It’s Good to be Gronk!

 

51h0KlGT6KL__SX329_BO1,204,203,200_This book is an intellectual tour de force.  Just kidding.  It is kind of entertaining though.

As most football fans know Rob Gronkowski is the fun loving tight end for the New England Patriots who gets a lot of hype for being a great football player and being a legendary partier.  Here he tells a little bit about himself and his now infamous family of Gronks.

The first part of the book is about growing up with three older brothers (one younger) and the roughhousing and fighting that toughened up Rob.  It’s pretty crazy how rough they were with each other.  I feel sorry for their mom.  Gronk also goes into detail how his dad hooked them on working out and getting stronger turning the four boys into elite athletes and fierce competitors.

The book, of course, talks a lot about partying and beer drinking.  Gronk has his own party bus, which has gotten a lot of attention in the press.  Sounds like a fun bus to be on.  He does make it clear he does not party during football season.

We also learn a bit about what a fierce competitor and task master on the football field that Tom Brady can be.  Gronk credits Brady for working on him to be become the best tight end in pro football.

The one concerning aspect of the book is the number of injuries Gronk has suffered. He hurt his back lifting weights in college and has had a couple of surgeries as a result. He broke his forearm in the pros and had to have multiple surgeries after he re-broke it and got infected.  Then he has an ACL injury. I wonder how keeps playing with all these injuries.

Overall, I personally enjoyed the book since I am a New England Patriots fan.  For others, you mileage may vary.

It’s Good to Be Gronk

The Fantasies of Ray Lewis

51khrr48bKL__SX329_BO1,204,203,200_Arrogant.  Narcissistic.  Self-serving.  Fantastical.

Those are the first adjectives that come to mind after reading this autobiography of Ray Lewis.

Before launching into a fuller review of this autobiography let me say that in my football viewing lifetime Ray Lewis is one of the three best linebackers I’ve ever seen behind only Lawrence Taylor and Mike Singletary.  He is one of the rare defensive players who could literally take over a game single-handedly and was the driving force behind one of the best defensive teams of all time, the 2000 Baltimore Ravens.  He is the two-time winner of the NFL Defensive Player of the Year award, and the rare defensive player being named the Super Bowl MVP in Super Bowl XXXV.  He will certainly be a first ballot NFL Hall of Famer when he is eligible.

The first part of the book details how Ray Lewis grew up very poor with numerous siblings from different fathers.  One really unusual story is how Ray Lewis got his name.  Lewis was not the last name of his father but another man who agreed to let his mother use his name on his birth certificate as the father.  And after that is appears his mother went from one bad man to another.  Lewis details how he was abused by some of these men as a child and how he lived in the shadow of his real father who was a local sports star gone bad.  The lack of a father figure and abuse from other men as a kid certainly appears to have had a negative impact on Lewis.

Lewis provides an account of his life growing up poor and often abused with sports being his outlet which kept him on a relatively even path to college and becoming a star at the University of Miami in its football heydays.  It’s interesting that he spends relatively few pages detailing his time at Miami but a few interesting items emerge.  First his overweening arrogance and disrespect for Coach Butch Davis comes roaring through. Given his attitude that the team was “his” I am a little surprised that he eventually showed the kind of leadership he did in the NFL.

The other very interesting story I learned is the origins of his decade long rivalry with Eddie George which had its beginnings in an almost violent confrontation they had a party while in college and George was at Ohio State.  I always wondered where their animosity in the pros came from.

Once Lewis gets to the NFL is where things start really getting bizarre. Let’s jump right to the infamous night in Atlanta where two men were knifed to death in an incident Ray Lewis was involved in.  The entire chapter devoted to this is mostly an attempt to whitewash the entire affair and not everything that Lewis said necessarily adds up to what was reported in the court.

Lewis’s story is he was partying with an entourage dressed in a white suit.  He maintains that he didn’t even know everybody rolling with this party as there were several hangers on he didn’t know.  Leaving the club they were confronted by some hoodlums who threatened Lewis with violence and hit his friend over the head with a bottle.  Thus, the profusely bleeding head wound that bloodied Lewis’s white suit.  Lewis claims he was trying to protect people in his car as they sped off to gunshots being fired.  Later he found out two people were stabbed to death in the altercation and eventually was questioned by police.

His account of the event makes some sense, but really doesn’t answer a key question:  What happened to the bloody white suit the police were looking for?  Well, we still don’t know.  If innocent, why have it disposed of, which is clearly what happened.

Some of Lewis’s account does make sense.  Rich athletes, especially ones wearing flashy white suits are often targets of verbal or physical violence, or at least provocation.  That there were several hangers on that Lewis didn’t even know also makes sense.  Of course groupies and others are going to gravitate to Lewis’s group if he lets them in.

What is baffling is what happened to the white suit?  Why hide it?  Why obfuscate the investigation, which clearly happened?  Why so defensive when the police originally show up, which Lewis admits to.

Then things get even more bizarre.  To sum it up, Ray Lewis claimed the police and prosecutors where out to get him and that is how he wound up pleading guilty to obstruction of justice and he claims the entire reason he was charged with obstruction is because he couldn’t name all the people in his car.  Where they out to get him?  Maybe, who knows?

Then it gets even more bizarre.  Lewis claim the Atlanta police physically abused him while he was in jail, and goes into great detail about it, at one point saying “I was crucified, man”.  This I find hard to believe because if true, someone of Ray Lewis’s stature would be suing the Atlanta police for this.  And the police would be stupid to abuse someone of his stature for fear of it getting publicity.  Well, I take that last part back, some police are stupid.

But, it gets even better!!  God started talking to Ray Lewis in his jail cell.  And that what was happening to him would make him stronger.

Do I believe Ray Lewis murdered anyone?  No, having followed the case the prosecutors were incompetent and had little evidence against Ray Lewis other than he was at some point at the scene.  In fact, they were so incompetent nobody has been convicted of the crime to this day.  I do wonder where the bloody white suit is though.  And Ray Lewis’s behavior was certainly suspect after the event.  And I don’t think the two murdered men where choir boys.  I know nothing about them though, but the whole event does make it look like Ray Lewis was in the wrong place, at the wrong time, with people targeting him because he is rich and famous.

Finally, the rest of the very strange saga of Ray Lewis.  As most people know he suffered a significant injury in his last season with the Ravens that would have ended most players’ season.  The Ravens put him on Injured Reserve designated to return (the first year this rule was in place).  Ray Lewis did indeed return, not fully recovered from a torn triceps.  He likened it to a miracle.  And it kind of was.

But the real miracle was how Lewis essentially implies he is the reason the Ravens won the Super Bowl and again heard the voice of God during the game in which she or he said “trust Jacoby Jones” and Ray put his hand on Jones’ chest.  Jones went on to return the opening kickoff of the second half for a touchdown.  GIVE ME A BREAK!

In summary this book is all, I, I, I.  Teammates are rarely mentioned in the success of the Ravens, it was all Ray, all the time.

It is a little bit hard to even describe how self-serving and delusional this autobiography is.

I don’t recommend reading it, unless you like fantasy stories.

I Feel Like Going On: Life, Game, and Glory

 

 

Insightful Biography of Pete Rozelle

51IPLozaTfL__SX346_BO1,204,203,200_Pete Rozelle as the Commissioner of the National Football League is an iconic figure and the epitome of what a sports commissioner should be.  He had multiple sides to his personality. He was a hard edged fighter with compassion.  He had a love for the game, compassion and empathy for owners and players, and managed to keep the billionaire club of NFL owners in check.

This biography of Pete Rozelle does an outstanding job of chronicling his life, with most of its focus on his traits that made him an outstanding NFL commissioner.  Despite being a compromise candidate for Commissioner, he seemed born for the job and was literally was the bridge to the modern NFL.

One of his biggest accomplishments was recognizing the importance of public relations and he used his skills in that area to lift the NFL from the shadow of college football and half empty stadiums to become America’s favorite sport.  He cleverly recognized the extreme importance that television would become not just for exposure for the game but revenue as well.  Even more important was developing the profit sharing model where all teams would get an equal share of the revenue to ensure some degree of competitive balance across teams.

He also faced many intricate controversies which he managed mostly well.  The NFL suffered a great deal of labor unrest and despite some difficulties in that area he laid the groundwork for what has been, until now, a long period of labor peace with the NFLPA.  He worked diligently in the merger of the NFL with the AFL which created a vibrant professional football league, but later staved off the upstart USFL.  His greatest nemesis was Al Davis, owner of the Oakland Raiders, who constantly sued the league, including winning the right to move the Raiders from Oakland to Los Angeles.  Layer on the drug scandals of the 1980’s one can argue he navigated the NFL through some of its toughest times.

Rozelle’s legacy ultimately is his successfully moving the NFL into the limelight eclipsing all other American sports in popularity, especially leveraging the exposure and revenue generated by television.

This biography is well written and organized and its brevity and economy of words is refreshing.  Anyone interested in the history of the NFL should certainly read this biography.

Rozelle: A Biography

Great Biography of Bart Starr

51XyD5-M7kL__SX332_BO1,204,203,200_Biographies of sports heroes usually come in one of two forms.  The first is a very shallow, quick, surficial look at the life and sporting career trying to earn a few dollars on the fame of a particular player.  The other is a truly in-depth look and accounting of the life and times of that sports hero.  This biography is clearly in the second category.  It does a phenomenal job of bringing Bart Starr to life for the reader.

Starr’s early life was marred by the death of his brother and subsequently was estranged from his father.  He became a star football player in high school but even there struggled with injuries but by his senior year was an All American.  Unlike most star athletes, however, he was more introverted and self-reflective.

Being an Alabama high school football star he wound up at the University of Alabama.  There he was an on again off again starter and after a back injury his junior year he hardly played as a senior.  His pro football prospects certainly seemed dim.

With recommendations from Alabama’s basketball coach Green Bay selected Starr in the 17th round of the 1956 NFL draft.

Again Starr started out as a back-up and then as an on again, off again starter for the Green Bay Packers.  When Vince Lombardi took over as coach of the Packers in 1959 it took some time for him to win over the coach’s trust as the starting quarterback, but he eventually did.  And the rest is a glorious history of championship football as the starting quarterback for arguable the greatest dynasty in NFL history.

One of the best parts of the biography for football fans is of course Starr’s role as the leader of the Green Bay Packers from 1960 to 1971, with five NFL championships, two of which were Super Bowl’s I and II.  This is a superlative career in an era where quarterbacks called their own plays and defensive backs could mug receivers down the field.

The book does a fantastic job of detailing Starr’s early struggles and his overcoming those struggles to become the undisputed field general and leader of the team other than Lombardi.  It also details his unique relationship with the tough minded Vince Lombardi who ultimately embraced Starr as his quarterback and trusted him in the most critical on-field situations.  While there were a lot of great moments for the team the infamous Ice Bowl where Starr changed the play and called a quarterback sneak to win the NFL championship against the Dallas Cowboys in one of the coldest games every played was thrilling relayed in the book.  And the pressure on the coach to win the first Super Bowl, and the second one is well told here.

This biography also brings out Starr’s unique qualities as a human being.  A very modest, honest, player who didn’t curse or go carousing with the guys, he nevertheless earned the respect of the players around him.  The biography really brings out this humble side of Starr and how it juxtaposed to that of his bombastic head coach and other players.  But he was a very tough competitor on the field, demanding the respect of all around him, including that of his head coach.

Another endearing quality to Starr’s life is he married his high school sweetheart and love of this life Cherry Morton and remained a faithful husband.  The love affair between these two is interwoven through the biography and is refreshing.

After his career he jumped into coaching and broadcasting.  He eventually became the head coach of a then struggling Green Bay Packers team from 1975 to 1983.  Unfortunately his stint as a head coach did not go quite like his football career.  He ended up with a 52-76-3 record as a head coach and the pressures of the job, especially after such a fantastic run as a player, was difficult.  He even admitted he probably was initially in over his head but did not want to quit.

And finally a tragedy.  Starr lost his son to drug abuse in 1988 after Starr and his wife constantly did everything to help him overcome the demon.  He eventually moved to Florida and fell back into his drug habit.  After not hearing from his son Bart flew to Florida and found him dead in his house.  This was obviously a very tragic and painful time in Bart Starr’s life.

The only quibble I have with the book is the claim that Bart Starr is the greatest quarterback in NFL history.  With his five NFL championships and great record as a player, the author makes a great argument.  I am not sure where I would place Bart Starr and he deserves to be mentioned as one of the greatest of all time but I would not place him at the top.  But I did enjoy the statistics are arguments on his behalf.

Any football fan will enjoy this well written and thoughtful biography of one the greatest quarterbacks of all time, one of the winningest quarterbacks of all time, and one of the humblest and good natured athletes of all time.

Bart Starr: America’s Quarterback and the Rise of the National Football League

An Excellent Inside Look at What It’s Like to Coach in the NFL

This is an excellent book about what it’s like to be a coach in the National Football League.  While the author was embedded with one team for the 2011 NFL season, the New York Jets, it still provides some great insights into the world of the NFL and its coaches.  While there may be some nuances and differences across teams, the major themes are likely very consistent across the league.

Even better, the book is extremely well written and entertaining as well.  It does a great job of not only providing thematic examples of what it’s like to be a coach in the NFL, but brining the personalities of the players and coaches to life as well.

The main theme of the book is just how hard coaches work and what gruesomely long hours all coaches put into their profession.  This is nearly a 24 hour a day job during the start of training camp through the end of the season, and there’s not much rest in-between either.  Being a coach in the NFL is a major commitment and a sacrifice for not only the coaches but their families as well.  They literally live football and often wind up sleeping in the facilities.  From player evaluation, game planning for the next opponent, installing the game plan during the week, dealing with player injuries and personalities, it is simply an all-consuming job.  You have to really love football to adopt this lifestyle.

Add to the long hours the pressure of winning is tremendous.  The NFL is a win now league and losing teams generally have quick turnover of head coaches and their assistants.  Winning is a tonic that brings joy, but short-lived, while losing it torturous.

Another significant theme of the book is the schism between the defensive and offensive sides of the balls, even between coaches.  So much goes into the offensive and defensive game plans and installing them with the players that the coaches of these squads do not interact that often.  Sometimes it can even get a little heated if one unit is performing significantly better than the other, which often happens with the Jets who have a great defense but at best a mediocre offense.  That tension certainly existed for the Jets to some degree, and I have heard it existing on other teams as well.  It is not entirely surprising that this schism exists on teams but it is intriguing.

A third theme, and I am sure this is where it probably varies more widely depending on the personality and approach of the head coach, is how much control or involved a head coach might exert on any specific aspect of game planning.  The head coach is supposed to be a big picture game planner and let his coordinators do most of the intricate work on the game plan for their units.  Rex, being a defensive coach, has his particularly defensive philosophy and might be more hands on there, but on the offensive side, while having a ground and pound approach, leaves more in the hands of the coordinator.  Of course there are some coaches who essentially are their own offensive coordinator and call the plays.  It is all a matter of what a head coach wants to take control of and what he is comfortable delegating.  For the Jets, the offense did not perform so well, eventually lead to the ouster of Brian Schottenheimer, the offensive coordinator.

Another theme is just tension on the team generally between players. Again, this is probably something that exists at different degrees on other teams.  For example, we know there was some tension between quarterback Mark Sanchez and receiver Santonio Holmes that eventually blew up into the public sphere, which is alluded to here.  And older players trying to adapt to new roles is also an underlying theme.

Another interesting aspect of this book was simply reading about the personalities of the players.  The intelligence and studious nature of Darrell Revis goes a long way in explaining why he is so great at his position, and the sometimes slovenly approach of an Antonio Cromartie explains why such a great athletic talent is sometimes so inconsistent.  Having a serious minded winner like Revis can have a positive influence on those less inclined to be such students of the game and why they often bring not only talent but leadership and a positive example to the team as well.  These types of players can be as valued by what they bring to the team off the field as by what they do on it.

Much is also made of how immature Mark Sanchez is and how frustrated the coaches were with his inconsistent play and turnovers.  Again, it seems like the immaturity factor has a lot to do with the sloppy, inconsistent play and underperforming on the field.

Yet another major theme is the pain of losing.  The rollercoaster ride of winning and losing and the difficultly of keeping coaches and players positive and not letting a string of losses knock the wheels completely off is an important function of the head coach and his staff.  The Jets did not make the playoffs after the 2011 season and being used to winning that is hard to take.  And it puts coaches’ jobs at jeopardy.  And as we have seen since this book was written, as of 2015 all the coaches and the GMs are gone because they never turned the team back around.

Finally the General Manger’s role is discussed.  Tannebaum is an interesting case.  Of course he is responsible for player personnel and contract negotiations but he also has to work well with his coaches and scouts and be a problem solver during the season.  All GMs are going to have their own philosophy’s and style and Tannebaum tried to fit in and help where help was needed during the season while dealing with player issues and personnel as they came up.

Overall I found this to be a well written and fascinating look at coaching in the NFL through the prism of the personalities and quirks of the New York Jets and recommend it to any serious NFL fan.

Collision Low Crossers: Inside the Turbulent World of NFL Football

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An “Interesting” Inside Look at NFL Coaches

coachCoaching Confidential provides an inside look at some of the more prominent coaches in the NFL of the past few decades. While there is nothing groundbreaking or particularly new in the book, I still found it to be interesting reading. And there were at least a few background stories that were new to me which I enjoyed learning about.

Much of the book, but not all, seems to be a little Bill Parcel’s centric as there are chapters on Sean Peyton and Bountygate, a Parcells disciple. There are also chapters on Robert Kraft and his relationships with Bill Belichick and Parcells (along with Pete Carroll). Then there is a chapter about Parcells and his motivational techniques. That is not necessarily bad, but he looms large in this book.
What really got the book off to a good start for me is the story around Sean Peyton getting suspended for Bountygate. While all football coaches at the professional level, almost by definition, must have a huge ego, Peyton is depicted as somewhat obnoxiously conceited. On the other hand, it also details how he put together a Super Bowl winning team from the detritus of a woeful Saints organization already bad but devastated by Hurricane Katrina.

Another chapter goes into detail about Bill Parcells, Pete Carroll, and Bill Belichick and their relationship with each other and New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft. As most know Parcells left the Patriots after clashing with Kraft over control of personnel and a few years later Belichick jilted Parcells and the New York Jets to become head coach of the New England Patriots replacing Carroll. Being a Patriots fan I already knew much of the detail behind this. The videotaping incident also got its fair share of attention in this chapter, and is probably the first real source describing how Kraft felt about it.

This is followed by yet another chapter on Parcells and his motivational tactics…aka…mind games that he used to motivate players. Some of the anecdotes were quite funny.

There are two chapters devoted to very dysfunctional relationships that eventually blew apart. The first is the Jerry Jones and Jimmy Johnson saga in Dallas. The other is the Dan Reeves, Mike Shanahan, John Elway troika in Denver. A love triangle it was not. Elway hated Reeves and Reeves didn’t love Elway too much either, or so it appears, and Shanahan was the guy in the middle who eventually took over for after Reeves was fired. Elway basically had Reeves run out of town but it remains unclear Shanahan’s role in the situation. Reeves thinks Shanahan stabbed him in the back, metaphorically. Of course Shanahan eventually got two Super Bowls in Denver.

There are also chapters on Joe Gibbs return to the Redskins under Dan Snyder (nothing new here), Tony Dungy’s “lost” Super Bowl after getting run out of Tampa Bay followed by his eventual Super Bowl win with the Indianapolis Colts (likewise, nothing new here), Brian Billick of the Baltimore Ravens getting fired unexpectedly (nothing new here), and Dick Vermeil and his burnout with the Eagles and subsequent return many years later to coach the Kansas City Chiefs, then the St. Louis Rams, and his retirement from the Rams after their Super Bowl win (again, nothing new here).

And we get a glimpse in the last chapter of the world of REX…as in Rex Ryan. Rex Ryan stories are always fun to read because he is such a goofball.

Overall, this book is a quick and enjoyable read if you are an NFL fan. The only drawback is much of these details had already been reported before but there is enough new information here to make it worth the read.

Coaching Confidential: Inside the Fraternity of NFL Coaches

 

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