Old issues of Sports Illustrated have languished in dentists' waiting rooms for so long, it's easy to take this venerable magazine for granted. But SI has featured some very good reporting over the years, and 44 of its most highly regarded articles about football are featured in this new anthology.
The articles are about equally divided between college and professional football, and the best selections feature some very vivid descriptions of a sport that can be difficult to describe in print. (As Peter King notes in his introduction, even football partisans seem all too willing to concede that baseball writing is better than football writing.) But the best selections in Great Football Writing are about the characters who have contributed to the sport.
Mark Kriegel's 2004 piece "Where Have You Gone, Joe Namath?" – written not long after the infamous "I want to kiss you" incident – portrays in heartrending detail a football legend who never really adjusted to life after his playing days ended. Frank Deford's 1984 article, "The Toughest Coach There Ever Was," profiles obscure Mississippi college coach Bob Sullivan, whose legend was great enough to earn him two nicknames ("Bull" and "Cyclone").
But the best selections in Great Football Writing are those which were written by, or in close collaboration with, the players themselves. The very first essay in the book, Myron Cope's "The Game That Was" from 1969, consists almost entirely of recollections from those who played in the 1920s and 1930s, when football received about as much respect as baseball gets today. Tommy Chaikin, a former defensive lineman for South Carolina, gave a firsthand account of what steroids did to him in a 1988 essay. On a much lighter note, former Baltimore Colt Alex Hawkins hilariously described his non-Hall-of-Fame career in a 1970 piece written with Myron Cope. (In the Colts press book, he went from a "fleet breakaway threat" to " hard-running blond" to "solid-socking blond" to "loose and fun-loving off the field.")
As with any compilation like this, some of the selections are questionable. A Peter King article describing one of Brett Favre's plays second-by-second, for example, is too clever by half. Curiously, the articles I found least interesting were those contributed to SI by some of the most legendary, acclaimed figures in literary history. I may never be allowed to write another book review after saying this, but pieces by Don DeLillo and Jack Kerouac bring the book screeching to a halt.
Still, Sports Illustrated: Great Football Writing shows that even this mass-market weekly has featured some material for the ages. Hopefully, a second volume is on its way.