“You Got ‘Dinged.’ You Got ‘Blown Up.’ You Got ‘Thumped.’ You Got ‘Your Bell Rung.’ ”
Football books, old and new, glorify violence and toughness. Let’s hear it for one classic that was more concerned with a good time.
And anyway, the players in Semi-Tough’s NFL are colorblind in the most important respect: They’ll happily bang any woman, as long as she’s got a nice pair of “lungs” and some sweet “wool.” It’ll be a long time before I forget the masterfully described scene of Giants defensive end T.J. Lambert, the “meanest sumbitch that ever lived,” at a party in Billy and Shake’s penthouse apartment, collecting up three “spade hooks”—“they were hard-hitters and really good-natured”—and lining them up on the mantel over the fireplace. “I can still see them,” Billy recalls admiringly, “sitting up there with their legs spread, singing like the Supremes, while T.J. took turns eating all three.” So frequent is the sex in Semi-Tough that among Billy’s most charming neologisms is stewardi. He just lives the kind of life in which you need an easier-to-pronounce plural for stewardess.
Jenkins doesn’t seem to have been too far off regarding the sexual appetites of NFL players in the ‘70s; according to The Last Headbangers, such was the aura of the NFL that even the production staff at Monday Night Football was awash in wool. And Jenkins’ description of the pregame festivities at the Super Bowl are hilarious: thousands of trained birds painted red, white, and blue; 50 skydivers dressed as states of the union; an astronaut driving Pete Rozelle around in the Indy 500-winning car; the national anthem sung by “two thousand crippled and maimed soldiers on crutches and in wheel chairs and on stretchers.” I laughed out loud when I read it, and I laughed again when I remembered that this satirical ceremony is nearly indistinguishable from the actual pregame ceremony of Super Bowl VII, as described in The Last Headbangers, except that instead of maimed soldiers it was orphans.
In an era of athlete Twitter feeds, opinionated sports blogs, and intense, day-to-day coverage, it’s hard to imagine the football book lasting much longer. Who needs to write a book anymore? It’s all out there already. And who knows how long football itself will last anyway? I don’t know anyone who would let their child play tackle football in high school or college. Even the players struggle with it. Siragusa tells his son, “You’re going to own a team, you’re not going to freaking play.” But he lets him play nonetheless.
In Headbangers, ex-Raider Villapiano worries about his son Mike, a high-school quarterback in Connecticut. “When Mike got dinged—probably concussed—during a high school game,” Cook writes, “the two of them talked about what Mike should do. Sit out a few plays? A few games?” I read on, eager to see how Phil Villapiano would utilize the wisdom earned in 12 NFL seasons, after seeing countless teammates crippled or demented for life. “He couldn’t win games or scholarship offers sitting on the bench,” Cook writes. “So Mike didn’t tell his coach. He didn’t tell anyone. He went back in and led Rumson to a victory. As his proud dad put it, the boy’s got some Raider in him.”
Every football book, no matter how mediocre, contains something fascinating if you look hard enough. The personal revelations that do sneak through are made all the more poignant by their scarcity. I nearly wept when Siragusa, apropos of nothing, wrote, “My wife says she thinks I need an audience, that I can never be alone.” Though I remember nearly nothing from Madden’s Hey, Wait a Minute—a book I read at least 15 times as a kid—I’ll never forget Fred Biletnikoff’s description of what “good hands” actually mean to a receiver: “Good hands means both hands work together. If your right hand reaches out for the ball, your left hand reaches out on the same plane.”
These moments of actual wisdom, hidden among the preening and bragging and tough-guy stance, can make football books worthwhile in the same way that moments of athletic magnificence in between all the penalties and injuries and beer ads make football games worth watching. The truly great football books are packed with such moments: David Maraniss’ Vince Lombardi biography When Pride Still Mattered, say, or Jerry Kramer’s Instant Replay, or presumably some other books that aren’t about the Packers. The typical football book, alas, has maybe three or four.
And Semi-Tough is in, as they say, a league of its own. You want football wisdom? The biggest star on the dog-ass Jets is Dreamer Tatum, a linebacker and “a stud sumbitch” who got his nickname in college because “he put guys to sleep when he hit them.” Dreamer, it turns out, is as much a philosopher as our heroes, as we learn when he meets Billy after the Super Bowl’s final gun. As Billy points out that things could certainly have gone differently—a bad bounce here, a dropped pass there—Dreamer smiles. “Say, I learned something about football, baby,” he says. “What could have happened, did.”
Dan Kois is a senior editor at Slate and a contributing writer to the New York Times Magazine.