Are You Ready for Some Football...Fiction?

Posted by Cybil on November 15, 2019

Here in the United States, it's football season. It's time of great rivalry, wearing of team colors, and obsessing over the latest wins and losses. Maybe you love football. Perhaps you are mystified by the game. Whichever sideline you occupy, you'll be happy to know that the sport has inspired we something we can all agree on: Great books.

We asked National Football League journalist John Eisenberg, the author of the just-released to paperback The League: How Five Rivals Created the NFL and Launched a Sports Empire, to round up some of his favorite football fiction.

Be sure the add the books that pique your interest to your Want to Read shelf.

Another pro football season is underway, guaranteed to dominate America’s sports scene through the rest of this year and into 2020. The National Football League is not without its nettlesome issues, but its games generated 37 of the 50 most-watched television broadcasts a couple of years ago, illustrating the league’s enduring appeal.

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Pro football’s history is also in the spotlight, as this is the NFL’s centennial season. It lurched into existence in 1920 as the American Professional Football Association, a disorganized coalition of fly-by-night teams, mostly set in industrial towns in the Midwest. George Halas, who owned, coached and played for the Chicago Bears, convinced the other owners to change the name to the NFL in 1922.

Major league baseball was far more established and popular than the NFL for many years, as were horse racing, boxing and college football. Books on baseball were in demand, but the NFL, a struggling enterprise with relatively few fans, didn’t interest many readers or lure many writers. One of the few early pro football books of any renown was Pro Football: Its Ups and Downs by Harry Addison (Doc) March, a physician and writer from Canton, Ohio, who helped organize the league. Published in 1934, it contained some versions of events that historians later doubted, but it constituted the first draft of the NFL’s birth story.

The league soared in popularity beginning in the 1950s, eventually surpassing baseball as the country’s favorite spectator sport. Suddenly, the reading public craved insight into its secular Sunday ritual. Who are these men wearing those helmets? How is the game played? Why do we love it? What does it all mean?

I’ve been writing about pro football since I began my newspaper career in 1979, and I’ve been reading books about pro football for even longer—as a teenager I ran the cash register at an independent bookstore in Dallas, Texas that my mother co-owned, giving me “insider” access to pro football books of all kinds.

The genre has grown exponentially in the past half-century, and predictably, it is dominated by nonfiction—books about players, coaches, strategy, teams and history. If you want to understand how the NFL became popular, read Michael MacCambridge’s America's Game: The Epic Story of How Pro Football Captured a Nation. You won’t read a better biography than David MaranissWhen Pride Still Mattered: A Life of Vince Lombardi.

What about pro football fiction? Generally, novelists have found baseball more appealing. But over the years, as more writers explore the positive and negative aspects of the NFL’s influence on America, an estimable shelf of pro football literature has developed. Here’s are my favorite novels on the subject, all of which can serve as an accompaniment to the NFL’s centennial season:

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Published in 1968, Frederick Exley’s despairing fictional memoir centers on his obsession with Frank Gifford, the New York Giants’ glamorous star halfback. Kurt Vonnegut called it “strong, beautiful, American, one of a kind.”

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Ben Fountain won the National Book Critics Award for fiction with this wicked satire about military heroes being honored at a Dallas Cowboys game. Set in a single afternoon, it challenges the notion that football and real war are in any way comparable.

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Legal thrillers are John Grisham’s specialty, but he’s also a big sports fan. In this spot-on foray into pro football, a third-string quarterback for the Cleveland Browns embarrasses himself so miserably in a playoff game that he leaves the country to play in Italy.

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The movie version with Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence and Robert De Niro hit it big, but the film was based on Matthew Quick’s excellent family saga about mental illness, fans of the Philadelphia Eagles, and the NFL’s capacity for providing common ground.

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Peter Gent based his dark locker room comedy on his career as a tight end with the Dallas Cowboys. After nonfiction accounts of locker room life such as Paper Lion and Instant Replay gained wide readership in the 1960s, Gent set the record straight.

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The humor is going to seem outdated to some, but sportswriter Dan Jenkins’ outrageous comedy landed at No. 7 on Sports Illustrated’s list of the top 100 sports books of all-time.

What sports fiction would you recommend to your fellow readers? Let's talk books in the comments!

Check out more recent articles, including:
32 Short (and New) Books to Help You Crush Your 2019 Reading Challenge
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November's Most Anticipated New Books

Comments Showing 1-12 of 12 (12 new)

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message 1: by Janine (new)

Janine While it's focused on high school football instead of the pros, Throw Like a Girl, barring a last minute delay will be out before Super Bowl 54.

message 2: by Mike (new)

Mike Tropic of Hockey is a unique one to check out.

What would really be great is if GoodReads' "Sports" section wasn't comprised almost solely of romance novels. I've tried to find great sports books on here before and most of what I'm given is books where the resident "hunk" happens to play a random sport.

message 3: by Ziggy (new)

Ziggy Nixon Not even one mention of Scott Sigler's GFL books? Sad.

message 4: by verity (new)

verity harp If You're Reading This isn't really about football as much as some of you might like, but if you still want a good book without too much football, I recommend this one. The main character tries out for the football team and it's about letters from his dead father that he receives years after his death. He goes through the book trying to navigate his high school years and relationships while trying to find the person who's sending the letters.

message 5: by Erin (new)

Erin Ziggy wrote: "Not even one mention of Scott Sigler's GFL books? Sad."

Legit what I came here hoping for.

message 6: by Niki (new)

Niki Erin wrote: "Ziggy wrote: "Not even one mention of Scott Sigler's GFL books? Sad."

Legit what I came here hoping for."

The GFL books sound great! The first one is free on Kindle, too. Thanks for the suggestion! #commentsforthewin

message 7: by Cathy (new)

Cathy Wilkowske 👎

message 8: by David (new)

David Mike wrote: "Tropic of Hockey is a unique one to check out.

What would really be great is if GoodReads' "Sports" section wasn't comprised almost solely of romance novels. I've tried to find great sports books..."

Yeah, when a sports book shows up in my feed it is 100% of the time a woman reading porn. Or occasionally a gay dude reading gay porn. Either way it's pretty funny that sports is overwhelmingly sexualized in books, considering sports movies/shows seem to be the most wholesome, inoffensive media around.

message 9: by Janine (new)

Janine David wrote: "Mike wrote: "Tropic of Hockey is a unique one to check out.

What would really be great is if GoodReads' "Sports" section wasn't comprised almost solely of romance novels. I've tried to find great..."

There's some sports manga and graphic novels that don't delve into porn, but I don't know about your interest level or what sport you like, but there's some on almost every sport there is.

But if you're looking for prose books, Empty seats is worth a look.

message 10: by David (last edited Nov 15, 2019 07:38PM) (new)

David Janine wrote: "David wrote: "Mike wrote: "Tropic of Hockey is a unique one to check out.

What would really be great is if GoodReads' "Sports" section wasn't comprised almost solely of romance novels. I've tried..."

Oh I'm not interested in sports books at all, porn or not. In fact, I'd probably be more likely to read it if it was porn, tbh. I'm sure there's other stuff out there but porn is what everyone seems to be reading, unless my feed algorithm is trolling me, lol.

Out of curiosity I scrolled my feed until I saw a sports book, which was porn (of course), and which took a surprisingly short amount of time. Has seventeen times the amount of ratings as the book you suggested, lol. People be thirsty.
Hat Trick


message 12: by Cathy (new)

Cathy Hodge "When the Men Were Gone" By Marjorie Herrera Lewis.

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