Football can be deceiving. To the untrained eye, it’s really just a bunch of very large guys smashing into each other with the sole purpose of either getting a ball made of pig skin across a white line, or keeping the ball away from that line, while also making millions of dollars.
But to true fans it’s much more; not only is football a game of strategy, it’s also a sport that can be as poetic and philosophical as it is brutal. It can be slow and grinding one minute, then fast-paced and exciting the next. And while watching it all unfold live and in color is obviously the ideal situation, football has produced some of the best-written work on any major American sport over the last century, as evidenced by these nine pieces featured in a new collection from the Library of America, Football: Great Writing About the National Sport.
Friday Night Lights by H.G Bissinger
You might know the television show (or the film), but have you read Buzz Bissinger’s account of the Permian Panthers making a run at the coveted Texas high school state championship? Just like those who tuned-in to watch the fictional team from Dillon, Texas his book inspired, people who couldn’t care less about football should read this book.
“Dave Duerson: The Ferocious Life and Tragic Death of a Super Bowl Star” by Paul Solotaroff
Published in our May, 2011 issue, this look at the long-term damage that constant hits to the head can cause players, and, in the case of retired Chicago Bear Dave Duerson whose 2011 suicide made the world pay attention to the results, the tragedy it can lead to in the end.
“Pulled Pork and Pigskin: A Love Letter to Southern Football” by Wright Thompson
Every region of the country has its football legends and stories. The kid QB from the Pennsylvania town who escaped the steel factory he was destined to work at after high school, the speedy running back from Florida, the golden haired linebacker from California. But there’s something extra special about Southern football that Thompson so beautifully nails.
“The Minority Quarterback” by Ira Berkow
After 20 years of reporting on sports for the New York Times, Berkow took home a Pulitzer Prize for his part in the “How Race Is Lived in America” series with his piece on the pressure a white quarterback felt playing at a predominantly black university.
Instant Replay by Jerry Kramer and Dick Schaap
Call it serendipity, or just chalk it up to Schaap’s smarts as a sportswriter and editor, but asking the insightful Green Bay Packer Jerry Kramer to keep a diary of the 1967 season yielded a first-hand account of playing for one of Vince Lombardi’s most legendary teams. It also gave readers a look inside the mind of the man who blocked for one of most famous touchdowns in NFL history.
Paper Lion by George Plimpton
You might think of him first as one of the founders of one of the truly great literary magazines of our time, but Plimpton as a sportswriter, specifically the type that would embed himself into the Detroit Lions practice squad to understand what it’s really like to play the game, is a great work of New Journalism.
“G-L-O-R-Y” by Jeanne Marie Laskas
Although Laskas had publicly admitted she isn’t the biggest sports fan in the world, her profile on the Cincinnati Bengals cheerleaders proves there’s much more to the women than the pom-poms and short skirts.
“Dick Butkus” by Arthur Kretchmer
Aside from maybe Lawrence Taylor, no other linebacker conjures the mental image of offensive linemen being carted off the field quite like the mustachioed Chicago hitman. Kretchmer described Butkus as being, “built large and hard, big enough to make John Wayne look like his loyal sidekick.” And although his bad knees would force him to hang up the cleats two seasons after this 1971 Playboy profile hit stands, the article remains the ultimate written testament to a player who was truly one-of-a-kind.
“Friday Night Tykes” by Bryan Curtis
As Bissinger proved, there’s something about amateurs playing football that makes for a great story. But Curtis took it a step further, and looked at a youth football team right outside of Dallas for this Texas Monthly piece, giving us one of the most fascinating longreads on youth sports you will ever read.