Tuesday, November 19, 2019

Review: NFL Century (2019)

By Joe Horrigan

The National Football League is in the midst of celebrating its 100th season right now, and it is really good at it. The century mark is an important milestone as these things go, and football fans haven't been able to miss the hoopla surrounding it. The NFL has used a variety of techniques in reviewing its history, including small features on their telecasts..

The subject is a natural for a book with a connection to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and that's where Joe Horrigan comes in. He is the former executive director of the Hall, and probably knows more about the history of the game than anyone. That's why he's a good choice to write "NFL Century."

Horrigan makes one good decision right from the start in this publication. The basic question about such a book is - what to include? It's been a busy century, naturally, and someone could write 100 books on what went on - one for each year. That would be rather expensive and time-consuming, of course.

Therefore, it's a smart move to break the history of the NFL into 33 bite-sized chapters. You could argue about what events should be included in such a list, but it's hard to complain very much about Horrigan's choices. He includes, as a sampler, the formation of the league, television milestones, commissioners, battles with rival leagues, and great dynasties such as the Cleveland Browns, Green Bay Packers, Pittsburgh Steelers, San Francisco 49ers, Dallas Cowboys, and New England Patriots. Put it this way - any larger history of the league certainly would include all of those items.

A book like this also has the problem of trying to draw in as many people as possible regardless of age. In other words, readers have lived through parts of the various eras, and bring some knowledge to their reading. But, the book has to hold the interest of people of all ages. A chapter on the great teams of the 1970s has to give the facts for those below 50, but still be fresh enough so that those above 50 will not only enjoy the memories but learn a few things along the way. Horrigan has added enough information through good research to do that.

Complaints? Well, a few names get mangled and a few facts go unchecked along the way. It happens. You may have a favorite player, team or moment that might be overlooked in the process. That comes with the territory here. The writer can't make everyone happy.

Still, if you want to know what the NFL has been all about for the these past 10 decades, this would seem to be a good starting point. And even if you already know some of those facts, you'll still think of "NFL Century" as a very good retrospective.

Four stars

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Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Review: The Best American Sports Writing 2019

Edited by Charles P. Pierce

It's never easy to come up with a new way to review a book in an annual series - particularly one that is as consistently good as "The Best American Sports Writing."

This year, though, was easier - thanks to a Tweet.

A sportswriter made a comment on Twitter about the "real world" the other day. He received a reply about how the reader hates it when sports columnists write about something other than sports. In other words, they should stay in their lane, or something like that.

I'd quote the Tweet completely, but after it was pointed out in loud terms (full disclosure: by me, and perhaps others) that sports reflects real life as a whole, he deleted his message. I'm always arguing that as a sports reporter, I can talk about issues involving medicine, marketing, law, immigration, crime, etc. The list is rather endless.

But maybe it would have been easier to tell the guy to read this book.

This has some of the best in sports journalism from the year, and there aren't too many home runs, touchdowns, baskets or goals described along the way.

There is a story about mental illness in the NBA. Sexual abuse in gymnastics. A terrible culture within a college football program. Race relations over the past 50 years. A profile of football player Aaron Hernandez, who had a series of conflict with real-world issues in his too-short life. The murder of a former NBA player.

These aren't the only stories included in this anthology, which runs for more than 300 pages. Profiles of Joel Embiid, Ichiro Suzuki and Becky Harmon are included. There are even a couple of fun entries, like a scavenger hunt in the Super Bowl and the annual Rubik's Cube championship. But Pierce obviously has an eye for bigger things, and most of the choices reflect that.

In fact, if anything Pierce heads a little too far for my tastes (but perhaps not yours) into non-traditional matters. That means there are stories about a round-the-world boat race, mountain climbing, unorganized boxing in Australia, and the lionfish. I had trouble getting through them, but that's probably more my fault than the story's. I did enjoy stories on a prisoner who fixed bicycles and a skier who loved to take risks when it came to locations. Add it up, though, and the number of articles on subjects that didn't draw me in was on the high side.

Therefore, I probably didn't enjoy this book quite as much as other editions of "The Best American Sports Writing" - which I have purchased faithfully since 1991, its inception. Still, those who enjoy mixing sports and "the real world" should not hesitate to pick up a copy of edition No. 19. It's always worth your time and money.

Four stars

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Wednesday, November 6, 2019

Review: The Incomplete Book of Running (2018)

By Peter Sagal

It's difficult not to be a fan of Peter Sagal.

He's best known as the host of "Wait, Wait ... Don't Tell Me" on National Public Radio. It's something of a comedy quiz show that mixes the quick wit of Sagal - he really makes the show work - with some smart "contestants." Sagal also has written a column for Runners' World magazine, with his stories about his exploits and experiences on the road. He's funny there, too. 

If you check off the listener box and the reading box when it comes to Sagal's work, you no doubt will at least want to glance at his book, "The Incomplete Book of Running." And yes, the title is a take-off of the best selling book from a few decades back (1977, to be specific), "The Complete Book of Running" by Jim Fixx.

Sagal has been running long distances on and off for years, and this is essentially a collection of his running stories and wisdom. The good news is that he knows his way around a joke, and displays that ability here throughout the book.

The most space in the book that is devoted to one subject covers a couple of Sagal's runs in the Boston Marathon. The first one came when he volunteered to guide a runner with visual issues on the 26.2-mile jaunt in Eastern Massachusetts. That would be quite a moving experience on its own. The catch is that the year he first did it was 2013. That was the race when bombs went off near the finish line. Sagal had crossed that line about five minutes before the explosions. He and his partner weren't hurt, but he had quite a story to tell.

A year later, Sagal was back - guiding another runner along the course while showing that a terrorist attack wasn't going to stop him from running. Good for him.

There are other stories here, of course - of other marathons and other races, training schedules, digestive problems, running as a "bandit," and working as a race volunteer. And that's just the running part. Sagal also writes about how his personal life affected his running. Earlier in the decade he went through what sounds like a rather messy divorce with three daughters caught in the crossfire. Sagal also has suffered from depression. This serves to remind us that if you want to trade lives with someone relatively famous, maybe you ought to do a little research about what you are getting yourself into. Happily, Sagal soon became involved in a new relationship, and medication apparently has helped with the depression (when he remembers to take it).

After reading this book - and it doesn't take long to go through its 185 small pages - the question becomes, "Is it worth reading?" That's tougher than you might think.

The biggest flaw is that this is rather disorganized. The writing is broken into chapters, but I can't say there is a unifying theme to most of them. We bounce around from topic to topic in no particular order. It's also a surprise that others are mentioned more often. Yes, it is his book, but relating more experiences from others might have made some points too and come off as a little less self-indulgent.

Based on the reviews, plenty of people felt inspired to put on some running shoes and open the door outside after reading this. If so, good for them. Sagal at least jokes his way through the book, as the material like that can get ponderous rather quickly.

"The Incomplete Book of Running" will put a smile on your face, perhaps when you need one when you are going up a hill after running several miles. It's easy to wish, though, that it was a little bit better.

Three stars

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