One-Minute Book Reviews

June 22, 2008

Mark Bowden Remembers ‘The Best Game Ever’ and the Birth of Sudden-Death Overtime in National Football League Championship Play

Filed under: Nonfiction,Sports — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:30 am
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To judge by the Amazon ratings for Black Hawk Down – a total of 672 reviews, not one less than four stars – I’m among the few who thought that Mark Bowden’s account of the bungled 1993 American military raid in Somalia was overrated. So although I’m in no rush to read Bowden’s new book about the first National Football League championship game decided in sudden-death overtime, I’d like to mention the most authoritative review of it that I’ve seen so far.

Jonathan Yardley wrote of The Best Game Ever: Giants vs. Colts, 1958, and the Birth of the Modern NFL (Atlantic Monthly, 279 pp., $23) in the Washington Post:

“It’s considerably more than a play-by-play account, though Bowden does manage to build up a surprising amount of suspense. Both pro football and the United States were very different half a century ago, and Bowden understands that this game caught both the league and the nation at a moment of deep and lasting change. … Early in his career Bowden covered professional football for the Philadelphia Inquirer, an experience that serves him well here. His explanations of shifts in the teams’ offensive and defensive strategies are lucid, and he knows enough about the extreme physical and mental demands the game exacts to convey a strong sense of the players’ exhaustion and determination as the game ground toward its conclusion. He isn’t entirely immune to journalistic cliché and at times overwrites, but generally his prose is competent and clear.”

Yardley also says that while Bowden respects the 1958 Giants, “this is a Colt fan’s book.” To read his full review, click here before the Post packs it off an archive:
www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/story/2008/06/06/ST2008060602105.html. A slide show of the game that accompanies the review. The Atlantic Monthy Press site www.groveatlantic.com has additional information.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

November 28, 2006

Paul Hornung and Friends Remember Vince Lombardi

As if we didn’t know it, players and others tell us that he believed in winning

Lombardi and Me: Players, Coaches and Colleagues Talk About the Man and the Myth. By Paul Hornung with Billy Reed. Triumph, 161 pp., $24.95.

This book tells you little about Vince Lombardi that hasn’t been said – and said better – elsewhere. This, of course, is like saying that a book tells you little about Jesus that hasn’t been said better in the Gospels. As the journalist Dave Maraniss reminds us in his contribution to Lombardi and Me, Lombardi was the rare coach who transcended his time and sport.

“During his nine-year tenure with the Green Bay Packers (1959–1967), he did more than build and maintain one of the most colorful and efficient dynasties in the history of the National Football League,” former sports editor Billy Reed writes in the preface. “He became a folk hero, a cultural icon, a symbol of excellence and discipline and all those qualities that define greatness.”

What made him tick? Paul Hornung, the legendary halfback and onetime playboy who was suspended for a season for betting on games, tries to pin it down in this slim collection of interviews with former teammates and others. He has assembled an all-star cast, including such players as Bart Starr, Sam Huff, Jerry Kramer, Sonny Jurgensen, Willie Davis, and Max McGee.

But the men’s comments are often contradictory. Lombardi believed in treating players humanely but refused to let them drink water during practice, even in 90-degree heat, on the premise that dehydration was a sign of “being out of shape.” He believed winning but, while coaching the Washington Redskins, chewed out Jurgensen for throwing a first-and-goal touchdown pass from the four-yard line when the team was behind. “You’ve got to get everyone on the team involved in scoring a touchdown,” he said. “We want the line to be happy. We want the backs to be happy … You can [throw for a touchdown] on the third down, but don’t ever do it on first down again. We want everybody to be involved, not just you and the receiver.” This is interesting but begs the question: Which was more important — winning or keeping the defense happy?

So Lombardi and Me has limited value for anyone seeking a definitive analysis of the man behind mystique. It will no doubt appeal to some hard-core Packers fans and school and other coaches. But its oversized font — at least 16-point, by my guess — may be the biggest draw. Packers fans and school coaches aside, this book may have appeal most to people old enough to remember watching Lombardi lead his team to victory in Super Bowls I and II on a rabbit-eared television set. That large font is as easy on aging eyes as a game-winning Hail Mary pass with three seconds on the clock.

Best line: A quote from Jurgensen: “The coaches today want to choreograph everything. They call plays and don’t give the quarterback an opportunity to think through games the way we did. They’re mechanics now. They’re made it a coaches’ game instead of a players’ game. That’s too bad. A quarterback in the huddle has a better feel for the game than a coach on the sidelines.”

Worst line: Paul Hornung on Frank Gifford, whom Lombardi coached at the Giants: “I used to kid him about being Mr. Kathy Lee Gifford.” You’re a card, Paul.

Recommended if … you’re the sort of Packers fan who would schedule your own wedding around Green Bay games.

Published: September 2006.

Consider reading instead: Instant Replay: The Green Bay Diary of Jerry Kramer (Doubleday, 2006), by Jerry Kramer and Dick Schaap, just reissued after a decade out of print in an edition with a foreword by Jonathan Yardley. The revelations in Kramer’s classic diary of the Packers’ 1967 season may seem tame in the age of the Balco steroids scandal. But Instant Replay is the real thing, a trailblazer among inside-the-locker-room chronicles and still one of the best books ever written about professional football.

Posted by Janice Harayda

© 2006 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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