Football as Literary Pastime

This weekend’s New York Times Magazine notes that: "For sports-minded writers with literary aspirations, baseball, not football, has been the game." Compare the number of books written about the sports.

This holds true not only for novelists and poets but for nonfiction authors as well: there is, on football’s very short shelf, George Plimpton’s "Paper Lion," about the author’s remarkable participatory-journalist’s stint with the Detroi Lions; and Roy Blount Jr.’s "About Three Bricks Shy of a Load," a wildly funny chronicle of a season with the 1970’s Steelers; and–well, no Roger Angell."

The NYT Magazine assures us that we do, however, have Michael Lewis, who "has been spending a lot of time with guys in pads and helmets." (Another top notch football writer is Gregg Easterbrook, who pens a funny weekly column called TMQ during the NFL season.) Now, I am a fan of Michael Lewis, whose book "Liar’s Poker" is enshrined as a classic that perfectly encapsulated the 1980s Wall Street ethos with great hilarity. (To date, it is still  by far one of Lewis’ best books.) Yet, as good a writer as Lewis is, he’s no Karl Taro Greenfield. Compare this introduction in Lewis’ profile of Texas Tech’s Mike Leach

It was still ordinary time. The seconds ticked off the digital clock on
the locker-room wall. A smell: the acrid odor of vomit. They were still
ordinary college football players, and a few of them had lost their
pregame meals to a war of nerves. Side by side at their lockers the
players sat, silently, almost penitently, stomachs churning, waiting
for their coach to show up and to make the place a lot less ordinary.

…to the introduction of Greenfield’s profile of Steve Spurrier, the head football coach of my alma mater:

Nothing prepared him for nothing. For months and weeks of nothing. For days and days of nothing. And, hardest of all, for hours and minutes and seconds of nothing. For waking up in the morning, pouring a cup of coffee, grabbing the paper and sitting out on the deck behind the four-bedroom, two-story house in Hamilton, Va., and having nothing to do but stare at the distant hills before wandering into the kitchen and asking his wife what’s for lunch, and her answering–because she had errands to run and volunteer work to do at Scotty’s high school–"Nothing."

Okay, so not all of us can be an editor-at-large at Sports Illustrated like Greenfield. I’m just as envious of Lewis’ writing ability, and I like the chord he strikes on football. "Football is the most complex sport and also the most intense. Yet it’s not very well understood. So as a literary subject, it’s virgin territory." A thought that has crossed the minds of many a Southerner, I’m sure, who thinks of the game of football as a birthright.

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