The Sunday Sports Book Review: New in pro football

The National Football League we know today took dramatic steps in its current direction in the 1970s, when lucrative television contracts finally elbowed aside the dominance of Major League Baseball and as American corporate life moved into an age of high finance, filling its ranks with a Baby Boom generation of mobile and ambitious strivers.

But according to author Kevin Cook, two teams that embodied blue-collar, roughneck styles — the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Oakland Raiders, respectively — played key roles in helping usher in the new NFL in its break from the old-school, Vince Lombardi past.

Picture 4Cook’s recently published “The Last Headbangers: NFL Football in the Rowdy, Reckless ’70s — The Era That Created Modern Sports,” spans a decade in the pro game from two unforgettable touchdown catches: Franco Harris’ “Immaculate Reception” for the Steelers against the Raiders in the 1972 AFC title game, and Dwight Clark’s “The Catch” for the San Francisco 49ers against the Dallas Cowboys in the 1982 NFC finals.

During this time, traditional running-oriented attacks and 4-3 defenses were giving way to more wide-open passing offenses and the “flex” schemes of the Dallas Cowboys.

Off the field, the corporate ethos of the NFL, with its new-found fame and riches, set the stage for an era of expansion, more ruthless competition, labor strife, painkillers and steroids and the establishment of gaudy spectacle.

This is well-traveled book terrain, most notably in fiction (“North Dallas Forty,” “Semi-Tough”).

But Cook is keen on letting the light shine on a cast of raucous real-life figures, in uniform and on the sidelines, many of whom he interviewed: Terry Bradshaw, Jack Tatum, Mean Joe Greene and Kenny Stabler. Finally, the rise of “Monday Night Football” is presented as further evidence of the NFL’s move to the center of American entertainment experience.

The headbangers in the title are literal. In a cringe-inducing sequence, Cook explains the brutal technique Raiders linebacker Phil Villapiano used to get his head to fit into his helmet. Do not try this at home, or anywhere else.

In a major review in The Washington Post, Greg Schneider is impressed with Cook’s vivid retelling of the Steelers and Raiders of the 1970s. But he concludes the author doesn’t live up to the subtitle’s billing, and his timing is off:

“But the problem with Cook’s book is that the Steelers-Raiders rivalry doesn’t really explain how football became the modern product that today brings in billions upon billions in revenue. The creation of that money machine during the 1970s was more of a backroom affair, with Rozelle negotiating ever-higher TV broadcast deals and the networks cooking up more and more elaborate presentations. As for the game itself — the modern version, as Cook notes in the latter part of the book, actually developed in the early 1980s with the rise of the San Francisco 49ers and the complicated, air-oriented West Coast offense. And it didn’t change overnight.”

Cook is interviewed here by NPR’s Scott Simon about the heavy toll the game took on the players. (The late Steelers’ Hall of Fame center Mike Webster, a key figure in Pittsburgh’s dynasty, suffered from dementia and was discovered to have had chronic traumatic encephalopathy.)  In an op-ed piece in The New York Times that coincided with the book’s publication, Cook eloquently raised concerns that continue to be echoed, ever so loudly, and as they involve one of his book’s chief characters:

“Fans may wonder whether they should support such a sport. Many parents face a more practical question: Should our kid play football? When the Raiders’ Phil Villapiano, one of the hardest hitters in N.F.L. history, watched his son Mike get his bell rung in a high school game, they had a father-son talk about it. Mike dreamed of playing college football, maybe even making the N.F.L. They both felt he wouldn’t get there by sitting on the sidelines, waiting for a doctor to send him back in. Father and son agreed: Mike kept his mouth shut and his options open. He stayed in the game and led his team to a state championship.

“I’m not about to second-guess the Villapianos, whose fortitude I admire. But no family should face such a choice.”

The Perfect Season

The last team to win a Super Bowl before Kevin Cook’s book timeline is the last team to go undefeated in a season.

Veteran sportswriter Mike Freeman’s “Undefeated: Inside the 1972 Miami Dolphins’ Perfect Season,” includes the personal recollections of the men who went 17-0 and reversed the fortunes of a franchise with little previous success.

On Tampa Bay Online, Bob D’Angelo praises Freeman for finally giving those Dolphins, on the 40th anniversary of their singular feat, some belated respect. It started with the respect that coach Don Shula gave to his players in laying the foundation for a strong team concept:

“Freeman does more than provide a blow-by-blow account of the perfect season. He gives the reader the necessary background to understand the 1972 season, and notes how Shula was able to integrate his locker room and had blacks and whites rooming together on the road. He also put black hair products (like Afro Sheen) and hair picks inside the individual lockers of black players.”

Tough Game to Write About

Here’s an interesting post from blogger and author Lance Mannion about the sports books he’s reading, and the sports he enjoys reading about the most: baseball and boxing, in that order.

He’s got the books by Cook and Freeman on his lengthy to-review list, but also makes this frank admission about what he thinks of the literature of football:

” . . . more than other sports football emphasizes strategy and violence, and both topics are inherently dull to read about. Strategy because it easily degenerates into sheer wonkery. Violence because it gets repetitive.”

But Mannion likes both accounts for what they don’t contain:

“Never mind the talk about heart and character that creeps into all sportswriting and sentimentalizes the most cynical writers’ prose. For a lot of fans and players and coaches, football is about will. The essential spirit of the game expresses itself in power and the will to dominate. This isn’t what I like about the game. In fact, it’s what keeps me from loving it anywhere near as much as I love baseball. I don’t even think it’s necessary to appreciating football as a sport as opposed to a spectacle. But it’s there, whether I like it or not. It excuses the violence. Worse, it encourages celebration of the violence. Watching thugs inflict pain on each other becomes the point. Writers who accept this as intrinsic to the game, even resignedly, as well as writers who are seduced by it, become dull and stupid in a hurry. And they resort to cliches more often and easily to help them disguise what they’re doing, which is either apologizing for bullies or out and out cheerleading for them.”

And there’s this:

“Writing about football is full of personalities, usually outsized ones. Writing about baseball and boxing is full of characters.

“Joe Namath was a personality.

“Ty Cobb was a character.

“And this is the case with Undefeated and The Last Headbangers.”

There’s plenty more to ponder in that post, so treat yourself and read the whole thing.

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