Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Review: The Goal of My Life (2012)

By Paul Henderson with Roger Lajoie

We read "The Goal of My Life" because we want to know Paul Henderson's reaction to the question, "Is that all there is?"

And to understand why we ask, we have to understand something about Canada, and hockey, and fame.

Henderson was living a relatively normal life until 1972. He was a good, but not great, player in the National Hockey League. The winger broke in with Detroit in 1963, and eventually was traded to Toronto. Henderson was one of the best players on some ordinary Maple Leaf teams of the late 1960's and early 1970's. He played on a line with Norm Ullman and Ron Ellis.

Then came 1972. Canada agreed to play the Soviet Union in a special eight-game hockey series that fall. The professionals of Canada had never met the Soviets before, and there was considered curiosity about how such a matchup would. go. It was also in the middle of the Cold War, so such "cultural exchanges" were rare and those on the other side of the Iron Curtain represented a great unknown in many ways.

The Soviets took about two periods in Game One to show that they were for real, winning that first game by a score of 7-3. By the end of Game Five, Canada trailed in the series, 3-1-1, and only the most loyal of Canada's hockey fans believed that a comeback was possible. But it was, and Henderson was a major reason why. He scored the game-winning goals in Game Six, Game Seven, and - most famously - Game Eight to give Canada the series. It's indicative of Canada's love of hockey that Henderson's goal became one of those "where were you when...?" moments north of the border.He went from hockey player to national hero in record time.

Once the series was over and the celebrations were finished, Henderson probably had figured out that the rest of his life was going to be an anti-climax. So, while we're interested in Henderson's hockey career and his thoughts about the '72 Series, we're curious about what happened from there.

Hockey fans probably know what Henderson played hockey for the rest of the decade, jumping to the World Hockey Association in 1974. He spent five seasons in the WHA, and around that time turned up his attention to his faith. Henderson became a devoted Christian in that time.

When his hockey days were finally over, Henderson looked around at possible second careers. He eventually settled on work in his faith, mostly through The Leadership Group which offers a hand to men trying to lead a more spiritual life. Plenty of athletes make such a turn in their lives, for reasons as individual as their personalities. Although it's not really discussed, there are hints that Henderson has done some motivational speaking over the years to pay some bills. And who in Canada wouldn't want to hear what it was like?

The book, then, essentially is split in two. The first 150 pages or so stick to hockey, and it's always good to read a first-person account of great moments in a particular field. Henderson's comments don't have a great deal of bite for the most part, but there are interesting stories about the journey.

One anecdote is revealing. Henderson was once asked about Bobby Clarke's famous slash that broke Valeri Kharlamov's ankle in game six. His reply was, "It was the low point of the series." Clarke wasn't happy about the answer. Henderson apologized and gives a longer explanation in the book, saying that what looks good in the heat of the moment may not be good behavior in hindsight. But he adds that it was a "loaded question" and "This is one of the many reasons today re very wary around certain writers." It's a curious moment.

The final 80 or so pages of text are mostly spent on Henderson's faith, including several pages of comments from people who have worked with Henderson on his religious projects. The reader's interest level may depend on his own background and set of beliefs. Henderson's own faith received quite a stern test recently when he was diagnosed with cancer, but happily he seems to be at peace with whatever happens.

Those looking for a mere hockey story from Henderson won't find it in "The Goal of My Life." Lives don't come that neatly packaged. It's an interesting enough tale, though, that at its core does show how at least one person reacted to sudden, overwhelming celebrity.

Three stars

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Sunday, September 23, 2012

Review: Promises to Keep (2012)

By Floyd Little with Tom Mackie

"Promises to Keep" is an odd autobiography. It was written probably because of a magazine article, and its best parts appear to have been published elsewhere.

First, the magazine story. Gary Smith wrote the story for Sports Illustrated a while back. It was about the unique relationship of star football player Floyd Little and freelance football writer Tom Mackie.

Little was one of the nation's top college running backs at Syracuse, and a workhorse for the Denver Broncos. Little didn't have a great deal of help on his Broncos teams of the Sixties and Seventies, and his teams had poor records, but Little still was obviously one of the league's best runners.

Guys like that usually have trouble making the Hall of Fame, and Little certainly did. But Mackie's childhood hero was Little, and Mackie was determined to get Little to Canton ... particularly after the two men actually met. So Mackie kept working at that goal, year after year, and Little finally made it. The story, as Little puts it here, was practically a screenplay - a memorable, wonderful story that put Little back in the public eye.

It was a natural, then, for Little to try a full-fledged autobiography. Most Hall of Famers should give such books a try anyway. And this is it. He covers his early years well enough, coming out of poverty in Connecticut. Little got some guidance along the way that directed his energies into proper directions, and after two years of prep school he landed a scholarship at Syracuse. There he was one of the great series of running backs to wear #44 (Jim Brown, Ernie Davis, etc.).

Little was a first-round draft choice of the Broncos, and became their one star. Denver spent most of his career losing, but that doesn't mean he didn't encounter plenty of interesting personalities along the way. Little tells a variety of anecdotes about a variety of them.

This part is good reading, but it comes with a catch. Little mentions that he wrote a book in 2006, "Floyd Little's Tales from the Broncos' Sideline." He says that since the publisher went bankrupt recently and that books are difficult to find, he simply retells some stories here. In looking at the amazon.com review, there's no doubt that the best tales do get rehashed here.

Once Little gets done with his pro career, he spends just a little time on his life after football and soon jumps into the story about making the Hall with both feet. The chapter runs more than 40 pages, which is saying something in a book that has 243 pages of text. It's easy to see how much the trip to Canton meant to him, but he still has a little bitterness about the wait. Considering that Little is by all accounts a good person, here's hoping he moves beyond that and soon.

The book ends with a wide variety of comments, going from inspirational advice to thoughts on Tim Tebow and Jim Brown to tributes to family members. It's a slightly disorganized finish to the story, although it sounds like his work at Syracuse now in the athletic department is an excellent spot for him.

Oh - one other small complaint -- couldn't someone have found a better, in-focus picture for the front cover?

"Promises to Keep," then, comes with an asterisk. Those who read Little's first book probably need not go here. As for the rest of us, the new effort is a pleasant enough look at one of football's most underrated players.

Three stars

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Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Review: Paterno (2012)

By Joe Posnanski

As writing assignments go, this one turned out to be almost cruel.

Joe Posnanski, one of America's best sports writers, was given the chance to write a book on one of America's coaching icons. He'd been promised great access to the subject of the biography, who probably would retire at the end of his last season. He'd also been given the chance to examine the subject's personal records. It would be a chance to salute one of the icons of the sports world.

But the icon in question was Joe Paterno, the Penn State football coach who was caught up in one of the biggest scandals in the history of college sports in the fall of 2011.

"Mr. Posnanski, you're going to have to change some of the tone of the book in order to consider this new information. Oh, and do it as fast as you can, because the public is anxious to read about this and every day that you don't publish it costs us all money."

The resulting book is "Paterno." It's not the book that Posnanski thought he was going to write, certainly, but still worth your time.

Paterno was headed for the mythical Mount Rushmore of coaches until the past year. Yes, he won games, more than any other football coach. He won a few national championships along the way. Paterno turned the middle of Pennsylvania -- and if you've ever been there, you know it's pretty close to the middle of the proverbial nowhere -- into one of the power centers of the college football universe. No small task.

Paterno did it the right way, too. His players graduated, went on to successful lives in many cases, and remembered the lessons they learned from their coach along the way. It wasn't idyllic; there were tough years and bad apples along the way. But it was close.

Most of the book still salutes that tone. Posnanski writes about dozens and dozens of players, coaches, etc. who had a relationship with Paterno. Joe Pa was something of the quirky mad scientist at times, always preferring to hide in his home office and work on some new defense than anything else. Yet he found time to raise a family (with his wife's considerable help), challenge the university to raise its standards, and raised millions to help his school reach a goal of excellence.

Alas, that single-mindedness came back to haunt him. When graduate assistant Mike McQueary saw "something" in a shower involving former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky and a young boy, he reported the incident to Paterno. The head coach passed along the information and never followed up on it. Paterno joins in the chorus here that he should have done more. Paterno and Sandusky apparently didn't get along well, and it's tough to say if there were other clues about Sandusky's behavior that Paterno missed or didn't want to see. Posnanski leaves that for others to investigate.

Guido D'Elia was a friend of Paterno's who saw the coach up close for decades and was convinced of his goodness, but even he couldn't figure out why Paterno didn't follow up on the incident. "Find the answer to that, and you have the story," he said.

So, we don't have the full story, and maybe we never will. Clearly we need time for everything to be sorted out, and time wasn't on Posnanski's side. The book feels a little rushed in spots, with some duplication of material. Yet there is much here that is worth reading, much that gives us insight into this simple yet complicated man.

"Paterno" is an artfully written book that supplies many of the pieces that went into the subject's life. We'll have to see if there are other pieces that complete the puzzle.

Four stars

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Friday, September 7, 2012

Review: The War by the Shore (2012)

By Curt Sampson

With the Ryder Cup coming up soon on the golfing calendar, it's not a bad time to take a look back at one of the most dramatic competitions in that event's history: the 1991 edition.

The temperature was starting to go up at that point, a process that had been building since all of the best Europeans took on the Americans as opposed to the Great Britain vs. U.S. format that had been abandoned a decade before that. Some Euro wins put the competitiveness back in the Ryder Cup, and the emotions soon followed.

The 1991 event became known as "The War by the Shore," and author Curt Sampson wisely uses that as the title of his good recap of the event. Perhaps the centerpiece of the story deals with the subject of Ryder Cup and pressure.

Pro golfers know pressure, of course. If they don't play well, they don't eat. The top players get beyond that stage, of course, and then have to worry about the pressure of getting to the next level -- winning on the tour -- and the next -- winning a major. But if a player doesn't come through in that situation, he's only let himself down.

In the Ryder Cup, a golfer who fails lets down himself, his team filled with peers, the fans at the course who are openly rooting for him, and his country. That's a much different animal, particularly in a relatively unfamiliar match play format. As a result, there are many nervous shots in a Ryder Cup. The compensation is, you don't have to beat everyone to win. You just have to win your match.

Sampson does a very nice job of setting up the event. It's fun to look at the rosters of the two teams now. Team Europe in hindsight has the memorable stars, including Nick Faldo, Seve Ballesteros and Colin Montgomerie. The Americans had some merely "very good" players, including Fred Couples, Lanny Wadkins and Payne Stewart, but they were deeper. Would that be enough? Virtually all of the players get quick biographies that bring to light some new or forgotten facts about them, and the story of the course itself -- just opening and thus a surprise choice to serve as host -- is interesting now as well.

Once the circumstances are set up, we move to the golf itself. It's difficult to make 21-year-old matches too interesting today, particularly those in the early going. If there's a little drag in the story, it comes at that point. But once we reach the final day of competition, the story certainly picks up. Sampson made the decision to write about the singles matches in order, rather than going minute by minute around the course. It's a smart move in this case because it's much easier to follow. Any loss of impact due to a lack of feeling about how the day was going for a side at a particular side isn't really missed that much.

Besides, the author did know what was coming. As any veteran golf fan knows, the competition came down to the final match, and provided a finish for the history books. And there's a nice ending on what happened to the participants after the match.

All things considered, "The War by the Shore" attains its goal pretty well, giving a nice recap of the proceedings. Those who have a strong interest in the subject certainly would do well to pick this up, and will give it an extra star.

Three stars

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Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Review: Perfection (2012)

By Bob Griese and Dave Hyde

The mental image is advanced by the media every year. The members of the 1972 Miami Dolphins notice that the last undefeated team in professional football team has lost. So they pour themselves a glass of champagne and toast their team from yesteryear.

Sometimes it happens in November. Sometimes it happens after New Year's Day. But it always has happened, year after year, for 40 years.

Those Dolphins are the only team, still, to go through an entire season and playoffs without losing a single game. That makes them a contender for the mythical title of "greatest football team ever," simply because they met every challenge put in front of them.

It makes those Dolphins worth reading about, even today. Bob Griese and Dave Hyde have done a fine job of reviewing that season in their appropriately titled book, "Perfection."

The two men take an interesting approach to the writing of this book. Griese might be the most famous player on that team from a 2012 season. He had a Hall of Fame career, and he went on to become a television commentator after retirement. But ... the funny part is that Griese was hurt in the fifth game of the season, and didn't start again until the Super Bowl.

That sounds like a problem, but it really isn't here. It's easy to guess that Hyde did a lot of the heavy lifting that fills out much of the rest of the book in the chronological account of the season. The focus shifts away from Griese to his teammates. There are excellent profiles of the personalities on that team, from coach Don Shula, to the offensive linemen taken off the proverbial scrap heap, to the elegance of Paul Warfield, to the contrasting behavior of safeties Dick Anderson and Jake Scott. Griese and Hyde make this team come alive.

The book also takes some interesting tangents along the way. The use of amphetamines back then was indeed heavy and unregulated. There's a story about how Mercury Morris took a pill from O.J. Simpson at the Pro Bowl, and Morris stayed awake from Sunday afternoon until Tuesday morning. Simpson used to take two of those pills before every game. The medical practices from those days come across as almost barbaric in hindsight. It's no wonder why so many players from that era are suffering from the after-effects of injuries, particularly concussions.

Griese also points out how those Dolphins were on the cutting edge of football strategy. For example, Miami pioneered the use of situation substitutions. Morris and Jim Kiick both saw plenty of action at halfback, depending on the situation. Common today, novel then.

There are a couple of typographical errors that jump out here. Don McCafferty and Steve Tensi get their names mangled. That's surprising in a book that otherwise is quite well researched.

Obviously, a book about a football team from 40 years ago isn't going after the youth audience. Still, it's good to have a first-hand account of such an important team in terms of history. "Perfection" is easy to read, and will keep you entertained and interested. It's a nice job.

Four stars

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Sunday, September 2, 2012

Review: Sapp Attack (2012)

By Warren Sapp with David Fisher

Who says media interviews don't help sell books? Warren Sapp recently made an appearance on WFAN Radio in New York (picked up by the Yes Network on television), in which the former NFL star was quite funny and interesting.

That prompted me to read his book, "Sapp Attack." It's the obvious literary track to say that the book is quite funny and interesting, but it's tough to go quite that far.

Sapp always has been an interesting figure. He was a superstar at the University of Miami, where he was part of some great teams filled with tremendous talent. But Sapp also carried some baggage with him, even then. He failed a drug test shortly before the draft, which allowed him to slip down the first round a bit. Sapp was grabbed by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who put him at starting defensive tackle after a few weeks and let him go to work.

Sapp certainly ranks as one of the great characters in recent NFL history. He usually said what was on his mind, on and off the field. That led him to some good-sized fines over the years. Isn't it interesting, then, that Sapp wound up on the NFL Network as a commentator?

Well before retirement, though, Sapp went through some good times and bad times. He certainly helped change the culture of the then-lowly Bucs, who eventually became Super Bowl champions. Sapp credits coaches Tony Dungy and Jon Gruden for leading the way in those years, although he was part of a often suffocating defense that was greatly responsible for Tampa Bay's rise. The story about how the Bucs knew the Raiders' audibles in their Super Bowl matchup because they hadn't changed them since Gruden had been the head coach there was particularly interesting.

Sapp eventually left Tampa Bay to jump to the Raiders, which at first glance seemed like a perfect match. All  Raiders are NFL players, but not all NFL players are "Raiders," if you consider the stereotype of Oakland's outlaw image. Sapp figured to fit right in, but he's quite frank in describing how disorganized the Raiders' organization was at that time and how odd owner Al Davis was back then. Well, we had plenty of other evidence about Al, so we don't have to take Sapp's word for it there.

The construction of the book is rather odd. Sapp and co-author David Fisher review the player's career nicely enough, mostly relying on anecdotes rather than reciting scores. But when the chronology ends, Sapp is only on page 200 ... and the book goes on to page 314. After some overall review of the game, Sapp moves on to what he's been doing since retiring, concentrating on commentary and "Dancing with the Stars." Turned out the big fellow did have some moves. But it feels a little padded. In addition, it's a book that reads as if there are no natural spots for chapter endings; it just sort of runs along throughout the entire text.

Occasionally, Sapp's logic is a little twisted. For example, he once grabbed Jerry Rice's facemask, forcing the receiver to turn awkwardly. A severe knee injury was the result. Sapp said about the play a few paragraphs, "You don't apologize for a clean hit,: But isn't grabbing the facemask a penalty? Sapp also controls his tongue a few times in terms of rough language, but there are enough bad words elsewhere in here to make the reader wonder why he bothered.

Overall, though, Sapp makes a good impression -- just like he did in the interview. He's quite candid throughout, put in the hours off the field, and didn't take any plays off on it. "Sapp Attack" isn't great literature, but it's worth a read -- particularly in the first half of the book -- by those who have followed this future Hall of Famer.

Three stars

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