Three weeks ago, on the morning of the Divisional Round of the NFL Playoffs, I was looking for a new book on my Reading List. Since the football season would soon be coming to an end, I thought it was the perfect time to read the football books on my list.
Turns out I had 4 to read. I hadn’t counted a copy of Concussion that I received as a Christmas gift.
The four books that I read these past few weeks were 50/50 on opposite sides of the spectrum. Two about brilliant coaches that have set the bar for success and heroics in the NFL. Two that criticize the NFL and how it has been handling the whirlwind of controversy surrounding off-the-field behaviors and long term health of players after their football careers.
by David Halberstam
I will put my hometown allegiance aside to appreciate that Bill Belichick is a brilliant football coach. He just has to be. I became more curious about what makes Belichick tick when reading about his close friendship with Nick Saban in The Making of a Coach.
The writing in this book is good. Really good. By Pulitzer Prize winning journalist David Halberstam.
The structure is unique because it’s not only a biography of Belichick, but also a mini-biography of those who he learned from or worked closely with. The story starts with his father, Steve Belichick, who was a scout/coach at Navy for over 30 years. Then winds through his entire career and points out the nuggets of wisdom that he picked up from various mentors that led to the building of the Patriots dynasty.
The last part of the book covers the first 5 seasons with the Patriots and how he and his staff hand picked players that would fit into and execute his system. 10 years later, I would have liked to see an updated version with the ups and downs since 2005 (including commentary on the various “gates”) but Halberstam’s untimely death in 2007 will prevent such a follow up.
My Philosophy of Leadership
by Bill Walsh
He became known as “The Genius”, but he preferred that you just call him Bill. He was labeled with this nickname because of his miraculous turnaround of the San Francisco 49ers from the worst franchise in all of pro sports to a Super Bowl winning dynasty. A 2–14 team to Super Bowl Champion in 24 months.
The 49ers mounted this turnaround with what Walsh called his Standard of Performance. He instilled in the organization a foundation for work ethic from the quarterback down to the receptionist. How to practice, how to dress, how to eat, how to execute a your job description with precision. His offensive players needed to execute plays down to the inch, and he’d know if you missed your spot. He said that if you execute against these small details, then the score would take care of itself.
In this book, Walsh uses his football leadership principles to teach anyone how to improve their personal or professional life. Whether you like football or not, you can learn something from this book.
Walsh’s success was quick and sustained throughout his ten years in SF. He invented the West Coast offense that was built on preparation and precision (He hated this name that the media created because he actually invented it in Ohio).
His style was revolutionary, but also tolling on himself. The meticulous preparation was so exhausting that his NFL career was shorter than it could have been. He said that the anxiety of losing can be so crippling that winning provides no solace. And that the pursuit of the prize had become an exercise in avoiding pain.
I’ve seen some similar sentiments of exhaustive preparation when reading about Bill Belichick and Nick Saban. Walsh was a legend in his time. If he could have continued, it would have been great to see if he could have been the greatest (by SB wins) of all time.
True Confessions from the Gutter of Football
by Johnny Anonymous
“I’m an NFL player, and I f*cking hate the NFL.”
This is the quote on the cover of this book, and I thought, “OK, this could be interesting.”
I struggled with whether to recommend this book and I think it comes down to expectations. Going in, I was expecting a locker room story line similar to Playmakers: the 2003 ESPN drama that ran for 1 season before getting taken off the air due to pressure from the NFL. While there are bits and pieces of juicy drama, it’s not as heavy hitting as I was expecting from the jacket description.
Johnny Anonymous is a current football player in the NFL and has trademarked himself as the “World’s Greatest NFL Backup.” With increasing speculation about the effects of concussions and players’ health, he’s decided that he’s just fine with being a backup and taking home his $570k league minimum salary. What he wasn’t expecting was half of the starting offensive line getting injured early in the season and having to become a starter. The more he plays, his perspective begins to change with regards to what kind of NFL player he wants to become.
It’s a quick read and does give some inside looks into a player’s perspective and his teammates’ reactions concerning many of the issues surrounding the NFL in the last year or two: Michael Sam, Ray Rice, drug tests, concussions.
Those of you who are about to bash me for complimenting Bill Belichick above may be interested in Johnny’s take on it. He said that the Patriots have been unlucky in their “gate” scandals, but not to put them down because they’re just the ones who were caught. And that every team looks for ways to cheat or spy on opponent schemes and strategies.
I’d recommend checking it out, as long as you’re not expecting players to be burying their faces in piles of cocaine like Al Pacino in Scarface.
by Jeanne Marie Laskas
When the Hall of Fame Steelers center Mike Webster died in Pittsburgh in 2002, he was sent to the Allegheny County Medical Examiner’s office. Dr. Bennet Omalu performed the autopsy. He had been told that Webster was a football player and was behaving erratically before death. When he found the brain to look absolutely perfect from the outside, he asked the family’s permission to keep it for further study on a hunch.
What he found was a condition that had never been seen by scientists. Tau protein buildups in the brain that could cause depression, aggression, dementia.
Concussion is Bennet Omalu’s life story and how he battled for 10 or more years to have the NFL recognize his discovery and research. NFL players started piling up and nearly every one (I think 76 out of 78 at one point) had the condition that he named CTE.
Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE)
The NFL set up committees to study and prevent concussions, but what Omalu found is that a player doesn’t need to have diagnosed concussions to develop CTE. The sub concussive hits are the ones that cause CTE. Every hit in practice. Every regular tackle in the game. The thousands of hits in a football career that start in pee wee football will all contribute.
As a football fan, I was fascinated with this story. I don’t think it will change whether I watch, but it makes me change how I watch and how I think about the game. And wonder how the game may change as players are more aware of how the game may affect their long term health.
I’m glad to have daughters at home. I’m sure they’ll bring parenting challenges of their own, but it’s nice to know that I won’t have to tell them that I don’t want my kids playing football.
From the Archives
A wild departure from the tone that I just left in the above review of Concussion… The 1985 Bears were straight up maniacs.
I picked this up because I love Rich Cohen’s writing. He wrote a page turning book about bananas, for crying out loud. So why not one about a sport that I love to watch?
Monsters tells the story of the Bears’ rise to greatness. From the history of George Halas and his founding of the Bears franchise to Mike Ditka’s college+pro playing days and grooming to be a head coach. All of the charisma and wild men on this Bears team and how they literally tried to destroy their opponents. The nastiest defense in history. Cohen adds personal touches to the story along the way since he was a high school kid in Chicago when it was all happening.
Anyone who’s a football fan should read this.