowed from Joseph Heller that strikes the reader. For all of the hyperbole contained in Gent's treatment, his broad strokes paint a telling story of the NFL in a more violent time. "There was something about pro football," he told The Fort Worth Star-Telegram in 2001. "It was violent, it was cruel. There was a part of the game that was literally insane. And I love it." For years after he left the game, Gent was known to acknowledge, he felt no justification for living. His retirement offered no endeavor as meaningful as suiting up with his teammates to lay it all on the line each Sunday.

It's that fascinating dichotomy -- as well as his uproarious antics with incorrigible Don Meredith-based quarterback Seth Maxwell -- that make Gent's fictional account of his playing days so compelling.

EXCERPT:

"Anybody who has made it as a professional football player has survived the horror of real violence, facing the monster that lives in his heart -- these men were true gods in ruins. Whether he stays a man is still a question of fate because the monster is always straining to be loosed again.

I still remember vividly the struggle to nourish desperate desires to be alive as a man can be -- to live each day as if it were the last -- feeling life pumping through us with the hammering of our hearts. It was a great life. A lot of scary high wire work, too many injuries, and lots of pain. But I felt more in one Sunday afternoon than I did later on in whole years -- writing is the only thing I have done that comes close to being as terrifying as being a football player."

More football classics

  • Semi-Tough
  • Friday Night Lights
  • The Blind Side
  • Collision Low Crossers
  • Instant Replay
  • Paper Lion
  • The Last Headbangers
  • About Three Bricks Shy of a Load
  • The Pro Football Chronicle
  • War Room
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