The challenging art of stylish football writing

On Tuesday I write about developments in sports media, and occasionally step back in time to a different era in sports journalism. This week I am devoting posts to the upcoming American football season, college and pro, with a focus on new books and writings on the subject.

* * * * * * * *

Can high-minded writing about American football ever be as lyrical, as soaring, as the celebrated literature of baseball?

Venerable sportswriter-turned-screenwriter John Schulian has taken as serious a stab at this question as anyone with the new anthology “Football: Great Writing About the National Sport.”

It’s the latest sports title in the continuing Library of America series (I wrote about previous collections of the work of Red Smith and Ring Lardner here and here), and Schulian has done a marvelous job selecting 44 pieces, from Grantland Rice to Michael Lewis.

The illustrious names include Shirley Povich, Jimmy Cannon, Dan Jenkins, Red Smith, Gary Smith, Frank Deford, W.C. Heinz, Jimmy Breslin, Jim Murray, Rick Reilly, Rick Telander, Larry Merchant, Leigh Montville, Mark Kram, Ira Berkow, Charles Pierce, Paul Hemphill, Richard Price, John Ed Bradley and many others.

Football Anthology SchulianSchulian has included chapters from a number of celebrated books, among them David Maraniss’ “When Pride Still Mattered,” his superb biography of Vince Lombardi, “Friday Night Lights,” Buzz Bissinger’s portrait of small-town Texas high school football, and Frederick Exley’s “A Fan’s Notes.”

There are some lesser-known (to football fans) writers in the collection that include Jeanne Marie Laskas, whose 2008 GQ article, “G-L-O-R-Y!,” profiled the unglamorous jobs of NFL cheerleaders that have been in the news recently. The other female byline in the anthology is that of Jennifer Allen, writing about her late father, coach George Allen.

The other subjects — from Red Grange to Dick Butkus to Jim Brown to Johnny Unitas to Tom Landry to Bear Bryant and more — are all compelling enough.

But does the nature of football tie the hands of even the best writers to produce the kind of (Angellic, even?) prose commonly associated with baseball? Is it even a fair comparison to make?

In a lengthy interview on Deadspin with Alex Belth, Schulian has a theory about that, indirectly, pointing out that “primitive conditions” for covering football in what he termed the “Pleistocene era” made an already difficult sport to write about more challenging:

“I like to think that’s why I came up empty when I looked for compelling pieces by Heywood Broun and Damon Runyon. Both were memorable writers and, yet, when I read what they had to say about the sport, it seemed strained, uninformed, almost naïve—in other words, it was a lot like everything I ever wrote about hockey.”

The Rice selection is not his famous 1924 column for The New York Herald-Tribune about the Four Horsemen of Notre Dame. No “blue-gray October sky,” as Schulian tells Belth he didn’t want to go “wading in the sludge of old Granny’s hyperbole, and I wasn’t about to risk scaring off readers that way.” Instead, Schulian has chosen a piece from Rice’s memoir, “The Tumult and the Shouting,” about how he came to write the Notre Dame column. Schulian adds:

“I’ve wondered how different it would be if Rice had been able to avail himself of today’s press-box replays and the locker-room interviews that were so scarce when he walked the earth.”

Another writing luminary Schulian includes is Southern humorist Roy Blount, Jr., whose love for the Pittsburgh Steelers prompted a 40-year reprisal of Franco Harris’ touchdown catch in the 1972 playoffs published as “Immaculate Memory” in Sports Illustrated:

“Who reminds us of who we are? People who knew us when. I went to see L.C. Greenwood, the former defensive end. L.C. is the one Steeler not in the Hall of Fame who most should be. (No. 2: Donnie Shell.) In the first Steelers Super Bowl he blocked three of Fran Tarkenton’s passes, and in the second one he was even better. He had more career sacks than Joe Greene. I wrote in my book that L.C. might leave practice wearing a blue pullover sleeveless suit, brown pantyhose, a shoulder bag and a necklace a lady had given him that said TFTEISYF, which stood, of course, for ‘The first time ever I saw your face.’ “

In a review for The Wall Street Journal over the weekend, Jonathan Eig, while admiring many pieces in the anthology, concludes:

“I was left with the sense that whatever the changing fortunes of individual sports might be, the best football writing is still not as good as the best baseball writing.” Fifth Quarter

Eig, a biographer of Lou Gehrig and Jackie Robinson, praises baseball’s simplicity and linear qualities he says are easier to write about than what transpires on a gridiron. But he raved about Wright Thompson’s ode to Southern football, “Pulled Pork and Pigskin,” for ESPN.com:

“Overwritten? Hell yes! And keep it coming.”

Eig figures that football writing is gaining ground in style as it reflects its high status in popular culture, amid the crunching tackles, concussions and seemingly vicarious violence:

“When writers look back on American culture in the early 21st century, I suspect they’ll turn to football more than baseball. The loudmouthed Richard Sherman of the Seahawks will seem a lot more attractive to storytellers than that elegant but hopelessly gray Yankee, Derek Jeter. The crunch of shoulder pads will tell more about society than the crack of ball on bat.”

Schulian wonders how the presentation of football will shape writing that aims to go deeper than what couch-sitting fans can readily see and experience:

“What makes the writer’s task more difficult than ever is that TV has seized on the human dimension, too. Its technical brilliance was never in question. All the cameras, all the angles—I don’t know why anyone wants to watch a game in person when they can see it so much better at home. Actually, I do. They go for the tailgating and the camaraderie, the cheerleaders and the chance to be on camera with their shirts off when the thermometer nosedives below freezing. Most of all, they go for the tribal passion that sent football rushing into America’s bloodstream in the first place.”

An audio interview here with Schulian, on NPR‘s “Only a Game,” in which he says that football “has certainly entered a dark period” with the concussion issue and the suicide of Chicago Bears great Dave Duerson, another topic in his anthology. Schulian, Laskas and Deford also talk about the book, and their pieces in it, on NPR‘s “Weekend Edition Saturday” with Scott Simon.

Concludes Erik Spanberg, in his review for The Christian Science Monitor:

“Other than the billionaires who own NFL teams, no one in football has it easy. Which, for better and worse, helps explain why we can’t stop watching the glamorous wreckage before us.”

Website Pin Facebook Twitter Myspace Friendfeed Technorati del.icio.us Digg Google StumbleUpon Premium Responsive