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

Learn more about this book.

Be notified of new posts via Twitter @WDX2BB.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Review: Marathon Man (2013)

By Bill Rodgers and Matthew Shepatin

Here's an interesting coincidence when it comes to legendary marathoner Bill Rodgers.

I had the chance to write a story a few years ago on Rodgers, which involved the chance to interview him at some length by phone and then talk to him in person for a while. Someone asked me later what it was like to talk to Rodgers.

"It was sort of like trying to watch a butterfly," I answered. "The conversation seemed to dart all over the place, but it was pleasant following it."

Imagine my surprise, then, when I read Rodgers' new autobiography, "Marathon Man." He describes how he used to chase butterflies while growing up, and developed a love of running that way. In fact, he still had a collection of butterflies years later. By the way, the runner reveals here that he suffers from ADHD.

This is the second of two Rodgers' autobiographies, in a sense. The first came in 1980, right at the end of a run that saw him dominate the sport for several years. It was an odd book, combining a rather superficial review of Rodgers' life to date mixed with some tips for runners. That made it a case of one foot in one place and one foot in another, and neither completely satisfying.

Rodgers certainly has led an interesting enough life to warrant a full-fledged autobiography. Well, this is it, finally, and it's well done.

Rodgers was a decent enough high school and college runner, and friendly with 1968 Boston Marathon winner Amby Burfoot. But after college, Rodgers famously gave up the sport, spending his free time smoking in bars and chasing - although apparently not catching - women. He became a conscientious objector when his draft board came calling during the Vietnam War, and worked at a Boston hospital doing the absolute worst tasks in the field.

Somewhere along the way, the running bug returned, and Rodgers headed for the roads again. He was part of a Boston running scene that was starting to boom, and he discovered that he had some talent at the discipline as long as he put in the hours of training.

Rodgers' main breakthrough came in the 1975 Boston Marathon. It wouldn't be completely fair to say he came out of nowhere to win that race, the first of four titles, but he wasn't on anyone's radar as a potential winner either.

Co-author Shepatin made the decision for the first two-thirds of the book to ping-pong from a description of that 1975 race to the chronological story of Rodgers' life. The Boston Marathon was much more innocent back then. Left unstated in that comparison is thoughts about the bombing of the 2013 edition, which obviously happened after the book was written.

Once those two tracks merge at the finish line in 1975, "Boston Billy's" career took off. He went on to win marathons all over the world, and became personally popular as well. I hadn't heard the stories about what happened at the Olympics or why he went into the running gear business, but they broaden the story nicely.

If anything, Rodgers doesn't spend enough time with what he's been doing lately. The runner has become "Bill Rodgers" for living, making personal appearances and talking with runners today. I have friends that still talk about the time they joined Rodgers for a beer or two after a local race.

Rodgers today remains an interesting, intelligent person, so it's no surprise that "Marathon Man" follows that description. The book does a good job of catching the butterfly.

Four stars

Learn more about the book.

Be notified of new posts via Twitter @WDX2BB.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Review: Breaking the Line (2013)

By Samuel G. Freedman

Can you picture a Southeastern Conference without an African Americans on the rosters of the team? An Atlantic Coast Conference with only white faces on its football teams?

Probably not if you are under the age of 50. But not only was it once true, but it was accepted until it all changed a little more than 40 years ago.

Before that, separate and not particularly equal was the rule for blacks and whites in college football. The big state schools such as Alabama and LSU were very pale when it came to that game. The black players, at least those who stayed in the South, frequently wound up at colleges such as Grambling and Florida A&M.

In 1967, feelings about the state of race relations in the United States were at the boiling point. Change was clearly coming, but the old system persisted.

That's the setting for Samuel Freedman's fine book, "Breaking the Line." The author takes a look at two teams' seasons, and sets then into context of time and place. In other words, there's plenty of football here, but it's not all football. And rightly so.

The coaches were legendary. Eddie Robinson piled up more wins than any other college football coach, 408 when he retired in 1997. Grambling became a household name, at least in football-oriented homes, through his work. Hall of Famers Willie Davis, Buck Buchanon and Willie Brown played there. Meanwhile, Jake Gaither didn't have Robinson's longevity, but he did have an .844 winning percentage at Florida A&M.

Picture a Southeastern Conference without black players, and you get an idea of just how much talent was available for these schools and their regular rivals. Games involving Grambling and Florida A&M along with other schools such as Tennessee State, Southern, Texas, Southern, and Prairie View A&M back then were filled with recognized names - Kenny Burrough, Eldridge Dickey, Charlie Joiner, Essex Johnson, etc.

Two of the biggest names quarterbacked in the end-of-the-season clash between Grambling and FAMU: James Harris and Ken Riley. Harris went on to a good-sized career in the NFL, while Riley - converted to defensive back in the NFL - comes up in Hall of Fame conversations as one of the leaders in career interceptions in league history. They were both smart, and dedicated as well as athletic, knocking down stereotypes at the time about black quarterbacks.

Freedman ping-pongs between the two schools in the text. An interesting chapter shows what happened when ABC came to film a documentary on Grambling - only to turn up on a week when demonstrations had the campus in turmoil. It wasn't an easy time, especially when it came to picking sides in the debate over civil rights. Do the best you can to slowly change the system, or angrily protest in an attempt to speed the process along? Players, coaches and administrators were all caught up in the argument.

As you'd expect, the teams meet in an informal championship game at the end of the season/book, and it's a good one. Few readers will remember the outcome, so it all seems fresh several years later.

If there's a flaw here, it's that Freedman is obviously fond of the subjects involved - which is understandable. For example, Harris does indeed start on opening day for the Buffalo Bills in 1969, when Jack Kemp and Tom Flores are hurt. But that was his only start of '69, as Kemp - a former league MVP - returned to duty and sent Harris to the bench. Freedman writes that Dennis Shaw, "a white rookie from San Diego State," moved ahead of Harris in Harris' third year, and that Harris won several games in relief of Shaw. Shaw actually arrived in Harris' second year, 1970, and Harris never did win a game in relief according to pro-football-reference.com.

Freedman is right that Harris had a lot of good moments with the Rams, yet the QB found himself on the bench rather quickly. Owner Carroll Rosenbloom supposedly ordered coach Chuck Knox to play Pat Haden at quarterback at one point in 1976. Still, Harris is the first to say that being a pioneer as a black quarterback put enough pressure on him to prevent him from fulfilling his potential as a pro.

The book's subtitle - "The Season in Black College Football That Transformed the Sport and Changed the Course of Civil Rights" - might be a slight exaggeration too. It's tough to point a finger at a particular year and say it was the most significant of the era. Still, it was an interesting time, in sport and society. "Breaking the Line" captures the dynamics of it all quite well.

Four stars

Learn more about this book.

Be notified of new posts via Twitter @WDX2BB.