I couldn’t have known it at the time, but in one night I met two athletes who would become prominent figures in the modern NFL concussion narrative: Mike Webster and Jack Tatum. At the time, Tatum was recently retired, but Webbie was still playing for my hometown Steelers, and of the seven or so players I met at this banquet, these are the only two I remember.
Because I bleed black and gold, I was happy to meet Webster. I remember him being incredibly friendly, shaking hands with both my father and me and penning a thoughtful autograph. But as cool as that was, I was really excited to meet the notorious Tatum, the icon of NFL villainy for permanently paralyzing wide receiver Darryl Stingley.
This had earned Tatum one of the coolest sports nicknames of all time, and he was at this banquet promoting the first of his three autobiographies, They Call Me Assassin.
Tatum didn’t just look mean–the air around him chilled, the energy darkened. Something repulsive oozed off of him and kept the crowd at a distance. He didn’t crack a smile, had none of Webster’s warmth. When I handed him my autograph sheet he literally just signed his name. No message, no greeting. Just “Jack Tatum.” He was terrifying, and I came away from that encounter star-struck.
Of course, my opinions of both men are much different now.
Nevertheless, both men symbolize the celebrity and consequence of football’s golden age: Tatum the intimidating aggressor whose ferocity and win-at-all-costs mentality are prized attributes and Webster the tough-as-nails scrapper who attained on-field glory at the cost of his mind, body and dignity off of it.
In the past decade, we’ve learned about the long-term health risks of playing professional football. With every early death, suicide and descent into darkness and bankruptcy, it becomes more difficult to enjoy a Sunday slugfest with a clear conscience. In another two decades, we may not recognize professional football, because we’re just now recognizing the toll it takes on its players.
An important new book on the subject, Is There Life After Football?, considers not only the physical and neurological toll of the sport, but also the psychological impact of job-mandated violence, short careers, and the wild financial swings common among players.
Penned by two sociologists and an unexpected scholar (former Green Bay Packers star George Koonce–that is, Dr. George Koonce), Is There Life After Football? provides a sobering and insightful view of this transition through the personal anecdotes of Koonce and the research of Holstein and Jones. Most jarring is Koonce’s admission of a reckless act at the end of his career. It wasn’t exactly a suicide attempt, but he did drive his car off the road just to see what would happen.
This anecdote is all the more poignant when considering the recent driving death of Rob Bironas.
Though not as accessible as the prose styles of Malcolm Gladwell and Michael Lewis, the authors do a great job of distilling difficult material into a digestible form. It’s also a treat to read for anyone who enjoyed watching those plucky Packers of the 1990s. Juxtaposing those dynamic teams with Koonce’s experiences gives the book a Behind the Music vibe.
The takeaway is the same. Just as those we see on stage and screen are real people, so too are the men behind the facemasks.
Perhaps in a box, somewhere, at my parents’ house is a slip of paper with Webster and Tatum’s autographs. If I ever find it, I’ll frame it, perhaps donate it to a museum, where it can memorialize a different time, alongside bare-knuckle boxing and Crack the Whip as American pastimes whose time has passed....more
The Short Life and Fast Times of the North American Soccer League
I recall, from my childhood, soccer on television, cheering for Pelé and watching him slow-motion bicycle kick his way through Nazis alongside Sylvester Stallone. And then it was gone.Rock n Roll Soccer
I don’t remember when it went away, but in the early 1980s, my attention turned to music and girls. So long, Pelé. Farewell slow-motion bicycle kick. We hardly new ye. It didn’t even occur to me, until Major League Soccer started play, that there was no longer an elite professional American league.
Fast forward to 2014, and soccer in America is once again on the rise. It’s now expected that the U.S. men’s team will not only qualify, but advance to the knockout rounds of the World Cup. The bar is even higher for the medal-winning women’s club. MLS is approaching its 20th season, and the future is looking bright.
Couple that with the self-immolation of the NFL and in a few decades Monday Night Football might be a whole different ballgame. Literally.
The groundwork for today’s soccer popularity was laid by the North American Soccer League, the subject of Plenderleith’s Rock ‘n’ Roll Soccer. This is required reading in a World Cup year, and a treat to read anytime.
Plenderleith documents the folly, effrontery and ultimate failure of the NASL—an impressively thorough tome that benefits from solid research and a witty outsider’s perspective (though now living in America, Plenderleith is British and brings a European’s passion and insight to football writing).
One of Plenderleith’s great accomplishments in this book is his ability to zoom in and out of the action while keeping the reader engaged. This is not an easy task. At times, he’ll be recounting the exaggerated drug- and drink-fueled antics of over-the-hill international stars and young Americans performing in a flamboyant, fly-by-night federation that defied, in equal measure, rules, tradition and, ahem, sound business practice.
Then Plenderleith will step back and establish the international and cultural context within which the NASL was operating. At first, the international audience mocked the upstart Americans, and FIFA pushed back against the young league that was tinkering with tradition.
But as the NASL achieved early success, the world took notice. While it didn’t reinvent the sport, the outlaw league reinvigorated it by making it a fan-friendly experience and drove rule changes that increased substitutions and decreased back passes.
The model, though exciting, was as unsustainable as that alcohol-fueled borderline relationship you had in college. The peaks were unforgettable, but the valleys unbearable. Sure enough, the NASL folded following the 1984 season.
It was an experiment and experience that was thoroughly American, and though the league didn’t last, it left a lasting impression on the game and paved the way for MLS success.
Rock ‘n’ Roll Soccer is an excellent work of sports journalism and, regardless of whether you follow football or futbol (or both), it is worthy of any fans’ bookshelf....more
Many have described football as an encapsulation of America itself (see Sal Paolantonio’s How Football Explains America), and I’m inclined to agree. Of course there’s a time lag, since Europeans arrived on this continent four centuries before the birth of American football.
For historical synchronicity, let’s say the 19th-century invention of the sport parallels the arrival at Plymouth Rock; the 1920 formation of the National Football League (then known as the American Professional Football Association) was the Continental Congress; and the years leading up to and including the early Super Bowls was the Wild West. Since then, football has enjoyed the popularity and profit of post-WWII America.
The bridge between the NFL’s lawless pre-history and current glory days is the 1970s, when the organized mayhem of the sport electrified color televisions across the nation. It was the decade dominated by the Pittsburgh Steelers.
In 1973, author Roy Blount Jr., whom many will know as a regular panelist on National Public Radio’s Wait Wait… Don’t Tell Me!, spent the season with the Steelers at a crucial moment—months after the Immaculate Reception and a year before their first Super Bowl victory.
The result was the gonzo-style About Three Bricks Shy of a Load, which has been re-released in honor of the book’s fortieth anniversary.
I have a personal interest in this book: I was born in western Pennsylvania in 1972, and you bet your ass I bleed black and gold. Possessing that strain of superstition unique to sports, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the Steelers won a grand total of 0 postseason games prior to my birth and since then have been the winningest team in football.
As a youth, I idolized the ’70s Steelers, but didn’t yet have the sophistication (or skepticism) to consider the lives of the men behind the facemasks. It was with great interest, then, that I read About Three Bricks Shy of a Load to learn more about the incubation of a dynasty. What sets this apart from similar books (such as Their Life’s Work and Steel Dynasty) is that it captures the highs and lows of the 1973 season without the sentimentality of age or the foreknowledge of future championships.
However, this isn’t a yearbook. This is an in-the-trenches account of the players and personalities that epitomized professional football of that era—a time before the NFL became PG rated. Blount’s embedded reporting is remarkable, from the openness of alcohol, drugs and sex to the lingering racial and culture divides of the 1960s. I’ve learned more about the team I idolized in this one book than I did growing up an hour from Three Rivers Stadium.
However, this is still a book of general interest. Although its emphasis is on one team, it is a pivotal bit of prehistory to the NFL’s dominance. A raw, unfiltered look at a free-wheeling sports league before it became a tight-lipped, humorless corporation.
Of course, there are shadows that loom over this narrative. Just as nobody in 1973 could have foreseen the success of the Steelers and the NFL, also unknown was the physical toll of steroids and repeated blows to the head. The significance of this book will likely increase with age, especially as the NFL finds itself at a crossroads—its popularity has never been greater, but lawsuits, science and dropping youth enrollment portent a shaky future.
History is always a work in progress, and the definitive narrative of the NFL has yet to be written. But when it is, About Three Bricks Shy of a Load will be a document of a special time in a special place, the story of a team on the cusp of greatness falling just shy of its goal. ...more
Here’s a book combining two of my favorite things: science writing and football. Turns out they go together as naturally (and tastily) as Dorito’s and M&Ms, and like that classic combo, I binged on it until it was all gone. The authors write with passion and knowledge, and in every chapter there was something I didn’t know, either about science or the sport I love.
It begins, fittingly, with an interview with Stephen Wolfram (the theoretical physicist and author of A New Kind of Science), who explains the role chaos theory plays in your team’s game plan. I had always considered the 12th man to be the home crowd, but it turns out to be initial conditions. “Change the initial conditions and the outcomes diverge exponentially,” Wolfram says, leading the authors to extrapolate that “The no-huddle offense was chaos theory at work.”
My new dream is to hear Chris Berman reference initial conditions during a highlight reel.
The ball itself has an interesting history—and a physics all its own. There is no such thing as a tight spiral, for example, since the pigskin (which isn’t really pigskin) requires gyroscopic torque to remain in flight. Knowing that, you might just feel empathy rather than outrage the next time your quarterback lofts a lame duck over the middle.
This book transforms the gridiron into a laboratory. And much like those “Eureka” moments in the lab, serendipity and circumstance had a hand in the game’s innovation, such as the introduction of the West Coast offense and the soccer-style kick. St. John and Ainissa also prove that not all penalties are created equal: The more important stat is not penalty yardage but the breakdown between offensive and defensive infractions.
There is a serious side to Newton’s Football as well. While advances in neuroscience have revealed the extent of football’s brutality, many are wondering if football will exist in another 25 years—and if so, will it be recognizable to today’s fans. The authors explore the current concussion research and uncover some possible solutions.
Along the way, the authors revisit some of the game’s most famous plays and players, and combine physics and football with narrative journalism in one of the easiest and most interesting reads I’ve encountered all year (and that’s no small amount of books). Definitely in my top 10.
Newton’s Football is a must-have for fans of football and/or science. Not everyone is a fan of both, which is all the better because this book offers a chance to expand one’s horizons.
By the final page it will have armchair quarterbacks running statistical analysis and lab rats rubbing elbows at the sports bar. Does it get more interesting than that? ...more
This review originally appeared in the BOULDER WEEKLY
A Season In Hell Placekicker Katie Hnida made history at CU. Then she made national news by coming forward with a tale of harassment and rape. Now an author and speaker, she documents her journey in her new memoir, Still Kicking. By Vince Darcangelo
Growing up a football fan in Littleton, Colo., Katie Hnida had two favorite teams: the Denver Broncos and the Colorado Buffaloes (CU). While only a freshman at Chatfield High School, Hnida earned a spot as a placekicker on the school's varsity football squad. She then realized that one day she might not be rooting for the Buffs—she might be playing for them.
That dream came to fruition when a chance encounter with then CU coach Rick Neuheisel garnered her a roster spot for the '99 season. The dream quickly soured, though, as Neuheisel left before Hnida's first season and Gary Barnett took over the team. Hnida says Barnett didn't want her on the team and treated her with disdain. Meanwhile, she says she endured a season of harassment from fellow players, reaching a nadir when she was raped by a teammate she had trusted as a friend.
Katie Hnida was the exclamation point to the most tumultuous era in CU football. Beginning in 2002, a number of women made allegations of rape and sexual assault involving football players and recruits. This garnered some media attention, but when Hnida went public with her story in 2004, what had been a secondary news story made national headlines. By coming forward, Hnida had provided the allegations with a recognizable face, leading to a changing of the guard at key positions within the university, including the resignation of President Betsy Hoffman.
At CU, Hnida had been the first woman in history to make the roster of a Division I-A football program—the highest level of competition at the collegiate level. Following her one season at CU, Hnida played for the University of New Mexico (UNM), where she became the first woman to score in Division I-A college football. On Nov. 28, Hnida published Still Kicking, a memoir of her experiences as a woman playing organized football at the high school and collegiate levels. She revisits her painful tenure at CU, her road to recovery at UNM and details her current life as an author and public speaker. Hnida was recently in Colorado for a series of book signings and made time to sit down with Boulder Weekly to discuss her new book, her post-gridiron life and the rise of women playing organized football.
Vince Darcangelo: What has been the reaction to the book so far? In particular, what has been the response from young women?
Katie Hnida: That's been the most tremendous thing. I cannot tell you how cool it was when I was in Albuquerque and this grandmother brought her granddaughters to come see me and they were so adorable asking me questions during my signing [like] if football was fun, and what was the best thing to do. Did I like to put on my pads? One of the little girls asked me if I would teach her how to throw a football, and I told her I couldn't throw very far.
VD: We've got an editor who can throw a mean spiral, but wasn't allowed to participate in the Pass, Punt and Kick competitions when she was young because she was a girl. What are your thoughts on the advancement of women in football?
KH: Obviously, I think it's great. I think the advancement of women in sports is so positive because of everything good that comes out of it. You read the statistics about how girls who are involved in athletics are less likely to do drugs, less likely to get pregnant. I can attest personally to how athletics were such a positive thing in my life and how much they helped me as a person. I think it's so important in all sports, football included, that we're progressing for women athletes.
VD: You offer a statistic regarding the number of women playing high school football, which in 2005 reached 2,759. Is the number of women playing organized football growing to the point that we'll one day see a WNFL like we have a WNBA? If so, how many years away is this?
KH: That's a really hard question. They've got some women's leagues around the country, but I'm actually not too familiar with them, probably because of the fact that I've played for a men's team for 10, 12 years now. I think it's great. I just read an article about how the NFL is trying to court more women fans because they believe about 40 percent of their audience is female. There's a big push right now for football, and the female gender as fans, and I think as participants. We'll see how that develops. I think we're kind of at an interesting point right now. There are some real diehard women fans out there. Down in New Mexico, those Lobo women fans are amazing. They're intense.
VD: What are the odds of a woman someday kicking in the NFL?
KH: I think it'll happen, someday. I don't know when, but I do believe that in time it will happen. I think a woman will be capable of doing it.
VD: Are you still playing organized football?
KH: I'm not doing anything organized right now. I'm still working out, but honestly the book took so much time and energy... For me it's tremendously frustrating because in college, obviously with everything that happened to me, the mental aspect of my game was so affected that it just drove the physical part of my kicking into the ground. That was incredibly hard for me, so I know, not only did I not reach my full potential as a kicker, but I was actually a much better kicker in high school than in college. It's hard to know that the thing that you're the most passionate about, that you love so much, that you've never hit your potential. It seems like it's wrong.
VD: What do you miss the most about playing football?
KH: It was really hard when I went back down to Albuquerque [for a book signing] because I just miss my team and everything that went along with it. I never thought I'd say this, but my god, I miss the 5 a.m. workouts. There was just something so special about everything that went along with it. I was very lucky to have the opportunity to do what I did. There aren't a lot of people who get that. I was very blessed in that respect.
VD: You grew up as a Buffs fan. How do you respond these days when you think of the team?
KH: It's so sad to me that my experience went so badly there because I was such a huge Buffs fan. The thing that I think surprises people so often is that I don't harbor any ill will toward the university. I would like nothing more than to see the university's reputation restored to what it should be because I do believe it is a good place. I believe that all the changes that they're making right now in the athletic department and so forth are the right ones. I think they're going to have a pretty darn good football team in a couple of years—both on the field and off the field, and that's important. And I'll root for CU. Absolutely.
VD: There's a new regime at CU. Barnett's gone. Dick Tharp's gone. Hoffman's gone. They now have Dan Hawkins, who ironically was the first coach to ever play a woman in college football. What are your thoughts on Dan Hawkins?
KH: I've always liked him since he was at Boise State. Just being a college football fan, I've known who he was for quite some time. I've really enjoyed reading about him because I think he's really got his stuff together. He just seems like he's a good man, and I like that. I think he is a great coach and he's going to get the team back to where they should be.
VD: Do you keep in touch with any of your CU teammates?
KH: You know, I haven't. Other than my friends who I had been friends with through high school and my roommate, I don't keep in touch with anyone from CU. It was just that hard of a time in my life. Almost anything that reminds me of it is still upsetting. It's frustrating, not being able to come up to Boulder. I loved the city, and growing up a Buffs fan, it stinks now that I see that Buffalo insignia. It used to give me this amazing thrill, and now it doesn't hurt quite as much to look at, but it still does.
VD: How about your New Mexico teammates?
KH: Yeah, like every one of them. I talk to tons of them all the time. We're all over the place now, but there are a number of guys that I keep in touch with on a weekly basis. One of my teammates [Hank Baskett] is playing for the Eagles now, so we're close by. We almost always talk after his games. I'm really looking forward to seeing him in New York when they play the Giants.
VD: In 1999, Teen People voted you the #1 teen to change the world. What has been your impact on the world? In the years to come, what do you hope your legacy to be?
KH: Completely different than I planned. I never dreamed that I'd ever be active in the area of sexual assault and rape. I'm so glad to be able to get to talk about that and bring it to the forefront because I don't think it is talked about enough still. I was really uneducated about that when I got to CU. They handed us out those whistles in the dorm. For me, I always thought that a rapist was going to be some guy with a knife coming after me while I'm walking around at night in the dark—a stranger, not someone I trust and I'm going over to watch a game and hang out with. After I was raped I learned more, and close to 80 percent of all rapes are acquaintance rapes.
Rape is the most underreported violent crime in America. I'm not surprised. Even when I came forward, what I went through—the re-victimization and how hard it was to share that publicly. Now everybody knows that I'm a rape victim. Everybody knows this incredibly private, painful thing that happened to me. But at the same time that's good. Keeping it quiet promotes the feelings of shame. I don't want to feel ashamed that I'm a rape victim. If I'm going to be talking about rape, let's turn it into something positive. Let's say what we can about this subject and get this out there a little more.
VD: Are there any plans for a movie version of the book?
KH: Oh, my gosh, the offers are pouring in like crazy, but I just don't think that's something that I want to do. Having somebody take creative liberties with my story—that's too much. One of the great things about writing my own memoir was that I didn't let anyone else take it and make it what they wanted it to be. It was me getting to tell my own story. It's who I am. That way people can judge me for who I am. Now, if you still want to hate me, fine, but at least you know who I am. There is that small core group that really dislikes me an awful lot for what I supposedly did to CU by coming forward. It's so hard, because I never wanted to hurt the university. But at the same time, nobody was listening to anything that was going on there, and I knew that if I spoke up, people would listen.
VD: You were recruited by Ohio State. Do you have any thoughts on [coach] Jim Tressel and Ohio State, having been so close to having gone to school there?
KH: I spent more time with Jim Tressel on the phone than I did with Gary Barnett my entire season at CU. That really does speak volumes that Jim Tressel has the integrity and just plain decency and kindness to take the time out of his busy day to explain to me what's going on. I visited four schools after [leaving CU], and all the coaches—and these were big coaches, too, Jeff Tedford [Cal-Berkeley], Tommy Tuberville [Auburn], Jim Tressel—all of them really had a lot of class about them and treated me very, very well. The reception that I got was so entirely different than anything I ever got from Coach Barnett. They were great. I think it says a lot about why their programs have done so well.
VD: What do you think was so different about CU, and why did the harassment begin on day one?
KH: I know that Barnett was not comfortable having me from the start, and I know that that trickled down into the team. When you have a head coach who doesn't want you, it doesn't set a great example for the players. But saying that, I don't hold him completely responsible for everything that happened to me. I think he could have run a tighter ship, for sure. A lot of people ask me if I blame him for my rape, and it's like, 'No.' There's only one person who can be blamed for that.
VD: Arguably the most prominent female football player these days is Holley Mangold of Kettering, Ohio, who is the younger sister of Nick Mangold, who plays center for the New York Jets. Holley plays offensive line for her high school team, which requires having a particularly large body type. In a recent ESPN.com article she referenced the interplay of her body type with being a football player, saying, "If I was a big girl and did nothing, I probably would hate myself. It would be horrible to go through high school and be a fat girl and not do any sports. I couldn't imagine that." You're on the other end of the spectrum. In one chapter, you discuss being 125 pounds and having to work your weight up to 160 by drinking a lot of protein shakes.
KH: I'm still always drinking the protein shakes. I can't even say this as a woman, but it is hard for me to keep the weight on. Women don't want to hear that you can't put weight on.
I think, though, that athletics is one of those things that have kept my body image positive all the time, too, because you're so in touch with your body and what it does for you. I didn't know that eating disorders were so prevalent after you were raped or assaulted. I know what it's like to want to crawl out of my body. You just want to get out of it, get out of that feeling, especially if you're having flashbacks. I never went through it where I hated my body, because my body was my tool to do what I loved. I think I was really lucky in that respect....more
For those of us born in the Super Bowl era (which would be most of the P-6's readership), it's difficult to imagine professional football experiencing birthing pangs, but there was a time when football was not only unpopular, but controversial, a time when annual deaths at the collegiate level alone (when there weren't half as many teams or players as there are today) measured in the dozens. A time when football was outlawed in many places, when it was a game for thugs and brutes, lacking the sophistication and strategy of today's game.
The sophistication of the modern game has its roots in this wild and controversial past—in particular in the strategy of coach Pop Warner and his team the Carlisle Indians. The history of Carlisle, a school for American Indians, is the subject of Sally Jenkins' The Real All Americans: The Team that Changed a Game, a People, a Nation, without question one of the best books of 2007.
Jenkins is best known for coauthoring Lance Armstrong's It's Not About the Bike. Just as that book wasn't necessarily about cycling, The Real All Americans isn't just about football. Ostensibly, the focus of the book is the Carlisle Indians' football team and one particular game in 1903 in which the Jim Thorpe-led Indians defeated the Dwight Eisenhower-led Army football team. The significance of these American Indians defeating a military school at football was great, considering the Frontier Wars had been fought by the students' parents.
On that day, the Indians extracted a measure of revenge, but for Jenkins, the game itself was merely the culmination of a greater story. In fact, The Real All Americans is more about the history of the Frontier Wars and a complex American Lieutenant Colonel, Richard Henry Pratt, who waged war against the American Indians, then later founded a school to support them.
But before you file The Real All Americans under American History or Ethnic Studies, bear in mind that, like all great historical works, the book doesn't just fixate on one moment and look to the past. It moves forward as well, and The Real All Americans doubles as a history of the rise of American football, for example how industrialization fueled the popularity of football on college campuses. It's hard to fathom now, but the Ivy League schools dominated the sport back then, and as industrialization eased the lives of young men, administrators felt the sport was a good way, Jenkins says, to keep them from becoming soft.
As she writes on page 109: "America experienced a collective fear that mechanization could result in male atrophy and even effeminacy… If football was a game of excesses, its enthusiasts considered it well worth it. Violence and moral edginess were its chief attractions, because they toughened the sons of the rich and prepared them to wield authority."
However, as fatalities rose, the game bordered on extinction. Many campuses suspended their programs, and there was a national movement to outlaw the deadly sport all together. Just as boxing survived by eliminating bare-knuckle competition, football needed a change.
Enter the Carlisle Indians.
The Indians' players were significantly smaller in stature than their Ivy League opponents, a dilemma that was circumvented by the use of the forward pass (which had just been legalized, if you can imagine that). Still, few programs utilized the forward pass, and Thorpe and legendary coach Pop Warner used this to their advantage. In the great game, undersized Carlisle soundly defeated the physically superior Army with strategy, skill and the world's first vertical passing game (long before Al Davis and Kenny "the Snake" Stabler made it a Sunday staple).
Football programs across the country took notice. As the forward pass made its way into the game plan, football became much more appealing to spectators. The NFL formed 17 years after the Carlisle-Army showdown, and within a matter of decades football became America's most popular sport. The underlying question that Jenkins hints at is, "What would have happened to America's Game had it not been for the innovation of the Carlisle Indians and the outcome of this matchup against Army?"
Maybe the MLS would have more than five viewers who weren't turning in simply to catch a glimpse of Victoria Beckham in the luxury box!
Told with a thorough and detailed narrative style, The Real All Americans will appeal to fans of American history, football history, sociology (in particular the moral complexity of Pratt, who wished to help the American Indian, but espoused a white genetic superiority in the process), sports writing and good writing in general.
In the end, it's not about the game, but about the history of the people involved in the game, and the ways in which this single 60-minute contest would alter the course of history. The Real All Americans: The Team that Changed a Game, a People, a Nation belongs on the bookshelf of any literate sports fan.