Finding the Winning Edge, Bill Walsh, 1997
NFL Books / 25th September 2018

Good luck finding a copy of Bill Walsh’s definitive coaching textbook for less than $200. In fact, there are leather-bound, signed editions that fetch more than $1,000. Walk into the office of an NFL coach or front-office executive, and there is a good chance you will spot a well-worn copy with more highlights than white space. Of the 36,000 copies sold in 1997, a hefty percentage have found their way to the desks of grade school, high school and college coaches throughout the country. Walsh set out to create a comprehensive organizational guide, functioning as a playbook, coaching manual, leadership compendium and roster blueprint under one cover. “It’s not a sports book,” Walsh once told his son. “It’s a thesis.” The 550 pages can be dry and dense at times — Walsh listed 29 factors that could help determine if a player has a drug problem. But it ultimately succeeds as a legacy piece that has advanced the art of NFL coaching and team building. “Saying it was outstanding wouldn’t do it justice. For a coach, it’s a Bible,” Patriots great Bill Belichick raved to Yahoo’s Charles Robinson nearly a decade ago. “… If I were an owner, first of all, I would…

A Thinking Man’s Guide to Pro Football, Paul Zimmerman, 1970 and 1984
NFL Books / 25th September 2018

Known to Sports Illustrated’s readers as “Dr. Z,” Zimmerman was the first NFL writer to routinely incorporate game-film analysis into his articles. A former offensive lineman at Stanford and Columbia, Zimmerman went on to play minor league football in the early 1960s. After his writing career was cut short by a series of strokes in 2008, the Pro Football Writer’s Association instituted the Paul “Dr. Z” Zimmerman Award to recognize lifetime achievement for assistant coaches in the NFL. Before Bill James popularized sabermetrics in baseball and Football Outsiders and Pro Football Focus introduced analytics to the football cognoscenti, Zimmerman meticulously charted each position on the gridiron, going so far as to track elapsed hang-time, distance, return yardage and coffin-corner efficiency for punters! His two guides for the thinking football fan — released 15 years apart — go far beyond detailed descriptions for each position on the field. Zimmerman’s experience, connections and comprehensive grasp of football strategy allowed him to put star players, iconic coaches, pro football trends and even game plans into historical perspective. To be clear, Zimmer’s style isn’t just for the pigskin wonks. His myriad anecdotes include the time former Chargers offensive mastermind Sid Gillman tried to convince assistant coach Bum…

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, Ben Fountain, 2012
NFL Books / 25th September 2018

Winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction, Ben Fountain’s debut novel is a penetrating microcosm of George W. Bush’s Texas and an increasingly disillusioned Pat Tillman’s America during the Iraq and Afghanistan war era. Fountain unfurls fluid prose, biting metaphors, pitch-perfect ear for dialogue and uncanny powers of observation into an uproarious, razor-sharp satire of “the sheltering womb of all things American — football, Thanksgiving, television, about eight different kinds of police and security personnel, plus 300 million well-wishing fellow citizens.” Although Fountain’s opus has drawn comparisons to Joseph Heller’s “Catch-22” for its irreverent discussion of war, the football passages at Texas Stadium are a kindred spirit to Hunter S. Thompson’s gonzo-styled lampooning of the debauched Kentucky Derby crowd. The novel covers a single day, starting with a pregame stadium tour of excesses, continuing through the NFL’s Thanksgiving Day showcase with the Dallas Cowboys — America’s Team — and closing with the post-game fallout. Fountain adroitly uses the overwrought spectacle of 21st century pro football as a metaphor for modern America’s “nightmare of superabundance,” best encapsulated by a ridiculously over-the-top Destiny’s Child halftime show described as “porn-lite out of its mind on martial dope.” Among Fountain’s bon mots: attributing a break in the football action…

America’s Game, The Epic Story of How Pro Football Captured a Nation, Michael MacCambridge, 2005
NFL Books / 25th September 2018

Forbes recently valued the Dallas Cowboys franchise at $4 billion. How did the NFL evolve from a “localized sport based on gate receipts and played by oversized coal miners and West Texas psychopaths” to eclipse all other sports — specifically baseball — and become America’s game? That’s the theme of MacCambridge’s tome, which succeeds as the definitive history of the National Football League, an afterthought in the sporting landscape prior to the 1958 Championship Game and the proliferation of television. While baseball’s owners squabbled amongst themselves for the next few decades, visionary commissioner Pete Rozelle steered the NFL to the top by promoting “league think” above selfish interests. MacCambridge focuses primarily on owners, coaches and legendary players, weaving the NFL’s story through the sociological and cultural backdrop of 20th century America. It’s a book that appeals to novices, casual football fans and aficionados alike, chronicling a sport that has graduated from Sunday afternoon entertainment to a behemoth that dominates the news cycle through the calendar year. EXCERPT: “In the great books of history, it will go down as little more than a cultural footnote: in the second half of the twentieth century in the United States, pro football’s popularity as a spectator sport…

A Fan’s Notes, Frederick Exley, 1968
NFL Books / 25th September 2018

Four decades before it became customary to Google oneself, Fred Exley lamented, “It was my destiny — unlike that of my father, whose fate it was to hear the roar of the crowd — to sit in the stands with most men and acclaim others. It was my fate, my destiny, my end, to be a fan.” Professional sports are the ultimate domain of the insider. Fame, fortune and popularity beyond the wildest dreams await the supremely talented athlete willing to follow society’s conventions, capitulate to authority and sublimate the ego to the greater goals of the team. Once a merely functional high school football player, Exley was the ultimate outsider, a dissolute soul wracked by alcoholism, depression and inescapable feelings of inadequacy in the shadow of a father whose name was “whispered in reverential tones.” His saving grace is this self-styled “fictional memoir,” a one-hit miracle marked by a tortured honesty and candor so unflinching that it left notorious gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson in awe. In the annals of American literature, Exley’s description of sport ranks at the top, rivaling Bernard Malumud’s in “The Natural” and Richard Ford’s in “The Sportswriter.” Late New York Giants star Frank Gifford plays the hero to…