“Pro football is not a game for well-adjusted people.” – Bill Parcells
No argument there. You have to be a little bit crazy to play this violent, complicated game full-time, and many of these slightly crazy people feature heavily in Mike Shropshire’s When the Tuna Went Down to Texas, his very funny chronicle of Bill Parcells’ first season as coach of the Dallas Cowboys.
The Cowboys, who won three Super Bowls in the early 1990s, had fallen on seriously hard times since egomaniacal owner Jerry Jones began micro-managing the team. (“The team didn’t need a coach,” writes Shropshire, “it needed a faith healer.”) Parcells had been a success everywhere he’d coached – he won two Super Bowls with the New York Giants, led the New England Patriots to an AFC championship and made the hopeless Jets competitive again – but football experts predicted this strong-willed taskmaster’s relationship with Jones would never work out.
As usual, the experts were dead wrong, and with Jones distracted by his quest for a new stadium and some kind of Cowboys-themed amusement park, Parcells led his team of no-names (many of them, such as since-dumped quarterback Quincy Carter, hand-picked by Jones) to a 10-6 record and the 2003 playoffs. They were quickly dispatched by the NFC champs-in-waiting Carolina Panthers in the first round, but Parcells made the team seriously overachieve last season. It was yet another miracle in a career full of coaching miracles.
Shropshire’s book pulls no punches about the players (just before Parcells took over, one Cowboy was arrested for hitting and killing two people with his car), the coach (after an pre-season loss to the perennially awful Arizona Cardinals, Parcells implores Jones to “sell the fuckin’ team while it still has some value”), the owner (Jones’s infamous facelift is charitably described as looking “okay” when photographed from the right angle) and the city itself (the air pollution is said to have “coated the once-proud [Texas Stadium] with what might pass for tobacco stains”). The book is often vulgar, tawdry and riotously funny, and even the casual football fan – or the most unappeasable Cowboys hater, and they do have a lot of enemies – will enjoy the book immensely.
The Cowboys, alas, have been pretty bad this year, and there’s been a lot of talk about Parcells probably leaving the team at season’s end. That’s part of the reason I scrambled to read this one before the end of the year, on the premise that the book would be about as relevant as a Y2K survival guide if Parcells quit. But now that I’ve read When the Tuna Went Down to Texas, I do not believe Parcells would leave the team with anything less than a winning record – and even if he does leave, the book is still entertaining enough to make it worth your while.