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 The Last Headbangers by Kevin Cook

Headbangers

The Last Headbangers: NFL Football in the Rowdy, Reckless ’70s: The Era that Created Modern Sports by Kevin Cook
W. W. Norton & Company (2012)
ISBN-10: 0393345874

288 pages

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.

The Last Headbangers: NFL Football in the Rowdy, Reckless ’70s–The Era that Created Modern Sports

The 1970’s Oakland Raiders: Tales from the Dark Side

Badasses: The Legend of Snake, Foo, Dr. Death, and John Madden’s Oakland Raiders by Peter Richmond
Harper Collins, 2010
ISBN-13: 978-0061834301

Love them or hate them, the 1970’s Oakland Raiders under John Madden were certainly an entertaining cast of misfits in the guise of one the best professional football teams of their era.  Here, Peter Richmond tells the story of this cast of characters, and characters they were.

The distinctive personality of this team that set it apart from all others of the 1970’s was the perception that this was a group of outlaws and rebels who thumbed their noses at convention.  Add to this the fact many were castoffs from other teams for behavioral or other issues, and you had a truly volatile band of misfits.  But somehow the affable John Madden, who was the perfect coach for this team, was able to take this group of irrepressible “adults” and mold them into a feared, championship football team.  Having read this account of the 1970’s Raiders, I almost liken John Madden to Santa Clause trapped on the island for misfit toys trying to using his magic to make them whole.

Many of the players on these teams are ones most football fans will remember in perpetuity.   You had Jack “The Assassin” Tatum, Gene Atkinson, Skip “Dr. Death” Thomas, and Willie Brown, aka The Soul Patrol, one of the  most feared set of defensive backs in the league who relished huge hits, clothesline tackles, and knocking their opponents out of games.  They also had characters like quarterback Ken Stabler, the bad southern Alabama boy, carouser and partier extraordinaire, linebackers Phil Villapiano and Ted Hendricks, and the truly crazy John Matuszak, along with the rest of the team full of similar head cases, creating a volatile mix of testosterone, craziness, and child like desire to have fun, on the field and off.

This was a hard partying team and not an insignificant part of the book talks about Raiders’ training camps that were part hard partying and hard practicing and all the pranks the players pulled while preparing for the season.  It was a fun loving and wild group of men who John Madden somehow molded into winners. Partially he did it by letting them have their fun and treating them like men, but making sure that they practiced and played hard.  While they might have been a wild, fun loving bunch, they also loved football and wanted to win.

This book is clearly told from an unabashed Oakland Raiders fan’s perspective, which really worked well in this case.  The author revels in the outlaw persona of this team, which went all the way up to the owner Al Davis, who also flouted convention and thumbed his nose at the powers that be in the National Football League.

And while they only won one Super Bowl in this era, a 32-14 win over the Minnesota Vikings in Super Bowl XI after the 1976 season, they were always in the mix.  They built up a strong rivalry with the Pittsburgh Steelers, who the author draws a clear contrast with.  Had they not had one of the greatest football teams of all time as their nemesis, the Oakland Raiders may have been the team of the 1970’s.

The author starts the book with the “Immaculate Reception,” one of the most famous plays in NFL history.  With the Steelers desperately trying to stage a comeback in the 1972 playoffs against Oakland, down 7-6 with 22 seconds left in the game and hardly a prayer, Bradshaw threw a pass that careened off a receiver and was picked up off his shoe tops by running back Franco Harris who ran it in for the go ahead score.  At that time, if an offensive player touched the ball while it was in the air, another offensive player could not catch it.  Argument ensues to this day whether they ball bounced off “Frenchy” Fuqua, the Pittsburgh running back, or Jack Tatum, who nailed him just as the ball arrived.

The author marks this as the beginning of the rise the Oakland Raiders whose “rebel image, their defiant owner, had stamped them as an enemy of civilized football.”  He contrasts the “staid, old-world NFL Rooney’s franchise” with the “rebels of Al Davis, a man who bowed to no higher power.”  He also throws words around like “benevolent” versus “demonic” and the “dark side.”  That was the Oakland Raiders image, and they came to revel in it.

While this book chronicles the Oakland Raider’s seasons of the 1970’s, it as much about the unusual character of the team as it is their exploits on the field.  The author conducted extensive interviews with players from that era and has crafted a well done and very interesting read, really a must read for Oakland Raiders fans, but one that all football fans can enjoy.  The only real drawback to the book is the author only had a very short and not very illuminating interview with Al Davis, who did seem very cooperative.  But his perspective can be rather easily gleaned from his own actions and public pronouncements, so this has little impact on the completeness of this work.

Badasses: The Legend of Snake, Foo, Dr. Death, and John Madden’s Oakland Raiders

Comprehensive History of the 1946-1955 Cleveland Browns

The Best Show in Football: The 1946-1955 Cleveland Browns, Pro Football’s Greatest Dynasty by Andy Piascik
Taylor Trade Publishing 2007

This is an extremely comprehensive history of the Cleveland Browns from 1946-1955.  It is also a very well done argument that the Cleveland Browns team of that era is the greatest dynasty of all time.

Despite playing in the All American Football Conference from 1946-1949, a competitor to the National Football League at the time, Piascik makes a great case for the greatness of the Cleveland Browns.  They won seven championships in ten years, an unbelievable feat.  But four of those championships came as members of the AAFC, which many consider to be an inferior league.  The AAFC folded in 1950 but took in some of the old AAFC teams, with the Cleveland Browns being one of them.

The greatness of the Browns’ however is evident in that they won the 1950 NFL Championship in their first season in the NFL.  They also won it again in 1954 and 1955.  It is pretty clear that despite playing in the AAFC they were a great team, and maybe the best of that time period.

Beyond the argument that the Browns are the greatest dynasty of all time this book chronicles the rise of Paul Brown as the taskmaster head coach who sought perfection and greatness from his players.  And possibly the greatest quarterback of all time, Otto Graham, was at the helm in these winning years.  This book does a fine job of chronicling the team and its players of this era, and also serves as partial history of the AAFC.  This by itself makes the book a worthy read for those who like football history.

The Best Show in Football: The 1946-1955 Cleveland Browns–Pro Football’s Greatest Dynasty

Informative History of the NFL/AFL Merger

The Birth of the New NFL: How the 1966 NFL/AFL Merger Transformed Pro Football by Larry Felser
The Lyons Press 2008
ISBN: 978-1-59921-151-0

Despite the stodgy prose this is a comprehensive history of the merger between the American Football League and the National Football League in 1966.

The most informative aspect of this book is story behind the formation and advancement of the upstart American Football League when several wealthy (and some not so wealthy) businessmen wanted into the professional football fold.  Thwarted by the NFL and desiring a team, it was Lamar Hunt, owner of the Dallas Texans (later the Kansas City Chiefs) that really brought the AFL to fruition and helped create a league that was competitive with the long established NFL.

The story behind the merger is equally as fascinating, especially the clear lack of trust AFL Commissioner Al Davis had among owners, as they essentially worked for a merger behind his back while he was taking a all out go to war approach in trying to sign the biggest stars from the other league.  I also learned a great deal about how the television contacts the AFL was able to garner greatly helped the league, and the integral role Ralph Wilson played in the not only this, but the eventually merger itself.  It’s surprising that it took so long for Ralph Wilson (owner of the Buffalo Bills) to be enshrined into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

For those interested in NFL history and how the AFL was founded, grew, and eventually managed to merge with the NFL, this book is worth reading.  But I will warn that the writing and organization of the book lack a lot to be desired.

The Birth of the New NFL: How the 1966 NFL/AFL Merger Transformed Pro Football