Kate Buford’s Superb Biography of Jim Thorpe

Jim Thorpe

Native American Son: The Life and Sporting Legend of Jim Thorpe by Kate Buford
Knopf 2010

ISBN-10: 0375413243
496 pages

Kate Buford has written what is likely to definitive biography of Jim Thorpe. Jim Thorpe is considered by many to be the greatest athlete of the 20th century. Thorpe was a part of the Sac and Fox tribe and grew up on a reservation in Oklahoma with a tough, alcoholic father. After running away from a number of boarding schools in his youth his father finally sent him to the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. The boarding school, dedicated to the education and acculturation of Indian youth into white society, is where Thorpe came under the tutelage of Glen Scobey “Pop” Warner who helped coach and guide him in track and football. Thorpe’s biggest claim to fame was the infamous gold medals he won in the pentathlon and decathlon in the 1912 Olympics, thereafter being proclaimed the greatest athlete in the world. He was also a football star for the Carlisle Indian Industrial School, helping the team beat such notable gridiron institutions such as Harvard, Penn, and Army (West Point).

Three are really four phases to Thorpe’s life. The first being his upbringing on an Indian reservation and mostly left to run free and find his own fun and games. He was a very active outdoorsman which is a partial explanation for this developing into a phenomenal athlete. While unconventional, constantly running, jumping, hunting, and playing games certainly kept him active as a youth.

The second phase was his stint at the Carlisle Indian Industrial School. Once his talents were shaped at Carlyle he became not only a world class athlete, but THE world class athlete.

The third phase was his time as a professional athlete. After leaving Carlisle, Thorpe played both professional baseball and football, but football is where he really made his name and become one of the all-time greats in that sport. In fact, he was part of the founding class of athletes who established football as a professional sport and was among the first class enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. At the time professional football was frowned upon by many but it was a way that Thorpe could continue this athletic career and really the only skill he had to make money.

The fourth phase of his life was his post-athletic career, which for the most part could be called vagabond. He suffered through failed marriages, mostly his own fault, was most estranged from his children, suffered from alcoholism, and was often financial broke. He did manage to parlay his name into many a career as a bit actor in Hollywood playing the role of an Indian in Westerns, and eventually stood up for the rights of Indians to get jobs sometimes going to others (as long as they could pass for Native American) and equal pay with white actors.

One could say that he struggled with is post-Carlisle life because he became used to the structure and loose discipline Carlisle afforded him, and as a pampered athlete mostly had everything taken care of for him. He never really learned true applicable skills there outside athletics, or even personal skills such as money management. Thus his late adult life was often a struggle.

Finally there is the bizarre story of how Thorpe came to be buried in Thorpe, Pennsylvania with his ex-wife basically selling his remains to the town which renamed itself after him. His family is currently in court trying to have his remains returned for burial in Oklahoma. But you can’t beat having a town named after you and a beautiful memorial. Maybe he should just be allowed to stay there.

This is a superb biography, and very fascinating look at one of the greatest athletes of all time.

Native American Son: The Life and Sporting Legend of Jim Thorpe

Review of Nate Jackson’s Slow Getting Up

9780062108029_custom-19693480dbdea4cd97ec84a6b79740bdae05ca47-s6-c30Slow Getting Up: A Story of NFL Survival from the Bottom of the Pile by Nate Jackson
Harper (2013)
ISBN-10: 0062108026
ISBN-13: 978-0062108029
256 pages

I have very mixed reactions to this book about the life of a football player on the margins.  Let me start off with what I liked about it.

Nate Jackson details his life as a marginal player in the NFL.  Basically he hung on through the practice squad and playing on special teams, with a few stints on the field itself.  If there is a theme to the book it’s twofold.

One is the prevalence of pain and injury in the NFL and how that makes it even more difficult to hang on when you’re always on the bubble of being cut or released. Jackson seemed to be somewhat injury prone with bad shoulders and later a balky hamstring, not to mention a knee injury he suffered.

The second theme is how the players love football, or at least in this case maybe it is a love-hate relationship with football as that is certainly how the account of this career comes off.  I could never tell really whether Jackson hated football or loved it.  But he must have loved it or at least needed it like a drug to go through all he did to hang on to his football career.

And Jackson has seen it all, from the practice squad, to great players on the Denver Broncos, to NFL Europe, and a last, final hurrah in the United Football League, a very, very small league for struggling want to be players and those, like Jackson, hanging on by their bootstraps for one more chance at an NFL career.  (I wonder if the same can be said about the coaches as Jim Fassel coached in the UFL).

The book is told from the point of view of the player and what life in the NFL means, which is a lot of pain, little time with family or friends, and near total devotion to one’s craft and to keeping the body sound.  And for some, the few minutes of glory of being on the field and making a big hit on special teams or a great catch is worth it.

Jackson mostly stayed away from the Xs and Os of the game and personalities. The most we heard about personalities was his great respect for Bronco’s receiver Rod Smith, and how he liked Jake Plummer and Mike Shanahan (the later who gave him a chance at the behest of none other than Bill Walsh).

This was a very interesting account of the daily life of a player on an off the field and what it means to dedicate yourself to the NFL, especially for a player on the margins.

What I didn’t like about the book, and it grated on my nerves throughout, is the smart-alecky writing style.  It’s as if every anecdote and chapter is wrapped in this veil of smarmy humor that comes across, to this reader, and childish and not funny, as I am sure it was intended.  Not that a book like this couldn’t use some of this type of levity, but the entire book is written in that vein.  That was a huge turnoff.

I also really never could tell whether Jackson loved the NFL or hated the NFL or both.  I suspect both given the struggle with injuries and that he mostly grouses about life in the NFL.  But then as noted, he did hang on for as long as he could through the injuries, NFL Europe, and the UFL.  Why put yourself through that if you didn’t love it on some level?  And he never talks about whether he truly cared about winning or losing games.

And I would have liked to read more gossipy scoops on the players he played with like Plummer and Cutler and Brandon Marshall or things going on in the NFL generally.

Finally, even though told from the view of the “common player” it really is about Nate Jackson, not the NFL and really not the other players.

And for these reasons, at the end of the day, I wouldn’t recommend it.

Slow Getting Up: A Story of NFL Survival from the Bottom of the Pile

The Debate is Over: Tom Brady is the Greatest Quarterback in NFL History

Book Cover: Tom Brady vs. The NFL

The Case for Football’s Greatest Quarterback: Tom Brady vs. The NFL by Sean Glennon
Triumph Books, 2012
ISBN-13: 978-1-60078-636-5 (pbk.)
256 pages

Sean Glennon has written a well-organized, cogent argument why Tom Brady is the best quarterback in NFL History.  He does this by comparing the statistics, both regular season and post-season, as well as the long term success of other candidates’ respective teams versus Tom Brady.  He also uses more subjective measures such as talent around the quarterback and championship wins.  He uses all of this data and more to show that Tom Brady stacks up as the best ever.

The chapters a broken down comparing Tom Brady to other great quarterbacks, interspersed with breakdowns of each of Brady’s seasons and his team’s accomplishments.

What this book doesn’t do is trash the achievements of other quarterbacks.  All the quarterbacks presented in this book are rightfully considered the greatest that ever played the game.  You don’t hear the author trashing the achievements of Peyton Manning, for example.  In fact, the author lauds the achievements of the other great quarterbacks to which he compares Brady.

Glennon does such a great job of making his arguments I won’t rehash them here, but I will make a few points on a couple of items in the book.

Peyton Manning

Tom Brady vs. Payton Manning is the first chapter of the book that directly compares Brady to another great quarterback and Tom Brady vs. Joe Montana is the last one.  That was brilliant placement of those two chapters as Manning would be the current day quarterback to most likely get some strong arguments in his favor, and Joe Montana, of course, many incorrectly consider the best ever.

The Peyton Manning chapter is very similar to some of the arguments I have made to why Tom Brady really is a better quarterback than Manning and I’ll just throw in a few comments here to say that I agree.  First, championships do and should matter in this evaluation.  It’s not the only thing, but it is one thing that should be looked at.  At least the player’s and his team’s accomplishments in post-season play should be strongly considered.  And despite all the great talent the Colts have had, for whatever reason, they really slump in the playoffs and Manning doesn’t always perform that well when he gets there.

Second, Manning’s entire career has been spent with superior offensive talent.  Manning has had the luxury of a strong running game (Marshall Faulk and Edgerrin James) most of his career, and a Hall of Fame bound receiver in Marvin Harrison and an elite receiver in Reggie  Wayne.

Brady, on the other hand, has taken average receivers and offensive talent and led them to three Super Bowls.  But for a dropped pass that would have undoubtedly been a game winning touchdown by the woebegone Reche Caldwell, Brady would have lead a group of below average receivers to a Super Bowl.

And what happens when Brady gets an elite receiving corps?  19-0, 50 touchdown passes and a bevy of other offensive records.  Granted the Patriots lost in the Super Bowl that year, but the achievement is one that is still phenomenal. This was followed by another Super Bowl appearance after the 2011 season.

Glennon does a nice job of making these points, and more.

Joe Montana

I think the chapter on Joe Montana is the one that really brings to light how Brady is better than Joe Montana.  Yes, the one thing Montana has over Brady is four Super Bowl wins, and 4-0 at that, while Brady is 3-2.  But I have never heard anyone argue that Terry Bradshaw is the equal of Joe Montana and he is 4-0 in Super Bowls too.

But when one looks over the long-term success of Montana’s teams and many of the statistics, Montana clearly doesn’t stack up to Brady.  And Montana had what some consider the best receiver ever to play the game in Jerry Rice most of his career, a strong running game, and a stout defense that usually ranked at the top of the league.  Being one of the most talent laden teams of that era the 49’ers probably should have made it to more than four Super Bowls, but they didn’t.

Now in the current salary cap era, no offense to a lot of Brady’s former teammates, the Patriots have never assembled great offensive talent around Brady for much of his tenure at quarterback.  When they have the results speak for themselves (now they just need to fix the defense).

Ben Roethlisberger

Big Ben is not given his own chapter but he is mentioned with other current elite quarterbacks. I hear a lot of people try to make the claim that Roethlisberger is a Hall of Fame quarterback. He probably is based just on his team having won two Super Bowls but they have also failed to make the playoffs frequently as well. And Roethlisberger played poorly in two of the three Super Bowl appearances (a win against the Seahawks and a loss against Green Bay).

The Steelers won Super Bowl XL despite Roethlisberger’s poor play.  He has the distinction of being the quarterback on a winning Super Bowl team with the worst passer rating, an abysmal 22.6.  He threw two interceptions, one on a terrible pass that set up the Seahawks for an easy touchdown.  I suspect the poor play of Big Ben is the reason the Steelers finally went to a trick play and had former college quarterback Antwaan Randle-El throw a touchdown pass to Hines Ward.

I’m not pointing this out to denigrate the accomplishments of Big Ben, but he is no Tom Brady.

Conclusion

Now I will quote from the last words of the book.  This is not a spoiler because you already know the book’s conclusion:

“And the reality is the greatest quarterback in NFL history is not Peyton Manning, not Bart Starr, not John Elway nor Dan Marino.  It’s not Sammy Baugh or Otto Graham.  And no, it’s not even Joe Montana.”

When you sit down and honestly and fairly review and compare the careers of the best who ever played, you can only reach one conclusion: The greatest quarterback in the history of the NFL is Tom Brady.  Pure and simple.”

Tom Brady vs. the NFL: The Case for Football’s Greatest Quarterback

Ten-Gallon War: Dallas Cowboys v Dallas Texans

Ten-Gallon War: The NFL’s Cowboys, the AFL’s Texans, and the Feud for Dallas’s Pro Football Future by John Eisenberg
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012
ISBN-13: 978-0547435503

When I first picked up this monograph on the “war” between the NFL expansion team Dallas Cowboys and the upstart AFL Dallas Texans I did not have high expectations.  After all, what more could really be said about the history of the maverick AFL and its eventual merger with the longer tenured NFL?

Well, I dare say I was wrong because Eisenberg has written a very interesting account of how Lamar Hunt, the owner of the Dallas Texans and founder of the AFL, and Clint Murchison, another oil magnate who finally received a chance to own and expansion team because of the AFL, waged a battle within the city for football supremacy.

First off let’s be clear that the Dallas Cowboys, despite being in the NFL, did have some clear advantages being in the older league, but these advantages were evened out because it was an expansion team, and as such, a losing team.  And fans don’t want to root for losing teams.  The Texans, on the other hand, had creative owner in Lamar Hunt but also a roster that included some local stars that made it an attraction as well.  But the Texans did not have the advantage of having well known NFL teams to play home games against.  So all things being equal, the competition was pretty even.

This book recounts how both teams tried to recruit local talent and be the team to draw the most fans to games.  Lamar Hunt here was a bit of genius and while a nice fellow, manipulative.  He made sure he got a stadium lease that disadvantaged the Cowboys in their first year, gave away tickets to make it appear the gate receipts were a lot larger than they really were, and the battle to sign college players was comical.  Hunt also staged halftime shows to try to draw fans in and make professional football both sport and spectacle.

And for the most part Hunt succeeded.  And despite their sometimes bitter competition, Hunt and Murchinson maintained a respect for one another.  For example, Lamar Hunt jumped out of a birthday cake at Murchinson’s birthday bash.

All the nitty-gritty details of the throw down between these two teams is here, and told in very lucid prose.

So why did Hunt and the Texans ultimately leave?  Part of it was simply he got a deal too good to refuse from Kansas City and he started to realize it would be hard for two professional football teams to be successful in Dallas.  Another reason too was likely he had more than his own team to worry about; he had the survival of an entire league on his mind.  And thus the Dallas Texans became the Kansas City Chiefs.

If you like football history and are interested in the American Football League and Lamar Hunt, this is a great place to start.  Because here you have the rivalry between the two leagues played on mostly even terms in one city.  I highly recommend it.

Ten-Gallon War: The NFL’s Cowboys, the AFL’s Texans, and the Feud for Dallas’s Pro Football Future

The Modern Day Art Donovan, Tony Siragusa

Goose: The Outrageous Life and Times of a Football Guy by Tony Siragusa with Don Yaeger
Crown Archetype, 2012
ISBN:978-0-307-95598-2

If you have ever seen Tony Siragusa on television you’ll have a very good idea of what this book is going to be like.  Siragusa is absolutely hilarious in how he relates his life and antics in the National Football League.  Ironically much of his career was spent with the Indianapolis Colts (formerly Baltimore Colts) and the Baltimore Ravens, a team and city that embraced the last great comedic defensive tackle Art Donovan who played for the Colts in the 1950’s and had a good career in media afterwards because of his wit and humor.  Thus I have dubbed Tony Siragusa the modern day Art Donovan.

Siragusa relates his life growing up in an Italian New Jersey town through his college football career and then ultimately his professional career and beyond.  This is not a book about the X’s and O’s of football.  It’s about a large guy leading a large life.

Beyond just the absolutely hilarious stories Goose tells what is refreshing about this book is he pulls no punches.  You know who he does and does not like, and those he does not like get it with both barrels.

One of the funnier stories is Goose relating a college recruiting trip to the University of West Virginia:

“My next visit was to West Virginia. That was a little wacky. I went to the place, and I was waiting in this room when two white guys with Mohawks and flannel shirts showed up.

What the hell is this? Did I just land in a remake of Deliverance?

We went around the campus and the whole thing was a little weird. The campus seemed like it was literally surrounded by a trailer park.”

Hey, Tony Siragusa said it not me.

And the way he describes the incompetent head coach Ron Meyer and the “different kind of guy” Eric Dickerson when they were all Indianapolis Colts together is gut busting hilarious.  Goose clearly has no respect for Meyer, essentially discussing what a buffoon he was in words not suitable to place in this review.  And the self-absorbed drama king Eric Dickerson doesn’t get off too lightly either.

After “the whole Slick Meyer disaster was over” the Colts hired Ted Marchibroda who was attempting to turn a losing team around and had some modest success.  Goose clearly is a big fan of Marchibroda and has a lot of respect for him as a coach.

The funniest story during this era is when one of Goose’s friends from the team had a, shall we say, liaison with a one legged woman.  The woman took off her prosthetic limb and left it in the next room where the player had a Pit Bull puppy.  Well, next morning the dog had chewed up the prosthetic limb so the player had to go get her another one.  He asked Goose to cover for him with the coach so he wouldn’t be fined for missing meetings.

Once Marchibroda retired they brought in Lindy Infante as head coach and Goose clearly loathes this man, so much so that it ultimately saw him out of Indianapolis and to the Baltimore Ravens.

Goose of course won a Super Bowl of with Baltimore after the 2000 season and was one of the big guys up front doing the dirty work to keep the young and super talented Ray Lewis and his linebacker mates clean of blocks so they wreak havoc on the offense.  Clearly Goose enjoyed his time with the Ravens.

Goose also talks about his post-football endeavors, which are often equally as funny as his exploits in football.  And finally, there are some very cleaver asides told from people who knew Goose best like his mother, his best friend, and Ted Marchibroda.  You get a glimpse of what a likable goofball this guy is.

So if you want a very funny romp through the life of a gregarious football player, pick this one up.  You won’t be disappointed.

Goose: The Outrageous Life and Times of a Football Guy