Tales From the Gridiron

John Schulian gives us substantial introductions to each of the 44 pieces he’s selected
John Schulian

Edited by John Schulian
Library of America, $30

Now here’s an editor at work. John Schulian, in his anthology “Football: Great Writing About the National Sport,” sheds the patched-elbow tweed, loses the horn-rims, rolls up his sleeves, and steps out of the back office to give us substantial introductions to each of the 44 pieces he’s selected, from a dominant figure of the Roaring Twenties, Grantland Rice, revisiting the Fighting Irish in an excerpt from his 1954 memoir up to the latter-day rise of sports websites like, yes, Grantland.

They’re full of context, background, and comment on the profession, and are often as absorbing as the stories that follow them. Mr. Schulian’s long paragraph on Dan Jenkins, for instance, one of the funniest and most influential sportswriters of the second half of the 20th century, describes his ascension from The Dallas Times Herald one day in 1962 when, as Mr. Jenkins put it, “The Yankees just called,” meaning Sports Illustrated, which “turned him loose on golf and college football and gave him an expense account that made him the toast of every saloon he walked into.”

His story, “An Upside-Down Game,” takes apart a “game of the century” (one of several, no?), when in 1966 Notre Dame outrageously played for a tie in a national championship contest with Michigan State. No matter how skillful the account, though, there remains the problem of reading news across the decades.

It matters more if you were there, even by way of a television aglow in your living room, as was the case with the millions who witnessed Doug Flutie’s last-second Hail Mary touchdown pass to Gerard Phelan in the 1984 Orange Bowl, described here in a Boston Globe column by Leigh Montville. For many readers it will make for a fun return to their youth, or at least some version of the good old days, perhaps shaded by thoughts of too much time in front of the boob tube.

Football is hypnotically suited to the small screen, of course, and while they can’t exactly be called time well spent, such televised games provided an awful lot of happy memories, particularly for young men still not fully formed, as it were.

Take Rick Reilly and what for many of us remains the most exciting professional football game ever played, the 1982 Chargers-Dolphins playoff in sweltering Miami. He and his brother “watched every glorious, grueling second of it on TV at home in Denver,” Mr. Schulian writes, “tackling each other out of sheer joy between commercial breaks. . . .”

It, and specifically the heroics of the Chargers’ Kellen Winslow, who had to be helped off the field after overtime with a body temperature of 105 and having lost 13 pounds, made such an impression on him that he felt moved to write about it in Sports Illustrated almost 18 years later. “A Matter of Life and Sudden Death” ends with the revelation that the former tight end has a shoebox full of pictures of children named after him — 129 of them. Mr. Reilly’s firstborn made it 130.

And across the land the groans of wives can be heard. . . .

But there’s far more than that at work in this anthology, for instance a welcome excerpt from “A Fan’s Notes,” Frederick Exley’s masterwork of misfit lit, in which he finds a measure of fraternity in the Polo Grounds stands as he winces with every tackle of his obsession, the Giants’ Golden Boy, Frank Gifford.

Or there’s a winning un-profile by Rick Telander, who left Sports Illustrated to become a columnist for The Chicago Sun-Times. In “Atkins a Study in Pride and Pain,” from 2007, he travels to Knoxville, Tenn., to visit Doug Atkins, a physically wrecked defensive end for the Bears, only to repeatedly drive past his small brick house without stopping to knock.

In a tidy thousand words that recall Frank Bascombe’s failure of an interview in Richard Ford’s “The Sportswriter,” Mr. Telander gets at much, not only “the N.F.L.’s stingy pension plan for old-timers” but also the self-loathing that can be the parasitical journalist’s lot. “Damn it, why do you all keep bothering me?” the 76-year-old Hall of Famer shouts as he hangs up on Mr. Telander.

When it comes to South Fork writers, Mr. Schulian has come up with a perfectly odd couple in the patrician George Plimpton and a 29-year-old Richard Price — the novelist, long-haired, with an earring and a Bronx accent, was provocatively sent to interview the immortal Paul (Bear) Bryant, the coach of Alabama’s Crimson Tide, for Playboy.

The 1979 “Bear Bryant’s Miracles” is nothing if not topical: Mr. Price has moved beyond his own stereotypes of rednecks, “moonshine, speed-trap towns and death” to a view of the “New South” with “Atlanta as cosmopolitan as New York. I’ve heard that, despite the headline horrors, Southerners get along racially better than Northerners. And that foreign blacks prefer the upfrontness of the South to the hypocritical liberal bullshit of the North.”

Sure, but about Bear Bryant? He can barely understand a drawling word out of the great man’s mouth.

The Plimpton excerpt from “Paper Lion,” his 1966 best seller, is one of the great studies in large-scale public humiliation. His famously inept set of downs with Detroit may be familiar, but revisiting them, in excruciating but stylish blow-by-blow, is a reminder of what we’ve lost and likely won’t see again in sportswriting: The crouched offensive linemen before him as he prepares to take a snap seem “a portcullis down”; his fellow Lions are “prognathous with the helmet bars protruding toward me. . . .”

Later, after he returns to the bench and keeps his helmet securely on and his number 0 back to the crowd, before he hears that people thought it a brilliant act by a comic, he sees in the stands a pretty girl in a mohair sweater “the color of spun pink sugar.”

“I looked at her out of my helmet. Then,” in a gesture that has echoed down through literature, “I lifted a hand, just tentatively.”

John Schulian has been a sports columnist for The Chicago Sun-Times and The Philadelphia Daily News. He co-edited the collection “At the Fights,” also from the Library of America.