Friday, March 18, 2016

Top 100 Pro Football Books of All-Time: Part Three - 60-41

Top 100 Pro Football Books of All-Time
By Chris Willis, NFL Films
Part 3 of 5

When compiling my list of the Top 100 Pro Football Books of All-Time I had just a few criteria that I kept to. Of course the book had to mainly be about pro football, so sorry no Friday Night Lights. I also took in consideration the research, the writing, the historical impact of the book, and if you should permanently own it in your football library. All 100 books here met these criteria. Over the next five days Pro Football Journal will count them down. Here are numbers 60-41.

Numbers 60-41

60) Bo Knows Bo by Bo Jackson with Dick Schaap (Doubleday, 1990) In 1990 Bo Jackson was as big an athlete there was in sports, and the saying “Bo Knows” was a national phenomenon. That year long-time sports host and writer Dick Schaap worked with Bo on his autobiography Bo Knows Bo. An insightful and readable biography about an athlete at the top of his popularity.

59) The Last Season of Weeb Ewbank by Paul Zimmerman (Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1974) Paul Zimmerman of the New York Post (and later with Sports Illustrated) chronicles Weeb Ewbank’s 1973 season as New York Jets head coach. Even before the '73 started Ewbank had made it clear it was going to be his last season. Year round access by Ewbank to Zimmerman gives readers an unfiltered look at a Hall of Fame coach at the twilight of his career.

58) Championship: The Story of the NFL Title Game by Jerry Izenberg (Four Winds Press, 1966) Long-time Newark Star-Ledger writer Jerry Izenberg was just in his mid-30’s when he wrote Championship. Short chapters, or game recaps, on each NFL title game since 1933. When I was growing up this was the one source I went to often when I wanted to read up on a certain championship contest. I still find myself grabbing for it today. 

57) Mean on Sundays: The Autobiography of Ray Nitschke by Ray Nitschke as told to Robert W. Wells (Doubleday, 1973)  No other title of a football autobiography quite fits their subject like Ray Nitschke’s Mean on Sundays. Written a year after he retired from the Packers (and with help from Robert W. Wells), Nitschske goes into detail about his troubled upbringing (in Illinois), his relationship with Vince Lombardi (father figure) and his 15-year career in Titletown.

   "The reason I've played football is that I enjoy it. Even practice. Even lying awake playing a game over again. Even those mental gymnastics you have to go through to get yourself psyched up for the next game. I've enjoyed every moment of my fifteen years- well almost every moment. There is nothing I could have done with my life that I could possibly have enjoyed more." - Ray Nitschke.  

56) They Call Me Assassin by Jack Tatum with Bill Kushner (Everest Publishing House, 1979) Before his last year of playing in Oakland with the Raiders Tatum wrote They Call Me Assassin (with sportswriter Bill Kushner). The hard-hitting safety goes into detail about is physical nature of play and how the nickname "The Assassin" tore at him. Tatum describes his play on the field "I'll play the game the way the rules are written- I am supposed to hit people and destroy the play and the harder I hit them, the better I can do the job." Tatum also talks about the hit on Patriots wide receiver Darryl Stingley that paralyzed him.
55) The Pro Quarterback/ The Running Backs by Murray Olderman (Prentice-Hall, 1966, 1969) Two coffee table type books written in the late 60's by Murray Olderman, artist and sportswriter/sports editor for the Newspaper Enterprise Association (NEA) during that time. Both nearly 500 pages in length Olderman gives the history of the game's greatest players at those two positions. Filled with great anecdotes and wonderful photos (well over 150 photos in each), as well as Olderman's artwork, The Pro Quarterback and The Running Backs is a type of book you don't see today. In The Pro Quarterback, Olderman includes three pages worth of actual game plan notes from Colts head coach Weeb Ewbank to his quarterback Johnny Unitas. Priceless.

54) LT: Living on the Edge by Lawrence Taylor (Times Books, 1987) After winning Super Bowl XXI with the New York Giants, the NFL’s 1986 MVP, Lawrence Taylor cashes in with his autobiography. Most current player’s bios usually fall flat, but Living on the Edge is not one of them. Written with David Falkner (a contributor for the New York Times) the NFL’s top bad boy reveals almost everything about himself. Never a dull moment reading about number 56.  

53) Ten-Gallon War: The NFL's Cowboys, the AFL's Texans, and the Feud for Dallas's Pro Football Future by John Eisenberg (Houghton-Mifflin, 2012) One of the best books on pro football to come out the past couple of years is Ten Gallon-War by John Eisenberg, the former long-time columnist of the Baltimore Sun. Eisenberg's research and well-crafted prose tells the behind-the-scenes struggle in the early sixties between the Dallas Texans of the AFL and the Dallas Cowboys of the NFL. Interviews with key players in the story (such as Len Dawson, Abner Haynes, Gil Brant, Clint Murchison III) give Ten-Gallon War the rich detail to tell a rather unknown part of the AFL-NFL war that hadn't been written about before.
52) Off My Chest by Jim Brown with Myron Cope (Doubleday, 1964) Published the same year when the Browns won the NFL Championship Off My Chest is a revealing and blunt autobiography from the NFL's greatest running back- Jim Brown. As told to Myron Cope (better known as the Steelers color radio personality) Off My Chest gave Brown a platform to talk about a variety of subjects, ranging from race, Paul Brown, etc.

51) Their Life's Work: The Brotherhood of the 1970's Steelers, Then & Now by Gary Pomerantz (Simon & Schuster, 2013) Written less than three years ago Their Life's Work is a look back at one of the NFL's greatest dynasties.Gary Pomerantz , former sportswriter for the Washington Post, does an excellent job looking back at the players and coaches who made the Steelers great, as well as showing what the players have gone through once they hung up their cleats in the Steel City.

50) NFL Top 40: The Greatest Pro Football Games of All-Time by Shelby Strother (Viking, 1988) A very informative and readable coffee-table book written by Shelby Strother, sports columnist of the Detroit News, and published with cooperation from NFL Properties. NFL Top 40 covers forty of the sport's greatest games, from Pudge Heffelfinger becoming the first pro in 1892 to The Drive in the 1986 AFC Championship Game, Strother covers all of the greatest moments in NFL history. Filled with all of the great stories and plays, NFL Top 40 also includes some of the NFL's most famous photos. Three years after its release Shelby Strother passed away from cancer at the young age of 44. If you don't know much about Strother's writing, just read NFL Top 40.

49) Heart of a Lion: The Wild and Woolly Life of Bobby Layne by Bob St. John (Taylor Publishing Company, 1991)  Very entertaining and funny biography on the legendary party quarterback Bobby Layne. Written by veteran Dallas sportswriter Bob St. John of the Dallas Morning News, Heart of a Lion gives readers all the juicy late-night tales of the Hall of Fame signal caller. Featuring a Forward by George Plimpton, Heart of Lion is one of my favorite player biographies- one I wished I wrote.

    "When I was a rookie I went with Bobby Layne to get some toothpaste, and we didn't come back for three days." -  Harley Sewell, former Lions teammate.

48) Their Deeds and Dogged Faith by Don Smith and Mike Rathet (Rutledge Books, 1984) Another coffee-table style book that tells the history of pro football. This one was written in cooperation with the Pro Football Hall of Fame and authored by Don Smith, the Hall's Director of Public Relations, (and the inventor of the forward passing rating system) and Mike Rathet, sports editor of the Philadelphia Daily News. Littered with great photos, artifacts from the Hall's collection and accurate history, Their Deeds and Dogged Faith is hours of fun reading. The title comes from a speech given by the Hall's first Director, Dick McCann, when he first announced the Hall of Fame's charter class of 17 enshrinees in 1963:

    "These are the milestone men of pro football. Their deeds and dogged faith wrote the history of this great game."

47) The Best Game Ever by Mark Bowden (Atlantic Monthly Press, 2008) Bowden second book on the list (also had Bringing the Heat, # 82 on list). This one is about the 1958 NFL Championship Game between the Colts and Giants. Commonly known as the “Greatest Game Ever Played” Bowden titles his book The Best Game Ever, making the case that the game wasn’t quite up to the standards of the greatest ever. Published the same year the game celebrated its 50th anniversary The Best Game Ever gives readers a fantastic view into the key players of the game (featured 17 future Hall of Fame players and coaches) and why the game helped the NFL become what we see today.

46) Headslap: The Life and Times of Deacon Jones by Deacon Jones with John Klawitter (Prometheus Books, 1996)  The autobiography of the NFL’s greatest sack artist, Head Slap, is 552 pages of pure story-telling that only the Deacon can pull off. "This book's going to raise a howl. You wait and see," wrote Deacon Jones. If you’re looking for a quick read, this is not it. But if you have some free time to digest a fascinating story of a unique football life, than Head Slap is for you.



45) Last Team Standing: How the Pittsburgh Steelers and Philadelphia Eagles- the Steagles- Saved Pro Football During World War II by Matthew Algeo (Da Capo Press, 2007)  In the only book strictly dedicated to the Steagles, Matthew Algeo, a public radio reporter who had appeared on Morning Edition and All Things Considered, tackles the unique story of how the Eagles and Steelers combined for one year during World War II. Well written Last Team Standing reads like a movie. Nobody would think two NFL teams would combine to play as one. In 1943 they did and they finished with a winning record at 5-4-1.

44) Brian Piccolo: A Short Season by Jeannie Morris (Rand McNally, 1971) In 1969 Bears running back Brian Piccolo was diagnosed with cancer. While spending most of his time in the hospital Piccolo decided to record his life's story down for a book. On June 16, 1970 Piccolo died at the tender age of just 26, leaving behind a wife and three daughters. His story would be told in the TV movie Brian's Song. But shortly after he died Piccolo's wife, Joy, recommended to her friend, and wife of Bears receiver Johnny Morris, Jennie Morris if she would finish Brain's book. Jeannie, one of the early female sportscasters in the country, said yes. What came out was Brian Piccolo: A Short Season. The passages that came from Piccolo's memories are the closest we have of him telling his story.

43) We Play To Win! The Inside Story of the Fabulous Detroit Lions by Raymond (Buddy) Parker (Prentice-Hall, 1955) Right in the middle of his career Lions head coach Buddy Parker writes one of the more entertaining volumes about pro football during the decade of the 1950’s. Comparable to Steve Owen’s My Kind of Football (# 80 on the list) We Play To Win! gives in insider’s view on how the Lions won back-to-back NFL titles in 1952-1953. One of the best material in We Play to Win! is Parker's "8-Point Code" of coaching:

1. Top physical qualifications for players
2. Team desire to win
3. Team poise
4. Simple offense and defense
5, Repetition of drills for perfection
6. Ability to come from behind
7. Minimum of fumbles and interceptions
8. Awareness that a defeat is not disastrous, but that how you react after a loss is important

42) The Education of a Coach by David Halberstam (Hyperion, 2005) Pulitzer Prize winner journalist and author David Halberstam writes his first book on football, and choose the subject of Bill Belichick, after the Patriots coach won his third Super Bowl title in four years. The more interesting and poignant material in Education of a Coach is the relationship and influence that Belichick got from his father Steve, a former coach and scout at Navy. When you read about how Steve Belichick showed his son how to break down game film at the age of nine, you understand what makes the younger Belichick the great coach he is today.



41) The Game: The Official Picture History of the National Football League by Tex Maule (Random House, 1963)  Tex Maule, lead football writer for Sports Illustrated, writes the history of the NFL. Accompanied by tons of great photos (many from famed football photographer Robert Riger), The Game, is a perfect coffee table book to flipped through when wanting to see what the NFL was like before the merger. Published in 1963 The Game shows a time when the NFL was becoming America’s Game.

Coming Next Part 4 (# 40-21)

2 comments:

  1. Since you combine Olderman's "The Running Backs" and "The Pro Quarterback," I wonder why you don't also include "The Defenders" in the same package.

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    1. Thanks for the spelling corrections, those fall on me. I am not sure why Chris did it that way, but my guess is the QB and RBs came out close together and had almost exact format, with the drawings and plays, etc. They did seem like two volumes of same book. That's my take. But I could be wrong.

      The defenders has some of same elements, but to me, was a stand-alone book

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