Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Review: Lasting Impact (2016)

By Kostya Kennedy

Kostya Kennedy absolutely nails the key issue about concussions in football in his book, "Lasting Impact."

At the end, he writes, "The notion of football as a sport overwhelmingly played by the have-notes and consumed by the haves is not an easy notion to bear. Something will be deeply lost."

We all have read the stories about retired pro football players who are suffering from brain injuries later in life. Gale Sayers, the Hall of Fame running back, just added his name to the list recently. Are we headed to a time when the only people who will take the risk of playing football are those with the least to lose? In other words, is football going down a path that was pioneered by boxing? Because in terms of general interest, that has turned into a road to something approaching irrelevance.

We don't know yet. But Kennedy headed to high school in 2014 to see what the football landscape looked like at that level. He found a sport with plenty of positives going for it, but with the concussion lurking nearby like a thunderstorm in the distance.

He did it by spending time with the New Rochelle football team, located north of New York City. New Rochelle is a good-sized suburb with a mix of demographics roaming its school hallways.  The Huguenauts have had good success over the years, usually fielding winning teams thanks to a veteran coach who worries about X's and O's some of the time and his players' personal problems at others.

There are profiles of the coaches, administrators and players, naturally. Lou DiRienzo, the coach of the team, comes off pretty well. High school head coaches receive a little more exposure to real-world problems than those higher up the food chain in college and the pros; those guiding such teams are a little more isolated from the players on an everyday basis.

Every so often, Kennedy has to shift his focus to the real world - for example, the death of two high school football player relatively close to New Rochelle. And that doesn't include concussions that seem to be something close to a weekly occurrence in football these days.

Just to add an unexpected twist to the story, who enters the scene but Ray Rice - just after he was released by his NFL team after a video was released showing him striking his future wife in an elevator. Rice played for New Rochelle, and returned to his high school during the season in the middle of the controversy surrounding the situation and his fate in it. 

New Rochelle at least came through for Kennedy with a good season. But the author wisely doesn't get bogged down in too many details of a year that is in the past and won't be that interesting to most readers - even though it's easy to root for some of the people involved. Kennedy is more interested in focusing on how high school football can supply support, discipline, and bonding for kids. It does that in many cases, but it also leaves kids on the sidelines with headaches - and who knows what's ahead for them?

Kennedy wrote a pair of terrific books on Joe DiMaggio's streak and Pete Rose. This book isn't quite so obviously compelling because of the less-famous subject matter, but the author's smarts still come through nicely here.

By the end of "Lasting Impact," Kennedy still isn't sure whether he'd let a son of his play high school football. He writes that he had no agenda going in, and still didn't have one going out. Kennedy can see arguments on both sides.The romantic side of high school football is still appealing, but the risks of playing become more real all the time. It's tough to know what the right answer is in every case.

Four stars

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Thursday, March 16, 2017

Once There Were Giants (2017)

By Jerry Izenberg

Quick - name someone who is one of the heavyweight boxing champions of the world.

Me neither.

Somewhere along the line, heavyweight boxers stopped mattering. Maybe it's because most of the potential good ones are playing linebacker somewhere. Maybe it's because we became tired of the financial shenanigans in which the people not doing the work took money from the people doing the work - which has been going on since forever.

Maybe it's because the people running Ultimate Fighting and Mixed Martial Arts know more about marketing, especially in a world where they control the entire business. Maybe it's because people figured out there are easier ways to climb out of poverty.

Maybe it's a combination of all of the above.

In any case, it wasn't always like this. Once upon a time, the heavyweight champion was a major celebrity who was considered the toughest man on the planet. Come to think of it, it wasn't that long ago where that was the case - only a quarter of a century, a blink as these things go.

Veteran sportswriter Jerry Izenberg was around for the glory days of the heavyweight division. He apparently was at most of the big fights, and knew the champs and contenders personally. Izenberg empties out the memory book with "Once There Were Giants."

The author warms up for the assignment with a chapter on the history of the relationship between boxing and organized crime. The connection goes back to the start of the 20th century, according to Izenberg, but grew in importance in the 1930s and may have peaked in the 1950s. Fixing the results certainly happened, but the easiest way to influence the sport was through shady deals in management and curious matchmaking. In other words, connections were more important than victories in getting a title shot.

The last of the heavyweight champions to have obvious mob connections was Sonny Liston in the early 1960s. It speaks volumes that some people thought the heavyweight title dropped in class when it went from Liston to Muhammad Ali, who announced he had joined the Black Muslims right after beating Liston. Everyone seemed to be afraid of that group, even the syndicate.

The roll call of champions from there is pretty impressive. It includes Joe Frazier, George Foreman, Larry Holmes, and Mike Tyson. Even the contenders and the brief champions were at least interesting - Ken Norton, Leon Spinks, Earnie Shavers, Ron Lyle, etc. Once Tyson's career blew up, partly because of self-inflicted wounds, things haven't been the same. Evander Holyfield and Lennox Lewis haven't faced enough quality opponents for them to qualify as anything close to all-time greats.

Izenberg has plenty of good stories about the greats and near-greats. For example, the author writes that Frazier was something of a one-trick pony for most of his career in the form of a great left hook. However, Frazier had a surprise for Ali in their legendary third fight. He had been discreetly working on developing a punch with his right hand. Frazier shocked Ali with that new skill, and it turned the fight into a classic.

There's some good material here. Izenberg knows his boxing, and his version of events generally feel authentic. He also has some funny lines along the way, and that does wonders for making the story more fun.

On the minus side, this is a mighty quick read - and would have been even quicker without the tales of organized crime that don't feel like it's a good fit with the story. Izenberg also could have used a little more cleaning in his editing. A few facts and incidents get repeated along the way.

"Once There Were Giants" comes across as an entertaining enough package - maybe not a book you'll save forever, but enjoyable along the way. I'm in the sweet spot for the target audience, naturally. The catch comes for those who are too young to remember the principals here. They probably won't be interested enough to pick this up in the first place. But their dads might.

Four stars

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