7 Gridiron Classics: A Football Reading List

 

Football might be America's game, but in literature, it often takes a backseat to baseball. And with no disrespect to sports fans who prefer the World Series to the Super Bowl, there’s no reason for that to be the case. Football has inspired some of America’s greatest sports books, covering every level of the game, from high school to college to professional. And it’s not all anecdote-driven autobiographies or superfan propaganda, either — authors have long used football as a lens to focus on social issues such as racism, violence, and the sometimes unbearable burden that comes with sudden celebrity. Here are seven great books about football that will help make the next halftime go by quickly.

Friday Night Lights: A Town, a Team, and a Dream, H. G. Bissinger

It wasn't long after H.G. "Buzz" Bissinger's searing nonfiction account of a high school football team in Texas was released in 1990 that people started calling it the best football book ever written. And in the 25 years that followed, no other book has come close. Bissinger, then a Philadelphia journalist, spent a year following the Permian High Panthers as they pursued the Texas state championship, all the while dealing with racism, poverty, and outsize expectations from adults who should have known better. The television series it inspired was beyond brilliant; the book is even more so. 

Everybody's All-American, Frank Deford
Younger sports fans might know Deford from Sports Illustrated and NPR, but he's been one of America's most legendary sportswriters for years. The journalist's 1981 novel tells the story of Gavin Grey, a Heisman Trophy winner for the North Carolina Tar Heels in the 1950s, who yearns for a professional career that never quite develops. One of the saddest sports novels ever written, Deford's book is a sobering reminder that even the best athletes are only human, prone to make mistakes that can prove disastrous.

End Zone, Don DeLillo
Literary novelist DeLillo isn't exactly known for easy, funny fiction, but that's exactly what his second book is. His 1972 novel about a running back for a Texas college team is gleefully absurd; the main character is just as interested in nuclear war as he is in the gridiron. It's not uncommon for excitable sports analysts and bellicose coaches to compare football to war, and it's a metaphor that DeLillo takes to a hilarious conclusion in this bizarre, hilarious postmodern novel.

The Junction Boys: How Ten Days in Hell with Bear Bryant Forged a Championship Team, Jim Dent
In 1954, coach Paul "Bear" Bryant took his Texas A&M team to the west Texas town of Junction for a grueling summer camp; the "survivors" included Gene Stallings and Jack Pardee. Despite hundred-degree temperatures, he worked the players hard, refusing them breaks or even water. There’s little doubt Bryant would be fired or jailed today for his actions, and his Aggies finished the season 1-9. Dent’s chronicle of the players’ ordeal is an eye-opening look at a bygone era in football, even crueler and more inhumane than the present day.

North Dallas Forty, Peter Gent
The late Gent spent a few seasons as wide receiver and tight end for the Dallas Cowboys, but he's probably best known for writing this semi-autobiographical novel that blends humor and tragedy. The book follows Phil Elliot, an NFL journeyman battling a drug and alcohol addiction and a coaching staff who doesn’t really care about him. Funny, profane, and deeply cynical, the novel shocked football fans upon its release, and inspired an equally brilliant film adaptation, featuring Nick Nolte as Elliot.

When Pride Still Mattered: A Life of Vince Lombardi, David Maraniss
Perhaps the best football biography ever written, Maraniss' look at the life of the legendary Green Bay Packers coach never descends into hagiography. Lombardi died at 57 in 1970, and his early death only added to the mythology that surrounded him. Maraniss takes a clear-eyed view of the coach; it's not a worshipful book, but it does explain how Lombardi's immense intelligence changed the way football was played and coached forever. 

Paper Lion: Confessions of a Last-String Quarterback, George Plimpton
Plimpton is possibly best known for co-founding The Paris Review and his film appearances, in which he invariably played stuffy, haughty intellectuals. But one of his greatest accomplishments was this wry chronicle of his attempt to try out for the Detroit Lions at age 36. Plimpton was hoping for a third-string quarterback slot; needless to say, he didn't get it. But he did turn his experience into a comic masterpiece of participatory journalism, and it's just as funny and smart today as it was when it was released 50 years ago.