The Last Headbangers: NFL Football in the Rowdy, Reckless ’70s: The Era that Created Modern Sports by Kevin Cook
W. W. Norton & Company (2012)
The Last Headbangers is a history of the NFL in the 1970’s through the prism of the rivalry between the Oakland Raiders and the Pittsburgh Steelers. The Raiders, the fun loving, renegade group of misfits versus the blue collar, lunch pail Steelers with a ferocious defense. Cook describes their battles as a biker gang versus a construction crew, a pithy and apt description.
The theme of the book is quite clear, that 1970’s football, still a throwback to the old days of banging heads and taking no prisoners on the field, morphed into a sanitized, scripted, corporate product in the 1980’s. He brackets this metamorphosis between Franco Harris’s Immaculate Reception in a 1972 playoff game against the Raiders to Dwight Clark’s “The Catch” in 1982 when the San Francisco 49’ers defeated the Dallas Cowboys to usher in a new football dynasty. Here I’ll just quote the author.
The Last Headbangers represents two years of research on the NFL in the 1970s. While working on the book I came to believe that the league entered a pivotal era with Franco Harris’s Immaculate Reception in 1972, an era in which new rules, television, aggressive marketing, a special generation of players and coaches, and a changing America combined to help pro football dominate the sports landscape. In my view the game took on its modern form in the ’70s, and what I consider “’ 70s football” ended with Dwight Clark’s 1982 touchdown grab, now known as The Catch, ushering in a more corporate, scripted, and regulated version of the sport, exemplified by the great 49ers teams of the ’80s. (Cook, Kevin (2012-08-27). The Last Headbangers: NFL Football in the Rowdy, Reckless ’70s–The Era that Created Modern Sports (Kindle Locations 3666-3671). Norton. Kindle Edition.)
Cook also details the rule changes that have essentially made the passing supreme and created a game where defensive players can barely look at an offensive player meanly without getting a flag thrown. Most of these changes hamper defensive backs from touching a receiver after five yards and limit the amount of contact they can make against “defenseless” receivers – all to create a sanitized game and open up offense and scoring.
The majority of the book, however, is the inside story behind the Raiders and Steelers organization, with particular emphasis on the Immaculate Reception (or Immaculate Deception as Raiders fans call it). It is mostly a history of these two franchises in the 1970’s.
Overall Cook does an excellent job of describing the games and these two teams throughout the 1970’s. For many fans I am sure it will be highly entertaining as the writing is excellent and the story well told.
I thought the best aspect of the book was describing the friendship between the Raiders’ linebacker Phil Villapiano and the Steelers’ running back Franco Harris who continue to argue over the Immaculate Reception.
But for me this book ultimately disappointing for a couple of reasons.
First, I have read a copious amount of NFL history, so most of the details in the book I have read elsewhere. Granted it is well written and likely entertaining for others, but for me it’s simply rehashing what I’ve already read.
Second, I’m not sure I buy the core premise of the Immaculate Reception and The Catch necessarily being the bookends of eras. The rise of the passing game and rules that have sanitized professional football into a more sterile corporate image have been ongoing through decade of the 1980’s and into the 2010’s. It’s not easy to put bookends around the trend as Cook does. Although 1978 probably was a seminal year as that is when many of the rule changes started to move the NFL into the passing frenzy we see today.
And I won’t quibble too much about the title, although it seems a bit inaccurate. How can the 1970’s be the era that created modern sports when the theme is that that era is over and a bygone past? It wasn’t the era that created modern football; it was corporatization of the sport, really more so in the 1990s through today that lead to the NFL of today.
As summation, for those who have read a lot of football history and are interested in it, this is a good place to start with the caveats noted above. For hardcore football fans, there’s not really a lot new here.