Monday, October 28, 2013

Review: Collision Low Crossers (2013)

By Nicholas Dawidoff

Let's get this out of the way from the beginning.

"Collision Low Crossers" ranks as one of the best pro football books ever written.

The worst part of it might just be the title, which is a phrase (I think) to describe how defenders try to disrupt pass receivers who run short crossing patterns a few yards from the line of scrimmage between the defensive linemen and the linebackers. It's not a phrase that rolls off the tongue at first, but try to remember it the next time you are shopping for a football book. It's worth the effort.

Nicholas Dawidoff, the author of a few other fine books, had the idea of spending a full year with a professional football team. He contacted the New York Jets, who - considering how paranoid pro football is as an industry when it comes to revealing secrets to outsiders - surprisingly agreed to open the doors to him in 2011.

Dawidoff was given total access to everything connected with the team. He had a locker, attended practices, sat with general manager Mike Tannenbaum during games, and so on. Tannenbaum and head coach Rex Ryan are obviously two members of a small group that would even consider something like this. What's more, hardly anything was "off the record." No wonder Dawidoff took 8,000 pages of notes during the year.

The 2011 season might be remembered at first as the Year of the Lockout. Just after the author arrived, the collective bargaining agreement between the NFL and its players expired, and a new one was not in place. So the owners locked the doors and essentially suspended operations. While Dawidoff might have thought this was a bad break at the time, it actually worked in his favor. He still showed up virtually every day at the Jets' complex in New Jersey, and he probably had the chance to develop closer relationships with the members of the coaching staff.

That pays off throughout the book. Most coaches in the NFL come off as slight variations of vanilla in personality, with Ryan as an exception. Here we get to know almost all the coaches as people, and the portraits show that they really do have personalities.

However, the assistant coaches work hard. Very hard. No one seems to ever sleep in the football business, and they all miss countless family events throughout the season. The only thing that makes it even close to worthwhile is winning, and everyone still remembers that only one team out of 32 gets to win that last game of the season in early February - which leaves disappointment lurking for all the rest.

That leads to one of Dawidoff''s main points. The game is so involved and so complicated, that it's difficult for anyone to come close to judging the work of the coaching staff. Few have any idea what's really going on. A glance at the won-loss record by outsiders probably isn't enough.

While the author spends much of his time with the coaches, particularly on the defensive side, he doesn't ignore the players either - although he's not quite as close. There are plenty of good stories there, and the best is the most obvious - the starting quarterback. Mark Sanchez was hailed as the man who would lead the Jets to the promised land when he was drafted, and it looked as if he'd do that after two good years after entering the league. But Sanchez definitely took a small step back in 2011, and that helped to create a split between a solid defensive unit and an inconsistent offensive group. It's more poignant now, since we know Sanchez's career had spiraled downward since then.

There's also insight on fringe players. Take Aaron Maybin, a former first-round draft choice who flopped in Buffalo. Maybin had his moments every once in a great while with the Jets in 2011, and shown to be a fun, interesting person. He's also unable to remember play calls and is the only Jet to even discuss life after football. Very enlightening.

The fun really comes when Dawidoff does his impression of a fly on the wall. What's it like when there is no agreement among football staffers about a particular draft choice? How does a team recruit players when free agency opens in a particular year? How are rookies treated? (Hint to that last one: Think errand boy.)

If that weren't enough, Dawidoff's writing is excellent and thoughtful, and his personal observations on the nature of the game are always interesting. When he writes that football is now designed to produce games and often comes down to a battle of wits between quarterbacks and defensive coordinators, it's easy to nod in agreement.

This runs almost 500 pages and can be a little technical and jargon-filled in spots, but fans of the game won't complain. "Collision Low Crossers" should take its rightful place as one of the best sports books of the year.

Five stars

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Sunday, October 27, 2013

Review: Monsters (2013)

By Rich Cohen

This review appeared in The Buffalo News. Access it with a click here.

Abridged version: Author Rich Cohen goes back and looks at the favorite team of his youth. The 1985 Bears are full of characters, and it's fun to read their stories even more than 25 years later. Still, Cohen doesn't carry much objectivity into the story, and tries quite hard to make the reader notice his writing style.

Three stars

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Sunday, October 13, 2013

Review: Kings of the Road (2013)

By Cameron Stracher

This received a long review in The Buffalo News. You can read the entire text by clicking here.

Short version - this is the abbreviated story of the era when American runners dominated the world stage when it came to marathons. It focuses on men like Frank Shorter, Bill Rodgers and Alberto Salazar. The book makes some very interesting points along the way about the history of American running, and what prompted a couple of major changes. I just wish it had been longer.

Three stars

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Friday, October 11, 2013

Review: Orr (2013)

By Bobby Orr

I once heard a story about Rick Reilly when he was working with hockey great Wayne Gretzky on an autobiography. Reilly said that Gretzky was such a modest, good person that it was tough to get him to open up about much. For example, Gretzky said winning that first Stanley Cup was "special." Reilly asked how, and Gretzky answered, "Well, it was just ... special."

Wayne Gretzky, meet Bobby Orr.

Orr is usually considered one of the three greatest hockey players ever, and maybe the best ever for a particular season. He revolutionized the game with his offense style as a defenseman. Injuries shortened and hampered his career, but Orr had accomplishments that were unmatched before or since.

About the only thing Orr didn't do was write his autobiography, and he's finally taken on that job in "Orr."

The problem here is that Orr is so modest, and such a nice guy, that he has trouble talking about his life. These are qualities that make him a fine person and a good friend, of course. Stories to that effect have come out over the years from a variety of sources. Many friends have talked about how when they were a bit down and out, Orr was always there to pick up the pieces. When baseball writer Peter Gammons switched hospitals once while recovering from a serious illness, who was waiting for him at the new place but Bobby Orr. In his playing days, Orr would take reporters to hospitals, and the journalists would see the Bruins' defenseman cheer up sick kids ... but the reporters were sworn to secrecy.

Orr resisted opportunities to write a book for decades. He's finally done it now. Basically, it's a thank-you letter to everyone that helped along the way. Parents, relatives, coaches, teammates - you'd think Orr was the luckiest guy on the face of the earth to be associated with such good people, although the truth just might be the other way around. That includes people he's encountered along the way, including Don Cherry - who gets his own chapter and an endorsement for the Hockey Hall of Fame.

There is one exception to the rule, and that's his former agent, Alan Eagleson. Orr gives Eagleson his own chapter after not talking about him by name throughout the book. Eagleson went to jail for criminal business activities, and was kicked out of the Hockey Hall of Fame among other disgraces. Eagleson represented Orr from an early age, and became famous in part because of that association. Orr doesn't go into great detail about the financial losses he might have taken - except for the fact that Eagleson didn't even tell Orr when the Bruins offered Orr part-ownership in the team to prevent him from leaving for Chicago as a free agent. Orr seems more upset that Eagleson became a bully along the way, and that the superstar lost a once-good friend in the process.

The book leaves some questions unanswered about Orr's life. For example, what was it like to come up to the NHL at 18 in 1966 and be considered the savior of the Bruins' franchise? Did it hurt as much as I think it did to be stunned by Montreal in the first round of the 1971 playoffs? Would today's medical techniques made his career longer and even better? What sort of reaction does Orr get from families when he walks in the front door to talk about representing a young hockey player in his current job as agent? Even the Stanley Cup championships don't get long reviews, which is surprising.

Orr wraps up the book with a discussion of the game of hockey, and his comments are another example of his good, common sense. He remarks on how important passion for the game is, the role of agents, and possible rules changes. Orr's ideas are logical and sensible - just like most of the comments here. Then there's one last bit of modesty - when listing the various honors he's received for hockey, he doesn't even mention the three consecutive Hart Trophies he captured as the league's most valuable player. That's our Bobby, still the Parry Sound, Ont., boy at heart.

'Orr" certainly has a place on the bookshelf; you can give it to your kids to learn about an admirable sports superstar. There's no controversy here. But if the idea of an autobiography is to give others an insight into the life of the writer, Orr keeps the curtain mostly closed.

Three stars

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