Gelf Magazine - Looking over the overlooked

Books | Sports

September 11, 2014

A Football Nation

Editor John Schulian discusses the Library of America's new anthology of American football writing through the ages.

Michael Gluckstadt

Try to remember a time when football wasn't the biggest sport in America. When a Thursday night game between non-contenders didn't out-rate every other program on television (non-football, of course). When people said things like, "Baseball is the national pastime" with a straight face. It wasn't that long ago, and for most of football's history, it was the norm. But as a new collection of football writing through the years from the Library of America makes clear, long before football was the biggest game in the country, it was already America's sport.

John Schulian
"I look at football and see America. It's loud and it's violent."

John Schulian

Football: Great Writing About the National Sport: A Special Publication of The Library of America is edited by longtime newspaper writer John Schulian (who also has had a parallel career as a TV writer, responsible for such memorable programs as Xena: Warrior Princess). In it, he gathers dozens of pieces about the game, from Grantland Rice's reflection on coining "The Four Hoursemen," to Grantland's Bryan Curtis spending a season with the best team of 12-year-olds in Texas. "I look at football and I see America," Schulian tells Gelf. "Although it took football until the dawn of the new century to become dominant nationally, you could see it coming from a long way off."

In the following interview, which has been edited for length and clarity, Schulian explains what sets football writing apart from other sports, which pieces were the hardest to leave out of the anthology, and just what makes football so star-spangled American.

Gelf Magazine: Were you trying to cover all aspects and eras of the game, or did you just choose the best football writing you could find?

John Schulian: Great writing was definitely my first priority, just as it is the Library of America's. But I still wanted the book to have a historical arc, however loose it may be. I like to think you can see how football has been transformed if you read the first and last pieces in the book. It opens with George Gipp having a smoke at halftime and wisecracking to Knute Rockne about betting on the game he was playing in, and it closes with the Pittsburgh Steelers' PR pipsqueaks essentially telling Roy Blount Jr. and his son not to step on the grass. The lords of football, both college and professional, couldn't care less if there is great writing about their game. They're in it for the money and the power and the glory, and the men who do their bidding—the coaches and players—operate in a world rich in secrecy and paranoia. The fact that there has been so much great writing in such a smothering atmosphere borders on miraculous.

Gelf Magazine: Is there a piece you are particularly proud of uncovering and bringing to a new audience?

John Schulian: There are two pieces, actually. The first is "G-L-O-R-Y!", Jeanne Marie Laskas's big-hearted look at the Cincinnati Bengals' cheerleaders. It originally ran in GQ, which may not be regular reading for football fans, and it looked beyond the T-and-A and found wonderfully human stories among the young women with the moussed hair and glossy lips. The other piece that holds a special place in my heart couldn't be more different: "Yesterday's Hero," Paul Hemphill's compassionate but unflinching look at a washed-up All-American whose life has been undone by booze. Every time I read it—the first was when Sport magazine published it in 1972—I'm left with the same feeling I have after listening to a sad country song.

Gelf Magazine: What piece or pieces were hardest to omit?

John Schulian: Putting together a book like this is great fun until it's time to whittle it down to size, and then you feel the way a football coach must when he's making his final cuts. In a perfect world, I would have included Diane K. Shah's profile of Jim Brown, a great player whose life after football included some deeply troubling moments with young women. There would have been room, too, for Ray Didinger, the wonderful Philadelphia sports columnist, as he traced a deaf running back's journey from "The Hill" in Pittsburgh to stardom with the Washington Redskins. Then there is Michael Weinreb, of Grantland, who wrote the sanest pieces I read in the wake of the Sandusky mess at Penn State. And let me not forget the incisive story that Alexander Wolff, who normally specializes in college basketball for Sports Illustrated, wrote about how the NFL's color line was broken.

Gelf Magazine: Which player or coach from the past sparked the most great writing?

John Schulian: I think Vince Lombardi edges out Tom Landry as the coach who inspired the most great writing. Lombardi was fire and Landry was ice, and they were both fascinating, but the passion bubbling inside St. Vincent was more accessible. Sometimes he was admired—the biography by David Maraniss, Bill Heinz's Run to Daylight!, Kramer and Schaap's Instant Replay—and at least once, in Leonard Shecter's withering Esquire profile of him, he got his hide peeled. No matter what light he was cast in, though, Lombardi was a compelling figure. As for the players who inspired great writing, I think Joe Namath ran away with that category. Who didn't want to write about a smart-assed quarterback who drank scotch, bedded starlets, wore a full-length mink coat, and popped off at will, never more memorably than when he predicted the Jets would beat the mighty Colts in the Super Bowl? There have been a multitude of better quarterbacks in the years since, but from a writer's standpoint, I'd trade them all for one Broadway Joe.

Gelf Magazine: How long has football been the national sport?

John Schulian: When I was writing a sports column in Chicago in the '70s, it was a Bears town even in those rare years when the Cubs were good. Indeed, it had always been a Bears town. Although it took football until the dawn of the new century to become dominant nationally, you could see it coming from a long way off. There was the Colts beating the Giants in OT in '58, and Namath predicting his Super Bowl victory in '69, and Monday Night Football, and the Cowboys becoming "America's Team," and NFL Films, and on and on and on. There never seemed to be a false step, not when Pete Rozelle was commissioner, anyway. He was a visionary. And his vision began moving toward reality when the NFL started locking up enormous TV deals. At the same time it was surviving the NBA's surge of popularity with Michael Jordan and, before him, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird. And it was getting past baseball and the McGwire-Sosa home run wars. In time, there was nothing to stop the NFL. By the early 2000s, it owned the nation's heart. And the colleges, with a host of appealing teams from USC to Boise State to the old SEC powerhouses, soared in popularity, too. And now you have a game so dominant that the great thinkers at Major League Baseball must lose sleep wondering if anyone is going to watch the World Series.

Gelf Magazine: How does football writing compare to writing about baseball? Or boxing?

John Schulian: Boxing is a writer's dream, full of great talkers and mano a mano conflict and the kind of shenanigans that make you think you're writing crime fiction. But not many readers care much about boxing anymore. Baseball used to be a writer's game, too, rich in anecdotes and lore and personalities you might love (Earl Weaver, Pete Rose) or hate (Billy Martin, George Steinbrenner) but always wanted to chronicle. That seems to be changing, however, with the advent of ballplayers who speak in clichés and writers who seem more interested in statistics than flesh-and-blood human beings.
I wish I could say that football was different, better, a blessing in shoulder pads, but the truth is, football can be a bitch to cover. I read Blount on the Steelers' micromanaging the media and I talk to old sportswriter friends who beat their heads against the wall of NFL intransigence, and a chill runs through me. The NFL doesn't want coverage. It wants adulation. It has tried to ignore everything from the game's crippled and discombobulated veterans to the epidemic of concussions to the sociopaths for whom Ray Rice is currently the poster boy. There are still great reporters out there, though, and they'll still get the story. But God help them, because they're taking years off their lives in the process.

Gelf Magazine: Why do you think football is (for the most part) a uniquely American phenomenon?

John Schulian: I look at football and see America. It's loud—even the pregame shows on TV have the decibel level of a Megadeath concert. It's violent, and what could be better for this pistol-packing nation where Patriots fans once pissed on a man who had a heart attack in the stands and LA Raiders fans once kicked some poor goof into a coma for the crime of wearing his Steelers jersey to a game? More than anything, football is a haven for corporate executives and the beneficiaries of disposable income, which makes it a reflection of our have-and-have-not society. There's little room for the ordinary dad who wants to take his family to a game without getting walloped financially. Nor does anyone seem to notice that the kids who will grow up to become quarterbacks, linemen and linebackers may never see an NFL game live until they're playing in one. Good old America, land of the fat cats.

Gelf Magazine: Broadly speaking, it seems the best football writing through the years has moved from newspapers to magazines and is making its way towards the internet. Do the pieces reflect the medium they appeared in or is great writing simply great writing?

John Schulian: Great writing is great writing even if it's done on an outhouse wall. But it's a pity to see what, with only a few exceptions, has become of American newspapers. While some sports sections still fight the good fight—Boston Globe, New York Times, Washington Post—too many seem desiccated and lifeless. First-rate columnists are hard to find and there's little or no room for takeout or long-form or whatever you want to call the whopping big stories with which newspapers once announced they were aiming for magazine-quality work. But magazines aren't what they used to be, either. Sports Illustrated is in too deep with the NFL for my comfort. You're just as likely to find a good sports story in the New York Times Magazine or GQ or the eminently readable Texas Monthly. But for devoted readers of sports stories, the real bonanza is on the internet, where day in, day out there seems to be great work done. Maybe it's a Joe Posnanski column or blog, or a writerly feature by's Wright Thompson. Maybe it's Grantland that has delivered the goods with an essay by the esteemed Charlie Pierce or a smart, bristling piece by Bryan Curtis or Michael Weinreb. Or maybe the piece that catches your eye is by the kind of writer Glenn Stout always seems to find at SBNation: someone you've never heard of before but know you're going to hear from again. As enthusiastic as I am about what I see online, I know there are other writers out there who I'm missing and may never discover. That's the curse of the internet. To borrow the last line from The Wild Bunch, it ain't like it used to be, but it's all we got.

Gelf Magazine: To make another generalization, it seems another theme in football writing is pain—whether it's Dick Butkus talking about a vague pain in his knee or the specific effects of CTE on Dave Duerson—would you say that's a unique feature of the sport? Has the increased specificity of injuries made them more tangible in some way?

John Schulian: There's pain in every sport. In hockey a guy gets his nose torn off his face by a puck, and five minutes later, he's had it stitched back on and he's out on the ice again. In baseball a fastball in the head can kill you. In basketball I keep waiting for some guy floating up near the rim to fall and break his neck. In boxing death is only one punch away. And yet football would seem to trump them all for the sheer pervasiveness of pain. If you read my profile of Chuck Bednarik in Football, you'll discover that his bicep was torn off, he had it taped up, and went back to playing. I'm not sure he even said "Ouch!" I know for a fact he never had it operated on. If you read Mark Kram's prescient piece on pain—written more than 20 years ago—you'll find Hall of Famer Ronnie Lott talking about tackling people so hard that he knocked the snot out of his own nose. But the Butkus piece, splendid as it is, never gets around to pointing out that the Bears' killer middle linebacker was operated on by a team doctor whose nickname among players was "Zorro." The concept of pain was still coming to the surface then. But pain has always been there. The difference now is that it has led to tragedy. We see the crippled old-timers the NFL tried to ignore, and we read about the concussions and brain damage that the NFL ignored until the certifiably tough men who were doing all the suffering began killing themselves. And we, as readers and writers, talk about how sad it is, and how dangerous. We talk, too, about how big and fast the players are. But we still watch football—most of us anyway—and we will continue to do so whether or not the rules are altered to protect the players and safer helmets are developed. We will watch because we need our fix of spectacle and danger and violence. We love it and we're never going to change.

Michael Gluckstadt

Michael Gluckstadt is an editor at Gelf and host of the Varsity Letters speaking series.

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Article by Michael Gluckstadt

Michael Gluckstadt is an editor at Gelf and host of the Varsity Letters speaking series.

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