Monday, August 26, 2013

Review: Rising Tide (2013)

By Randy Roberts and Ed Krzemienski

Alabama had some "interesting times" in the 1960s. It essentially was Ground Zero of the civil rights movement during much of that time, the Deepest of the Deep South. From a national perspective, much of the nation thought of the state as racist and backward.

But there was always football. The University of Alabama had Bear Bryant, the legendary coach. Plus for three seasons the football team had Joe Namath as its top quarterback. The Crimson Tide often was a contender for the national championship, even though it played with an all-white roster against teams that generally were all-white as well.

It all comes together in "Rising Tide," a book on that era by Randy Roberts and Ed Krzemienski.

The story is bookended by Namath's arrival and departure from Alabama. He came out of Beaver Falls, Pa., as one of the nation's top quarterbacks in the nation. Once Namath discovered he couldn't qualify academically in the Big Ten and saw a trip to Maryland fall through, he landed at the last minute at Alabama.

Bryant was waiting for him, even having him up to his fabled coaching tower when Namath arrived. We forget what a great athlete Namath was in those pre-knee operation days, but he was a standout in all sports (he could dunk a basketball without a running start) and had excellent speed.

The authors do capture the atmosphere that greeted Namath in Alabama. This is someone who had black friends back home, and who therefore wasn't used to the idea of separate drinking fountains and bus lobbies. We couldn't see what was  Joe did what he wanted - being a special athlete always has had its advantages -  and while it ruffled some feathers he was good enough and friendly enough to make it work.

Most of the book is devoted to a game-by-game account of Namath's seasons there. There's some good research involved here and the story moves along, although it is a little difficult to make football games from 50 years ago fresh and interesting. It's striking how much the game of football has changed since then. Namath had games where he only threw a handful of times, something of a waste of his talent. But, when he had to throw, he was a sight. Namath did more than enough for people to realize he was something special.

It's difficult to describe just how Bryant dominated the landscape in Alabama back then. There was always talk of him running for Governor, although he probably wasn't interested in the pay cut, loss of influence and the headaches in that job. He won, year after year. Bryant's involvement in a law suit involving an article from the Saturday Evening Post about an alleged fix of a game with Georgia receives plenty of coverage here, and Bryant won that one as well.

There is some detail given to the general troubles of the time. It's interesting to read stories about people who take a wrong turn while driving and find themselves on the edge of a race riot, the effects of which were felt across the nation. The connection between the civil rights movement and Alabama football isn't really a strong one - they were two separate worlds, naturally - but it is interesting to read about the problems taking place. For those not familiar with the times, this will be a good introduction. But it's a reach to say the sociology equals athletic portions of the book.

"Rising Tide," then, is mostly a football book, and a good one. Namath and Bryant's names still carry some weight in the sport years later, and it's a good idea to explore in depth their time together a half-century later.

Four stars

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