‘America’s Game: The NFL at 100’
America’s Game: The NFL at 100 chronicles the rise of football from its rough-and-tumble beginnings to the mega-million entertainment spectacle it is today. Co-authors Jerry Rice (who spent most of his NFL career as a wide receiver with the San Francisco 49ers) and veteran sports writer Randy O. Williams build on their work in the New York Times bestseller 50 Years, 50 Moments: The Most Unforgettable Plays in Super Bowl History (2015) in creating an engaging, all-encompassing look at the sport, the defining moments, and the players of football’s first century.
They’ve arranged the book chronologically, with thematic chapters on every aspect of the game. Each position and its notable players; the coaches; the owners; the evolution of the football uniform; how the league runs the draft; the intricacies of the NFL Combine; great team rivalries; the Miami Dolphins’ historic 1972 undefeated season (no other NFL team has done it before or since); even a look at the venues where teams have played football. It’s the kind of book you can flip open to any page and be guaranteed of finding a good story to read.
It’s fascinating to be reminded of how rough-and-tumble the game used to be. At the turn of the 20thcentury, players suffered injuries so severe—fractured skulls, broken necks—that people demanded the powers that be outlaw the game. That obviously didn’t happen, but President Theodore Roosevelt urged the teams to institute dramatic reforms to prevent potential government intervention. Even so, the NFL didn’t require helmets until 1943. These were tough men. In 1925, Ernie Nevers of the Duluth Eskimos wasn’t about to let an attack of appendicitis keep him on the bench when his team was losing. In a move that team staff would certainly oppose today, he insisted on playing and took the Eskimos to victory, throwing a 62-yard touchdown pass and kicking in the field goal to boot. And wearing gloves, even when playing during a snowstorm? That’s for sissies!
This book contains much trivia and many anecdotes about the sport’s colorful characters. Why do we watch so much football on Thanksgiving? Well, that dates back to the first Thanksgiving football game in 1876, a match that saw Yale defeating Princeton. Thanksgiving games entered the modern era in 1934, when Detroit Lions owner George Richards set up a match between his team and the Chicago Bears on the holiday, broadcast on over 90 radio stations, thus wedding the two events together in perpetuity. That very helpful, yellow first-and-10 line that’s superimposed on the field during televised games? It didn’t make its debut until 1997.
And when is someone going to make a film about Joe Don Looney? The running back, deemed “the most uncoachable player in NFL history,” played for five pro teams over the course of his short career; his first team, the New York Giants, let him go after just 28 days. Post-football, Looney became heavily involved with drugs, a follower of guru Baba Muktananda, and died in a motorcycle crash at age 45.
You won’t find the latter part of Looney’s story in America’s Game, which points to a recurrent problem. As a book that’s celebratory in nature, you wouldn’t expect it to court controversy too much. Yet a more critical eye would’ve given the text a welcome measure of bite. For example, they devote a chapter to the subject of race relations, detailing how there was a color bar in football from 1933 to 1946, before wiser heads prevailed.
But there’s nothing about the more recent activism that saw African-American players begin to “take a knee” during the national anthem in 2016, in protest over the oppression blacks face in the US. The protests sparked a national debate—inevitably, President Trump tweeted about it—which would seem to make it a natural subject for a book on NFL history. And given the authors’ contacts in the field, they could easily have reached out to get comments from players on both sides of the issue.
Instead, the book shies away from uncomfortable questions. The epilogue does have a brief reference about the necessity of the sport needing to overcome challenges in its next 100 years, citing such concerns as player concussions, drug use, the price of tickets, and gambling. But by relegating these issues to an aside in the last chapter, the book misses an opportunity to provide thoughtful commentary on subjects that are surely of interest to players and fans alike. Like any other industry, football has had its share of ups and downs over the years. By focusing so determinedly on giving the story a positive spin, America’s Game tends to become bland at times.
But there’s still much to enjoy in this information-packed book. With its conversational tone, it’s like getting the chance to sit down with a legendary Hall of Famer while he kicks back and shares his insights and memories about the game that’s now surpassed baseball as America’s favorite sport. Keep a copy on hand to refer to during commercial breaks as we head into the postseason.
(HarperCollins, October 29, 2019)