Thursday, March 14, 2024

Review: Present at the Creation (2017)

By Upton Bell with Ron Borges

The name of Upton Bell probably doesn't ring much of a, ahem, bell with many of the sports fans of today. Yes, he was in the sports media for a few decades in the Boston area, which probably is how he is best remembered.

However, that was his second go-around in the sports business. It was his first that might be of more interest, at least from an historical perspective. Bell's time in football is nicely chronicled in his book, "Present at the Creation." You can break that portion of his career into four different sections, which are covered here.

* He was the son of the former NFL Commissioner Bert Bell. 

* He was part of the front office of the Baltimore Colts during much of the 1960s.

* He was the general manager of the New England Patriots for a couple of years in the early 1970s. 

* He was the operating manager of the Charlotte franchise in the World Football League, an operation that lasted a mere two years in the 1970s. 

That is a rather intriguing resume, at least in terms of football history. It should be enough to draw some people in.

Bell's father probably ranks with one of the unsung heroes in the history of the NFL. There's a tendency to believe that Pete Rozelle deserves much of the credit for the growth in the league starting in the 1950s. However, Bell established a foundation for that growth in the 1950s. Granted, Upton's version is a little biased - as well it should be. But Bert seems like a man of integrity, and he took several steps that placed the sport of football on a national stage. Sadly, Bert essentially dropped dead during a game in 1959, just after he was making plans to try to step out of the Commissioner's job. Upton at least had an inside look at how pro football administration worked even before he graduated from college.

Upton eventually moved over to a job with the Baltimore Colts, showing an ability to find talent in the nation's colleges and thus having several drafts that helped propel the Colts to a contender's status throughout the 1960s. Baltimore had an interesting team in that era, led by a couple of strong personalities in quarterback John Unitas and head coach Don Shula ... who didn't really get along too well. While the Green Bay Packers are considered the dominant team of that era, it wouldn't have taken much to flip that script. The Colts lost key games to the Browns in the 1964 NFL championship, to the Packers in a 1965 playoff game (featuring a missed call on a field-goal attempt in the final minutes), and famously to the Jets in the 1969 Super Bowl. 

Indeed, the best part of the book might be the one devoted to that Jets' game. Bell said the Colts had figured out that New York not only had a better quarterback (Joe Namath vs. Earl Morrall) for that matchup, but also had better running backs and better wide receivers. In addition, age had caught up with Baltimore on the right side of the defense, and Jets' coach Weeb Eubank - the former head coach in Baltimore - knew it. Even so, the Colts probably would have won the game more than half the time; they just picked the wrong day to have a stinker. 

Still, the Colts' good run of success made Bell an attractive candidate for a promotion elsewhere, and he received it when he was named the general manager of the Boston/New England Patriots in 1971. As Bell writes, it seemed like a good idea at the time. The Patriots had been a mess for the previous several years, but Bell didn't realize how much of a mess it was. I'm fond of saying that sports teams lose for a reason, even if that reason isn't apparent from a distance. In this case, the team's Board of Directors was hopelessly fractured, and authority was scattered throughout the company. That rarely works. Bell lasted almost two years before the end mercifully came. The problems continued for a couple of more decades.

Bell received one more shot at pro football glory, taking an opportunity that became available in the World Football League. Stories of new leagues are always entertaining in a somewhat tragic sort of way. Bell helped move a franchise from New York to Charlotte, the opposite direction of what you might think was a path to success. However, the overall problems of the league overwhelmed Bell and the Hornets didn't need much of a push to be caught up in it. The WFL was dead before its second and final season ended in 1975, and so was Bell's football career.

"Football men" are notorious for having a limited focus on life, concentrating completely on the game rather than the world around it. One of the joys of this book is that Bell doesn't seem to suffer from that. He offers some good stories about what it was like to scout players in the South of the 1960s, where he had a first-hand look at the changes that were starting to take place. 

Bell probably could have fit a few more stories about his media days into the book, but what he offers is quite interesting. It already is closing in on 400 pages as is. Anyone who picks it up in the first place probably is looking for stories about football history, so this doesn't really date for what might be a somewhat limited audience. The pages go by quite quickly. 

In hindsight, it's easy to see why Bell had some success in the sports world. He's a smart, articulate man, and "Present at the Creation" reflects that. Those who fit into the proper demographic will find the book worth their time.

Four stars

Learn more about this book from (As an Amazon affiliate, I earn money from qualified purchases.)  

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