The Galloping Ghost: A Well Done Biography of Harold “Red” Grange

GrangeThis is a very well done biography of Harold “Red” Grange, a seminal figure in the history of professional football. He literally burst onto the scene has a halfback at the University of Illinois and is considered one of the greatest college football players of all time. The highlight of his college career was scoring four touchdowns in one quarter against Michigan in 1924, which made his name nearly a household word. By the time his college career was over his name recognition in the United States was, for that era, like a Michael Jordan. His college career spanned from 1923 to 1925 and in those days it was the sportswriters and newspapers that were preeminent in conveying the sights and sounds of sports, which was not without a bit of hyperbole. Sportswriters like Grantland Rice did much to make Grange into a larger than life figure, and another sportswriter dubbed him “The Galloping Ghost.”

Grange is likely in the Pro Football Hall of Fame as much for what he did to bring recognition to pro football as he is for what he did on the field. In the 1920’s college football was very popular and seen as an honorable and “amateur” endeavor. Pro football was seen as grimy, violent, and filled with ne’er do wells and ruffians. Many did not want Grange to sully his name and reputation by playing professional football. But with what might be the first real football agent, C.C. Pyle and Chicago Bears owner George Halas, Grange signed a hefty contract to play with the Chicago Bears in 1925.

Grange brought immediate legitimacy to pro football and was a major draw at the gate. One of the most ridiculous although lucrative activities was a 19 game barnstorming tour in 67 days. That is on average a game every 3.5 days! Playing such a violent and physically demanding game on a schedule like that borders on insanity but Halas and C.C. Pyle were thinking about the gate receipts not the health of the players.

After a contract dispute C.C. Pyle and Grange formed their own league and Grange’s team was the New York Yankees. That lasted all of one year. And unfortunately in 1927 Grange suffered a serious knee injury, and of course back then sports medicine was crude. From the accounts in the book it may have even been an ACL tear but after sitting out a year Grange went back to the Bears and played through the 1934 season. But he doesn’t appear to be the same player as he was before and often played only a few downs in games just to appease crowds who came to see him play.

Grange’s was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in its inaugural class in 1963.

After his career Grange did a variety of jobs including speaking engagements and sports broadcasting.

There are two very interesting aspects of this biography that the author does a good job of exploring.

One is the impact that Grange’s name recognition and image had on the reputation of pro football. It was very significant. The author reminds us just how famous Grange was in the 1920’s because of his football exploits. He was able to parlay that into a lot of endorsements as well. He was one of the most widely recognized sports figures of his era.

Another is C.C. Pyle. He clearly was a bit of a con man but played the role of Grange’s agent well and seems to have treated Grange fairly in their business dealings. It would appear that he is the first player agent in pro football but I am entirely sure of that. At the very least he was the first prominent one.

Overall this was a well done and very interesting biography of an iconic figure in professional football.

The Galloping Ghost: Red Grange, an American Football Legend

 

Review of Bill Parcells: A Football Life

parcellsThis “autobiography” of Bill Parcells is certainly fascinating, as any biography of such a character should be. Character is a good word to describe Parcells, as he is a character. Arrogant, sarcastic, demanding, profane, psychologist, restless and successful are just a few of the adjectives that describe one of the best professional football coaches of the modern era.

I have always been fascinated by people who make sports their life calling, especially one as demanding as being the head coach or executive of a National Football League team. Parcells has been one of the best with a unique and not always likable style.

This biography does a great job of providing the background of Parcells’s growing up and how being a self-described Jersey guy has colored his personality. His dedication to football and being a football coach is evident in his hopping from job to job at small schools in the college ranks, constantly moving his family and working for little pay hoping for bigger and better opportunities. The demands of his job and the constant moving eventually cost him his marriage, which unfortunately is not that uncommon for coaches. Parcells’s life has certainly been defined by football.

Bill Parcels really made his stamp on football immortality as the head coach of the New York Giants whom he lead from a bad team to two time Super Bowl champion grounded in the philosophy of a strong defense and solid running game. His time with the Giants was not always without its stresses. Parcells was furious when he found out General Manager George Young was essentially looking to get rid of him after his first season, one which saw the team go 3-12. Between the lines it appears Parcells never really got over that.

After eight seasons with the New York Giants and two Super Bowl wins, Parcells stepped down as the head coach. While it is never made clear why he left the Giants, only saying “it was time” he did have a heart condition and it is also clear that Tim Mara selling his share of his team to Robert Tish, ushering in a new ownership group, likely had something to do with this move as well. More than once in the book Parcells exclaims that a change in ownership is a good reason for a coach to leave the organization.

After heart bypass surgery and few years away from coaching, Bill Parcells became the head coach of the New England Patriots.
I am a diehard New England Patriots fan and many of my fellow compatriots do not like Parcells because he left the Patriots in a lurch before Super Bowl XXXI after the 1996 season. This was a pretty terrible thing for Parcells to do because he had been secretly working out a deal to leave for the hated New York Jets, which made him, in some ways, a lame duck head coach going into the franchise’s second ever Super Bowl. It was not quite as bad as the suspension and then reinstatement for the playoffs of New England head coach Chuck Fairbanks in the 1978 season where the team lost to the Houston Oilers in the divisional round lead by a coach on his way out the door and no respect among the players. But it was not an entirely classy move either.

But Bill Parcells did make one key decision that turned around the Patriots franchise and lead us to the Super Bowl. Had he made a different decision, who knows what the future would have held for the franchise. In the 1993 draft there were two quarterbacks that were going to go number one and number two: Drew Bledsoe of Washington State and Rick Mirer of Notre Dame. Parcells chose Bledsoe who went on to become a solid starter and part of the resurgence of a moribund franchise. Rick Mirer, while winning Rookie of the Year honors with the Seattle Seahawks, quickly became a washed up bust. Parcells made the right move. And let’s not forget that Parcells took a terrible team and through the draft, free agent signings, and his leadership turned it into a playoff contender.

And then there is the ownership situation. Robert Kraft bought the New England Patriots in 1994 and Parcells was part of the previous regime. It appears that Parcells did not give Kraft the respect he deserved as owner, as mostly what Parcells wanted from ownership would appear to be to just stay out of his way. Kraft, on the other hand, was probably a bit too meddlesome in football operations, which is highlighted by the Patriots selecting Ohio State wider receiver Terry Glenn in the first round of the 1996 draft, against the wishes of Parcells. This is probably the beginning of the end of Parcells’s stay in New England.

Bill Parcells went on to turnaround the Jets organization and make them into a contender and fostering a heated rivalry with the New England Patriots who got several New York Jets’ draft choices because of the way Parcells left the Patriots. After leaving coaching and being an executive with the Jets, Parcells again stepped down.

But like The Terminator, he’d be back, surprisingly with one of the most meddlesome owners in the league, Jerry Jones. He then turned around another ailing franchise, although not with quite the dramatic impact he had in his previous stints. But he did put the Cowboys on the right track after a four year tenure there.

Parcells’s final act was as the head of football operations for the Miami Dolphins where he tried to piece back the organization through hiring the right coaches and the draft. He didn’t have quite the success with the Dolphin’s as he did at other stops but they were certainly in a better place when he left than when he came. The wheels came off shortly thereafter.

Next I want to turn to a few of the major themes of the book that interest me the most.

Does Bill Parcells deserve to be in the National Football League Hall of Fame?

There were several detractors to Parcells Hall of Fame candidacy. The reasons included his less than spectacular overall record of 172-130-1. His job hopping didn’t help his candidacy as some wanted to make sure if elected he didn’t go back into coaching and possibly harm is legacy. He didn’t stay with any one team long enough, except maybe the Giants, to truly establish a dominant legacy with any one team. The most ridiculous argument is that Bill Belichick was with him during his most successful years.

Bill Parcells without a doubt belongs in the Hall of Fame. You can’t even think about the history of the NFL from 1983 to today without Bill Parcells’s being a major part of the story. He won two Super Bowls. And he turned around the fates of four franchises.

He also left an extensive coaching tree include Belichick, Tom Coughlin, and Sean Payton, all Super Bowl winners and many others who have been coaches in the professional and college ranks.

Relationship with Bill Belichick

Bill Belichick was the contractual heir to the New York Jets head coaching job when Bill Parcells stepped down in 1999. But in one of the most bizarre resignation speeches ever, Belichick jilted Parcells and the Jets to take the head coaching job with, of all teams, the New England Patriots. This lead to falling out over what heretofore had seemed to be an extremely strong bond as Parcells brought Belichick along with him everywhere he went and they had great success together. Parcells take on it was “a deal is a deal.”

Here I think Parcells is being a bit disingenuous and inconsistent. First, the way he left New England was a bit classes and he two broke his contractual obligations which lead to a brokering of a deal giving New England several of the Jets draft choices. Second, Parcells himself said that a change in ownership is a good reason for a head coach to be concerned and leave a job and the Jets had just been sold to a new owner.
I suspect, although this has never been stated, that Belichick also wanted to be his own man and since Parcells was set to be head of football operations and still his boss, and he didn’t want Big Bill constantly looking over his shoulder at his coaching decisions and being meddlesome.
I think Parcells feelings were just hurt. It was good to see that they have mended their fences since then.

Bill Parcells and Robert Kraft

Another difficult relationship that has since seemed to be repaired is the bad relationship Kraft had with Parcells when he took over the ownership of the New England Patriots. Parcells’s famous line “if they want you to cook the dinner, they ought to let you buy some of the groceries” is a classic. Of course a coach wants a strong say over the draft and other roster acquisitions and Kraft not handing more of the personnel responsibilities over to Parcells was a mistake. Parcells, on the other hand, did not communicate well with Kraft and presumably left in him in the dark and even had intermediaries speaking on his behalf. This is not a healthy way to run a football team. Both made mistakes. This is another relationship I am happy to see, if not fully patched up, at least each acknowledging mistakes were made and both regretting how the parting of Parcells from the team came about.

Conclusion

The one quibble I have with this book is the prose is not always as clear as it could be and sometimes I had to read something twice because of it. It was also written in the third person, which was a bit odd, but I eventually got used to it. Parcells voice is loud and clear in the book, nevertheless.

Overall I would heartily recommend the book to any NFL fan as it tells the “Football Life” of one of the most interesting and important coaches in the history of the game.

Parcells: A Football Life

 

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

Bittersweet: The Life of Walter Payton

Sweetness: The Enigmatic Life of Walter Payton by Jeff Pearlman
Gotham Books, 2011
ISBN-10: 159240653X

Jeff Pearlman has written a real biography of Walter Payton.  This is not some glam filled, highlight reel of the best of Walter Payton.  It’s a real biography that tells about the real bitter sweet life of Walter Payton.

Payton grew up poor in a racially segregated Colombia, Mississippi.  While Payton never experienced firsthand violence growing up, it was a segregated community with all the racial prejudice against blacks that implies.  African Americans were treated as inferior and lived in a specific section of town.  His father was a hard worker and decent man but an alcoholic who didn’t seem to have a great deal of influence in Payton’s life.  But his mother was a hard worker who was the family disciplinarian and real glue that held them together.  This segregated community and overt racism of his childhood is probably what gave Payton a chip on his shoulder for the rest of his life, out to prove that he was inferior to nobody.

As schools were integrated and Payton went on to play high school football, he of course became the darling of the town, as great athletes often are, and was one of the most sought after football prospects.  He ended up, through some shenanigans by the coach, heading to Jackson State in Mississippi near his hometown for his college football career.

There he had a career that landed him as the fourth overall pick in the 1975 National Football League draft by the Chicago Bears, where he had a Hall of Fame career, setting the then NFL record for rushing yards (16,726 yards).  He won a Super Bowl ring when the Chicago Bears won Super XX over the New England Patriots.

This isn’t a biography, however, only about Payton’s nearly unmatched professional football career.  It’s about the man who lived it.  And there we find the darker side of Walter Payton.

Walter lived a happy but sheltered childhood and his sheltered life at Jackson State probably did not prepare him to live in the real world, especially the one outside of football.  There he met his future wife Connie who eventually moved to Chicago with him.

What was Payton’s real personality like?  Fun loving; happy go lucky, and a prankster.  Kind hearted to strangers, children, and those who were in need.  He was quite a compassionate human being.  But he was also childish, jealous, petulant, and someone who always wanted to have things his way.

What do we find out about Walter Payton in this biography?

First, while he was great teammate and superb player he was also a bit petulant when things didn’t go his way.  He wanted the ball and to be the superstar, but also had a quiet way of going about it.  In one of the more telling moments, he hid in a broom closet after the Bears won Super Bowl XX because he didn’t score a touchdown.  What should have been one of the happiest moments in his life turned out to be one of the most bittersweet as he cried in anger and refused to come out to talk to the press after the Super Bowl win, without some cajoling.  Coach Mike Ditka says it is one of his biggest regrets that he didn’t make sure Walter got the ball for a score in the blowout win.

Second, during his playing career Payton abused the painkiller Darvon, often popping them like candy.  He continued to abuse painkillers after his playing career, possibly as self-medication for depression.  Darvon is very hard on the liver and while Pearlman does not draw a direct line to his drug abuse and the live disease that ultimately killed him, he certainly implies it.

Third, Walter Payton struggled badly with loneliness and being out of the spotlight once his playing days were over.  He reportedly contemplated suicide, maybe on more than one occasion, and suffered from depression.

Fourth, Payton was a philanderer and liked women.  He clearly had fell out of love with his wife Connie and didn’t really live with her for most of his post-football life.  In fact, he fathered a child with another woman and had another long-term relationship with a flight attendant.

This lead to another bittersweet moment in Walter Payton’s life.  Against his wishes his girlfriend showed up at his Hall of Fame induction ceremony, unbeknownst to his estranged wife Connie.  In public, Payton, and probably more so Connie, put on the façade of the happy couple.  Payton was angry that his girlfriend showed up and she was literally just a few rows back from his wife and children during his induction speech.

So once again, what should have been one of the happiest moments in Walter Payton’s life instead turned into a nerve wracking, bittersweet experience.

A fifth aspect of Walter Payton that is apparent, even if Pearlman doesn’t say this directly, is he was probably a manic depressive.  If the behaviors exhibited in the biography are accurate, one moment he is manic and happy go lucky, being out public, and trying to make a living on his up and down again business interests.  And at other times he is darkly depressed, not wanting to be out in public, and even contemplating suicide.

Pearlman also points out all of Walter Payton’s good traits.  Even though he trusted very few people, he cared about people and went out of his way to make people around him feel good and he was very charitable to those in need.  He was also a great teammate who led by example on the field and was real locker room leader, even when the Bears had dreadfully inadequate talent around him.  The persona that surrounded Payton as a caring, hardworking, class act was a real part of Walter Payton too.

Jeff Pearlman has been unfairly castigated by many of Walter Payton friends, family, and fans for this biography because he dares tell the real story of Walter Payton.  Mike Ditka said he wanted to spit on him and has no respect for him.  Others claim the biography is not truthful and essentially fiction.  And Connie Payton and his children also claim the biography is mostly untrue.

I think the veracity of this book is hard to question for one very simple reason.  Nearly all of Pearlman’s sources are identified by name.  Only two sources are not – his longtime girlfriend who showed up at his Hall of Fame induction and the woman with whom he has a child (which he never acknowledged).  Otherwise, former agents, players, long-time personal assistant, family members, coaches, and other acquaintances who Pearlman interviewed are all there, speaking through the author.  I have yet to see any of these people come out and refute what they said to Pearlman.  I know that the truth might be painful for many, but Pearlman has done a service to the memory of Walter Payton.

Sweetness: The Enigmatic Life of Walter Payton

Prime Crime: Deion Sanders Does Not Belong in the Hall of Fame

When the Hall of Fame finalists were announced recently it struck me that Marshall Faulk and Deion Sanders were the two headliners of the announcement.  There was no mention of Curtis Martin in the headlines, the great running back for the New England Patriots and New York Jets, who should be a first ballot Hall of Famer.

Then I pondered, does Deion Sanders really belong in the Hall of Fame?  My answer is no.

Yes, I know that Deion is on the all time greats lists and will no doubt be a first ballot Hall of Fame inductee.  That doesn’t mean he actually deserves all these accolades.  Sanders is known as much for his oversized ego and big mouth as he is for his play on the field.  Curtis Martin, on the other hand, is a quiet, unassuming player whose greatness spoke for itself on the field.

And no doubt Deion Sanders is one of the best “cover corners” in the league history.  Usually I do not use that term derisively but in this case I am.  Sanders rarely saw a tackle he cared to make.  Now he is not like Asante Samuel who I have seen actually run away from running backs breaking down the field.  Sanders, at least, put on a good act. 

Deion Sanders was a one dimensional cornerback who was terrible at run support (and was not nearly as great in covering receivers as people seem to think he is).  I think in all the years I have watched Sanders play, he made one decent tackle, and that was against a player about his own size. 

Deion Sanders was nowhere near as great, as true lockdown corners would also come up and make big hits or tackles on running plays.  Rod Woodson and Champ Bailey are as good, if not better than, Deion Sanders at covering receivers.  Yet, they will also come up and lay the wood on running backs to support their teammates on defense.  Even a small cornerback like Darrell Green was an outstanding tackler and came up to make big plays on running backs much larger than he was. 

A few others I will name that are in the Hall of Fame and in the same caliber as Woodson and Bailey include Michael Haynes (New England Patriots and Oakland Raiders), Ronnie Lott (San Francisco 49ers) and Ken Houston (Houston Oilers and Washington Redskins).  I would include Mel Blount of the Pittsburgh Steelers but he was more of an intimidator in the true bump and run coverages before the rule changes in 1978.  And these are just the players I actually saw play.

Deion Sanders doesn’t come close to being as great as these cornerbacks. His name should not even be mentioned in the same breath.

Yes, I know he was one of the most instinctual punt returners of all time, but he didn’t do that consistently enough for me to say he should be in the Hall of Fame.

And when does get inducted, which unfortunately is a foregone conclusion, they should immediately make him a B grade inductee so as not to tarnish the names of those who truly belong.

A Look Back at How Vince Lombardi Launched a Dynasty

That Great First Season: How Vince Lombardi Took the Worst Team in the NFL and Set it on the Path to Glory by John Eisenberg
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 2009
ISBN 13: 978-0-618-90499-0

Much as been written about Vince Lombardi and the Green Bay Packers dynasty of the 1960’s, but John Eisenberg’s book is the first to provide details about Vince Lombardi’s first season with the Green Bay Packers.

When Lombardi took over as head coach Green Bay was a losing team with a culture of losing, and even quitting, in games.  He was starting at ground zero with a group of players who were used to and even accepted losing.  Once a team establishes a culture of losing it is extremely difficult to break it out of that cycle.  Losing becomes a habit and it becomes acceptable.

But it was not acceptable to Vince Lombardi.  After taking over the head coaching duties prior to the 1959 season Lombardi wondered what he had gotten into after watching game film of this woeful team.

Through punishing practices and motivational tactics more akin to an Army drill sergeant than a professional football coach, Lombardi made it clear to his players that losing was not acceptable and he was gong to work them out of it, literally.  His practices were brutal affairs and his drive for perfection a tangible force.

While that first season ended with a mediocre 7-5 record, Lombardi accomplished one amazing feat.  The Green Bay Packers were no longer losers and quitters.  Instead Lombardi established the mental and physical groundwork for the dynasty yet to come.

The most amazing thing about Lombardi’s feat is he turned the team around with essentially the same players who were so woeful before.  Normally a team breaking out of losing streak essentially has to clean house and build from scratch.  Not Lombardi.  He worked, cajoled, intimidated, and rebuilt this team from the inside out turning a can’t do mentality into a can do winning one.  And that is why Lombardi is praised as possibly being one of the greatest coaches of all time in any sport.

Lombardi also made some key decisions that propelled the team forward.  He finally settled on future Hall of Fame quarterback Bart Starr as his starter for the future.  He created an offensive attack that utilized the unique talents of Paul Hornung instead of trying to turn him into a power running back, letting Jim Taylor handle those duties.  And he helped players like offensive linemen Jerry Kramer, Forrest Gregg, and Fuzzy Thurston advance from good to great.  And by practicing the bread and butter plays, especially the sweep, until it was second nature, he made the game more simple for his offensive players, and difficult to stop for opponents.

This is a well written book where you get the inside story of that first year from many of the players of that era, like Bart Starr, Paul Hornung, and Jerry Kramer.  Fans of professional football should enjoy this look back at how Vince Lombardi launched a dynasty.


That First Season: How Vince Lombardi Took the Worst Team in the NFL and Set It on the Path to Glory