Monday, September 15, 2008

Are You Ready for some Football?

Fall means football. Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, my attention turns to the gridiron. Watching football has its many pleasures, but the season is short. Quite often, I need more football to feast upon when a game is days or months away. It’s at these times that I usually turn to sportswriters, bloggers, and screenwriters. Newspapers are still publishing sports journalism, but it’s sometimes infuriating to read. Sports bloggers tend to focus on sports personalities rather than the game itself. Football on the screen varies from bad to worse. (I know of two exceptions, which are noted below). On a rare occasion, you can find a good football book. Novelists and non-fiction writers are more often drawn to baseball and golf. I don’t know why that is. Perhaps the pace of the game itself allows a viewer to get down a page or two between pitches or putts. Nevertheless, here are my three favorite football books.

Friday Night Lights:
Some people have seen the movie, and many more have seen the excellent NBC drama by the same title. Did you know that both the movie and the television show are based on the non-fiction book Friday Night Lights by Pulitzer Prize-winning author H. G. Bissinger? The book is about a small town in west Texas that loves its high school football team, the Permian Panthers. Actually, love is not a strong enough word. Devotion is more like it. That kind of devotion leads to some negative consequences. The scene that Bissinger portrays is breathtaking. For what it’s worth, the television show on NBC is excellent (especially the first season). Though it doesn’t come close to the exquisite detail in the book.

I Am Third:
To be honest, I didn’t know that this book existed until a few years ago. Again, this book of non-fiction was the source material for a movie. When I was very young, I saw the movie Brian’s Song, and I cried through the entire second half of the movie. In fact, most men will readily admit to crying during this movie. It’s about the unlikely friendship between Gale Sayers and Brian Piccolo and the challenges they face together. Sayers wrote I Am Third after his dazzling career with the Chicago Bears. The book is wider in scope than the movie. It covers Sayers’ childhood and his rise to NFL greatness. And it draws in the heart-breaking story of his relationship with his teammate Piccolo. Suffice it to say that if you put this book down (or reach the end the movie) without shedding a tear, you are one tough customer.

Never Die Easy:
Gale Sayers and Brian Piccolo played well before my time. Sure, I’ve seen game footage from those years, but I grew up watching number 34, Sweetness himself, Walter Payton. I loved Payton for his ability to lift the entire team on his shoulders, his ballet-like moves to evade defenders, and his powerful determination to never go out of bounds. Payton held for some time the NFL record for most yards rushing. Many, myself included, consider him the greatest to ever play the game. If you have any desire to play the game of football, you must learn about Walter Payton. His motto, “Never die easy,” meant that he didn’t give up when things got tough. In 1999, Payton learned that he was dying of a rare liver disease. In his autobiography (published after his death) Payton relates how he tried to never give up when facing challenges in life, and when he faced his most difficult obstacle--this disease--he struggled with how to approach it. Never Die Easy is a moving portrait of a man who was truly inspiring. In a time when our sports culture is lacking in men to look to for inspiration, it’s good to remember that some, like Payton, truly earned the privilege of being called a hero.

Here's a YouTube video tribute to Payton and then Sayers:


Colleen said...

I had a #34 jersey when I was in high school - I adored Walter Payton. One of the things I remember is him saying that everytime he went down he stretched his arm out as far as he could - he figured he picked up an extra thousand yards over the course of his career by doing that. He was always reaching, always working to be better.

I still can't believe he is gone. Payton was a class act all the way.

K. M. Johnson said...

Thanks for the comment, Colleen.

I met Payton shortly before he was told that he was ill. He was truly a class act.

Though, he was known to be a prankster. I asked him about it, and he told me a story about how he liked to call up his the girlfriends of his teammates and pretend to be the other woman. The players all knew that he did this, so when they'd next see the girlfriend, it was always difficult to explain that it was Walter Payton and not another woman.

And he admitted that he didn't think he would have broken the rushing record if he hadn't stretched the ball out. Though, I tend to doubt that. It's amazing the numbers he put up being on a losing team for all those years. (Emmett Smith was on a powerhouse Cowboys team for much of his career.)

It is indeed hard to believe that he's gone, but there are few examples of better role models for players today.