The first three weeks of this year, I had a brief, superficial but more intimate-than-usual glimpse into the hiring process and practices of the National Football League. I came to the conclusion that the owners were spineless, two-faced slugs; the head coaches back-stabbing; the players self-absorbed and self-centered; and the fans thought they knew the game better than the entire NFL organization.
According to Michael MacCambridge, I’m right! His meticulously researched book, America’s Game: The Epic Story of How Pro Football Captured a Nation is a close look at the history of football from the end of WWII to the present. Like Anya Seton, another author that uses exhaustive research for her stories, MacCambridge starts slow, almost painstaking, in the first two-thirds of the book, stating facts and figures and events in a somewhat chronological order up to ca 1970, about 25 years. He tends to backtrack, spring forward, and then backtrack again within chapters. The pace picks up considerably toward the end of the book, covering more than 30 years in the last one-third.
I understand the need to build a basis for the book, but it seems as though MacCambridge skipped over important football events and information of the post-1970 era. Of all the great accomplishments of coaches, Tom Landry is only mentioned a handful of times. But he fared better than other greats like Mike Ditka, who’s name appears once only as a possessive; or Bill Cowher, mentioned twice in the context of an unwritten rule to not sleep at the office. Instead, MacCambridge favors numerous quotes from less-great coaches like Brian Billick.
Deion Sanders (introduced as ushering in a new era of the NFL, which is the self-absorbed, self-centered player era) garnered almost as much print as Roger Staubach, which is very irksome to me. Staubach has always been one of my heroes, on and off the field. Neon Deion will NEVER be the legend or the man Staubach is.
America’s Game isn’t written for the casual football fan. MacCambridge assumes the reader has much more than a basic education of the sport. I am not one of those readers, and am not familiar with terms such as: “down-and-in pass”, “1-2 passing attack”, “shallow drag routes”, or he hit the receiver “on an out pattern”.
I do not have the name of every owner, head coach, and general manager memorized. MacCambridge’s tendency to return to a person, identified only by last name pages after last addressing them, made re-reading necessary and enjoying the book harder. Who’s Thomas (p. 351)? I had to refer to the index to find a person mentioned on the last page to find the last reference to him in the prologue. He also chronicled games using only players’ names and not the teams. More re-reading to find out who won that one.
Another aspect of MacCambridge’s writing that makes this a difficult read is his flair for the dramatic. When Frank Borman, in orbit in Gemini 7 in 1965, told Tommy Nobis to “sign with the Oilers”, MacCambridge dubbed it as an “interstellar” bidding war. Being in orbit above the earth hardly qualifies as interplanetary, much less interstellar. He describes a Jets-Colts game as a “harmonic convergence of elements”; and an argument over the Properties Trust had the feel of the “Spanish Civil War”.
Some sentences just did not make sense, at all. For example,
“On the field, the checkoff system allowed the quarterback to audible to a different play at the line of scrimmage if the defensive formation threatened the one called in the huddle.” (p. 201)
Huh? To audible? I know what the sentence means but it could have been worded much more clearly.
He described the midnight convoy of Irsay’s Colts defection from Baltimore as “limned in radiation lights…” Baltimore radiated the Colts as they left?
Despite these obstacles, the book offers several funny moments in the form of very candid quotes from players and coaches.
But there are as many instances of two-faced owners: Rosenbloom moving the Rams from LA to Anaheim against the NFL’s orders or Irsay trading Elway to Denver without consulting Coach Accorsi.
How about back-stabbing coaches? Bill Walsh found out that the reason he had been passed over for the top position was his own head coach Bill Johnson had been bad mouthing him to numerous interested teams. Al Davis and Jerry Jones, ‘nuff said.
Kudos to MacCambridge, however, because he addresses those fans, who think they know the game better than anyone involved with the NFL, very diplomatically:
“Thus one had the great conundrum of pro football’s popularity: fans, without access to the team’s playbook, scouting reports, game plans, and game films, aren’t really given the tools to perfectly understand their team’s actions and responses.” (p. 412)
The best part of the book for an ex-Cowboy fan like me was the affirmation that I have known for decades is that Cowboy fans are fair-weather! MacCambridge has documented quotes from Staubach and facts surrounding Jones egotism among other stats to illustrate this clearly.
If you’re a die-hard, know-it-all about football, you will still find this an interesting read. For the rest of us, it gives us a slightly better insight into the confusing world of football. But at least, when we finish reading it, we are fully cognizant of the fact that we don’t know everything.