Thursday, December 26, 2013

Review: Newton's Football (2013)

By Allen St. John and Ainissa G. Ramirez, Ph.D.

Mention science to most people, and they go screaming into the night in terror as they think back to their days in high school. Me too.

So it's rare to see a book that can cross that divide and be attractive to those who gave up on science long, long ago. "Newton's Football" is that book. It's a new, fresh treatment that goes down all sorts of avenues in a frequently fascinating and fast read.

Authors Allen St. John and Ainissa G. Ramirez, Ph. D. (you can guess who was in the charge of the football, adn who was in charge of the science) have teamed up for this effort. It's written in the style of "Freakonomics," which a variety of short chapters that examine a variety of issues.

Some of the most interesting chapters in the book deal with the way the game evolved over the years. Seemingly insignificant events turned out to have ripple effects that send football down entirely new paths.

Don't believe it? Think about the simple facemask. You probably have to be drawing social security to remember players who didn't wear them. They were introduced in 1953, and did a dandy job of cutting down on some head injuries. The catch was that, ironically, they cut down on head injuries, which meant the players felt a bit more invulnerable when they made tackles. That meant players were more willing to make harder hits, particularly while leading with their heads. Big hits helped the sport become more popular, but also led to different injuries - like concussions.

There are stories about the development of the West Coast offense. St. John and Ramirez point out how Bill Walsh designed a passing game that essentially resembled digital (on vs. off) decisions. If Option One is covered, go to Option Two. If that's not going to work, go to Option Three. If that's clogged up and linemen are closing in, flip it to a running back in the flat. Passing progressions have become part of the game since then.

What's more, the game really opened up when the rules were changed to discourage bump-and-run play by cornerbacks. It was called the Mel Blount Rule, since he was the prototype for tough, physical defenders. Blount, the authors argue, was something like Thomas Edison, trying all sorts of techniques to find one that worked.

There are a couple of stories on chaos on the football field - deliberate chaos, that is. The no-huddle offense and zone blitz are two such parts of the game designed to create confusion for opponents. Even though they have been around for a while, they still work at some level against foes who at least have an idea that something (but what?) is coming.

By the way, there's a great story in the section on the no-huddle that I've never seen anywhere before. The NFL went to Bengals coach Sam Wyche before the AFC Championship Game in 1988 and asked him not to run the no-huddle because it might make a mockery of the game. Wyche pointed out that this would give an unfair competitive edge to the Bills, and quietly added that some powerful gamblers might not take a liking to the NFL sticking its nose into an outcome like this. After a quick phone call, the league representative told Wyche to do whatever he wanted. The Bengals won.

All sorts of scientific experts, including those who admit they know nothing about football, and a few football ones are consulted along the way. The authors do an excellent job of not getting too technical in the process. This really could have been quite dull, but it never bogs down.

It's usually a good sign when the most stinging criticism of a book is that it should/could have been longer. Maybe a sequel is coming some day; let's hope so. In the meantime, "Newton's Football" works very nicely for those who enjoy out-of-the-box thinking of any kind.

Five stars

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Sunday, December 22, 2013

Review: You Herd Me (2013)

By Colin Cowherd

A full review appeared in The Buffalo News. In short, this is mostly a collection of thoughts about topics that aren't topical. That more or less goes against the immediacy of the sports talk show business, which thrives on emotions generated in the heat of the moment. Therefore, "You Herd Me" is at a disadvantage that is never really overcome.

Two stars

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Sunday, December 8, 2013

Review: Undisputed Truth (2013)

By Mike Tyson and Larry Sloman

Consider the life of Mike Tyson an experiment in social engineering.

Take a kid with virtually no education, and virtually no parental guidance, out of the worst part of New York City. Bring him upstate, give him some world-class instruction in the art of boxing, and then let him loose on an unsuspecting sports world. Then, see what happens after he achieves unimagined success, particularly on the financial end.

That, in a nutshell, is the plot line of "Undisputed Truth," Tyson's autobiography. It doesn't take a mad scientist know that such an experiment might not end well for all concerned.

This may not be the best boxing autobiography ever written - come to think of it, I'm not sure what is - but this certainly must rank among the biggest. It checks in at close to 600 pages of type. My Kindle needed to go out and do roadwork to lose that extra weight after downloading it.

Tyson's life carries a degree of fascination because he was, in some ways, the last heavyweight boxing champion to matter. Lennox Lewis and Wladimir Klitschko had better careers, but they didn't light up a ring like Tyson did. The New York native was a destructive machine early in his career, and many paid to watch him at work.

Tyson's backstory also was part of the attraction. He had a generally missing father and an irresponsible mother, and essentially took up stealing well before his age was in double figures. But he somehow found an outlet in boxing, was sent upstate and was virtually adopted by veteran manager Cus D'Amato - the former manager of ex-heavyweight champion Floyd Patterson. D'Amato immediately saw big things in Tyson's future even before Tyson had a pro fight, and groomed him nicely. D'Amato also kept Tyson's personality under control.

D'Amato died before Tyson was on top of the heavyweight division, but "Iron Mike" soon became the youngest champion in the division's history. He became one of the top gate attractions in the history of the sport, and the money started flying around. If the history of boxing teaches us anything, it's that people are always willing to try to separate uneducated, less-than-worldly boxers from their earnings. Tyson served as something of a personal ATM for those people.

If that weren't enough, Tyson had some severe self-image problems from his childhood that make him feel less than worthy of that good fortune. Therefore, he just gave away enormous amounts of money. Responsible? One time someone found a sack of money in Tyson's closet that contained a million dollars.

Oddly, there isn't that much boxing in this book by a boxer. In hindsight, most of Tyson's fights were not particularly memorable. No one could stop him, and the parade of early knockouts provide little to write about. The post-fight partying, though, was another story. Tyson freely admits that he took advantage of every opportunity to enjoy the advantages of being "the baddest man on the planet."

That was eventually led to his downfall. Tyson admits here he was too busy chasing women by the dozens, whether he was married or not, and taking drugs to worry too much about training. He got away with it for a while, but eventually it caught up with him. Tyson eventually lost his title, won it back briefly and then lost it again for good. Along the way he picked up a conviction for rape, sending him to prison for a few years.

In the middle of all of this, "Undisputed Truth" stops being a book about a boxer, and starts being a book about an addict.

In that, Tyson's book reads a great deal like the stories of such people as musician Eric Clapton and baseball player Dwight Gooden. Little else mattered to Tyson except satisfying his appetites for women, alcohol and drugs. The stories is all of these books are quite similar. Tyson certainly brings the language of the street to this particular story, and he also admits that he frequently turned into a jerk along the way.

There are some interesting stories told along the way. Certainly plenty of people have wanted to take a swing at boxing promoter Don King over the years. Tyson actually connected a couple of times. And it's amazing how Tyson still held a fascination for people years after he was relevant as an athlete. His name alone still allowed him to inhabit some powerful social circles. Still, many of the stories sound very much the same after a while. Some serious editing probably could have taken 100 pages out the book easily without lessening the impact of the story.

The book was supposed to end with Tyson happily married and clean, finally getting to know his various children in a relatively stable home life. Alas, a new ending had to be tacked on when he fell off the proverbial wagon a few times in terms of substances earlier in the year.

While few will be too sympathetic of Tyson since he brought many of his troubles on himself, it's fair to say that he never had much of a chance. But as "Undisputed Truth" shows, it's still tough to look away. I suspect that will be true for the indefinite future.

Three stars

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