Football and literature simply doesn't mix like football and beer or football and tailgating. There are countless biographies and memoirs penned by notable players and coaches but most aren't worth the paper they are ghost-written on. However, there are a small number of titles that stand out on the line of scrimmage.
The Tom Brady of football books is Friday Night Lights by Buzz Bissinger - quite simply it's the best football book ever written. It's good because it's actually about many other subjects besides scoring touchdowns and groin strains - it probably says more about life in Texas high schools than it does about the game itself. The book shows how high school football in Texas is everything to Texans - the teenage players are local heroes, the game is the highlight of the week and the sport is played with amazing intensity. Bissinger spent a long time with the Permian High School Panthers during their 1988 season - the book is so detailed about the intensity and obsession of the town that it caused much local controversy on its release in 1990. Even if you hate football, then this book is worth reading as an example of how a non-fiction book should be written.
Paper Lion by George Plimpton is another remarkable book written by the founder of The Paris Review - America's longstanding literary journal of choice. Plimpton talks himself on the roster of the Detroit Lions during their training camp in 1963. He lives and breathes with the players as they are whittled down to the final roster for the opening day of the NFL season. He's the third-string quarterback at camp and illustrates how distant professional athletes are from the ordinary Joe on the street. The most remarkable thing about the book is that the players warm to Plimpton as he refuses to quit and by the end they are willing him to succeed. A tall order considering Plimpton has trouble with the most basic of quarterbacking skills.
Two more recent books worth considering are Namath: A Biography by Mark Kriegel and Next Man Up by John Feinstein. Kriegel is a reactionary columnist for Fox Sports but his biography of Joe Namath - football's first true celebrity superstar of the TV age - is exhaustive and fascinating. Again, this book is really a story of the 1960s and the rise of television in American society. Feinstein spent a year with the 2004 Baltimore Ravens and his book reveals the workings of the modern NFL - many aspects of Paper Lion can still be seen in Feinstein's account as the writer had almost complete access to all of the team's internal affairs over 12 months. Although the NFL grants amazing access to the media, this book takes readers into meetings behind closed doors that armchair quarterbacks never see on ESPN.
I am currently reading The Thin Thirty by Shannon Ragland. This is the story of head coach Charlie Bradshaw and his (mis)-treatment of the 1962 University of Kentucky football team. A college boot camp that went too far if you will. Another exhaustive catalog of research about a team from 45 years ago. Some things have changed, some have not. You don't get many all-white college teams these days. Crazy coaches are nothing new but it's fascinating to see how a team of 88 players is whittled down to 30 thin players by a brutal conditioning program.
A completely different look inside professional football comes from The Fifth Quarter by Jennifer Allen - the daughter of former Washington Redskins head coach George Allen. Again, it reveals that an obsessive personality will take you a long way in the NFL. If anything, it's another book where the reader actually starts to feel sorry for these people who dedicate almost every waking hour to getting the next first down and winning the ballgame. As a child, Jennifer simply wants to be with his father, who is never there.
Other Recommendations for Football Fans