Rob Gronkowski and the Gronks

1aa-volumes24----aug--24-art-gc1ob63b-1growing-up-gronk-schober-bkGrowing Up Gronk: A Family’s Story of Raising Champions by Gordy Gronkowski with Jeff Schober
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (July 9, 2013)
ISBN-10: 0544126688
ISBN-13: 978-0544126688
224 pages

I really don’t know why anyone would be particularly interested in this book, unless maybe they are a diehard New England Patriots fan, like me.  It is mostly a vanity project for Gordy Gronkowski, the father of five amazing athletes.  His five sons have all achieved a great deal of success in sports, with three making to the National Football League, one who played professional baseball, and the youngest is an up and coming star in his own right.

This book talks about how his sons achieved that success.  Beyond being naturally gifted athletes Gordy appears to be a somewhat obsessed workout junkie and had his five sons competing with each other in the basement using a workout regime created by Gordy himself.  He created five workout junkies in his own image who were motivated by their father but also by their competition with each other.  This healthy competition resulted in a clan of professional athletes.

The book also provides some details on what their family life was like growing up and how their incredible mother managed to rein in five Gronks (six if you count the father) and cook and clean and drive them around to all their various sporting events.  She is a bit in the background in the book, for the most part, but clearly a hero in her own right.

While the book is not just about Rob Gronkowski he does get more air time here, which is only fair as he is the most successful of the five Gronks.  As a tight end for the New England Patriots he’s had a few monster seasons and could potentially be one of the greatest tight ends of all time.  Unfortunately, his history of injuries, especially recently, will probably derail that dream.  He is described as a bit of a fun loving goofball but a hard worker dedicated to being his best.  But the rest of the brothers get their just due as well and we get a glimpse into the personalities of each.

I did enjoy the read but only because of the Rob Gronkowski angle.  I otherwise would have found it a waste of time and not that interesting.

Growing Up Gronk: A Family’s Story of Raising Champions

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

Tom Brady on the Couch

Moving the Chains: Tom Brady and the Pursuit of Everything by Charles P. Pierce
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007
ISBN-13: 978-0374214449

This is undoubtedly one of the oddest biographies I have ever read. And one of the most intriguing.
Author Charles Pierce tries to uncover what makes Tom Brady tic. What makes him such a consummate team player and leader on the field? What made a player drafted in the sixth round, whom nobody but maybe Bill Belichick and Scott Piloli, thought would ever amount to much in the pros, become a Hall of Fame bound quarterback, one of the best to have ever played?

There are a lot of things.

First, Brady was never the most gifted athlete and he had to work for everything through high school and college. In fact, he was barely recruited and his father put together a video package and he ultimately ended up at the University of Michigan. He persevered despite not even being a full time starter, even as a senior, despite that he was a winner.

Second, in the pros his work ethic is infectious to his teammates. He is the first to arrive and the last to leave. His hard work put him in a position to take over for Drew Bledsoe when he was hurt during the 2001 regular season and progress. He became the team leader that despite his talents Beldsoe never really was.

Third, he is a team first player. He truly buys in to the Patriots’ modern day credo, there is no “I” in team. He doesn’t care about stats, he cares about wins. But that has propelled him to put up unbelievable stats.

And he his simply a nice person. He gives credit where credit is due. He doesn’t do a lot of endorsements. And when he had the opportunity to do one for a credit card company he refused to do it unless his offensive linemen, his protectors, were involved. He wanted them to shine to.

Don’t believe Tom Brady is a really good guy in a sport fraught with me first, selfish, athletes with an undertone of criminality? Read Charlie Weiss’s book about his near death experience and how Brady helped him and his wife out in their time of greatest need. Read Tedy Bruschi’s book that has a few anecdotes about what Brady’s friendship means. Or simply read this book about to hear what his family, friends, and teammates have all said about his leadership skills. There is a reason his teammates and coaches have the utmost confidence in him.

The oddest aspect of this book is Brady himself did not participate in it and it really takes somewhat of a psychologist’s approach at times in examining its subject. From the influence of his Catholic upbringing, the impact of his athletic older sisters who sometimes outshined him in his youth, to his perseverance in the face of sports adversity, you learn the inner workings of one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time.

This is a recommended read.

Moving the Chains: Tom Brady and the Pursuit of Everything

Review of The Life and Times of Johhny Unitas by Tom Callahan

415hh-g8eul__sl500_aa240_I love reading about football, football history, and great players of the past, so I very much enjoyed this biography of John Unitas (1933-2002), one of the best quarterbacks in professional football history.

First a little bit about Johnny U. Unitas grew up in a hard scrabble environment in Pittsburgh. His father died when he was five and his mother and older brother worked hard to keep the family intact. Unitas was a bit light for a football player but was the starting quarterback for his high school. His dream was to play for Notre Dame but he couldn’t get in so he went on to play at the University of Louisville in the early 1950’s. While the team didn’t do very well, Unitas did and his jersey number (#16) is the only one retired by that school. In 1955 Unitas was drafted in the 9th round by the Pittsburgh Steelers of the NFL but was soon cut and ended up playing in a semi-pro league around Pittsburgh. Through the football grapevine the Baltimore Colts brought Unitas in for a tryout in 1956 and was signed to back up starter George Shaw. Shaw went down in the forth game and Unitas held on to the starting job, except when injured, from 1956-1972.

Unitas won 3 NFL championships in his career – the first which many consider to be the most pivotal professional football game ever played – the 1958 NFL Championship where the Baltimore Colts defeated the New York Giants 23-17 in the first overtime game in NFL history. The game was televised nationwide and many credit the game for drawing the public’s attention to the National Football League and as the launching pad for today’s lucrative television contracts and the sport’s wide popularity. Some still refer to this game as the “Greatest Game Ever Played.” Unitas was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1979 and is one of four quarterbacks on the NFL’s 75th Anniversary All Time Team. (Note I am counting the 1958 and 1959 NFL Championships, which preceded the creation of the Super Bowl, and Super Bowl V as the Colts 3 NFL Championships. I am not counting the 1968 NFL Championship as the Colts lost to the New York Jets in Super Bowl III and Unitas was hurt that year and rarely played.)

Callahan says in his introduction that he sets out to write not just a biography of John Unitas but also to give the reader a sense of what it was like to be a professional football player in the 1950’s and 1960’s. As a biography of Unitas, Callahan is quite successful. We see Unitas not only through his own eyes, but through the eyes of the players, coaches, family, and friends who knew him. He really brings to life the personality, toughness, smarts, and perseverance that made Unitas the great quarterback and team leader he was throughout his career. The biography also includes interesting short vignettes on other great players on those Colts teams like Gino Marchetti, Eugene “Big Daddy” Lipscomb, Art Donovan, and Jim Parker, to name a few.

Callahan is mostly successful at giving the reader an idea of what it was like to be a player in the 1950’s and 1960’s, although the way he does so is one of the biggest drawbacks of the biography. The structure and writing is sometimes rather disjointed and not well structured. There are too many asides, long parenthetical comments, or chapters that drift looking backward in time, or in the future, and then coming back to the main point, which was a little frustrating for this reader. While I do not expect a completely linear book – I felt the author could have done a better job of being a bit more seamless in the storytelling.

This drawback aside Callahan does provide one crucial insight – that the players of that era, unlike today, really were part of the community (at least the Colts’ players were). Since players made much less money back then a lot of them worked in the off season. Thus they lived, and often worked, in the communities where they played football. Further, they often lived in modest homes among everyday citizens, not tucked away in mansions or high income neighborhoods. As a result, the community became very attached to the organization and the players, and often vice versa. The depiction of the long, historical, close relationship between the Colts and the city of Baltimore really brought home what an awful event losing the team was to the city.

Finally, I have to mention that probably the best chapter was the one dedicated to the 1958 Championship Game. It’s told from the perspective of the Colts, not the Giants, and is a game that demonstrated Unitas’ leadership in pulling out a victory.

Overall, despite the jumpiness of some of the chapters, I found the biography a worthwhile and interesting reading experience and would recommend it to those who want to know a bit more about Johnny U and his Baltimore Colts.

[Reviewer Note: Author Tom Callahan is a journalist and sportswriter. He has worked at both Time magazine as a senor writer and the Washington Post as a sports columnist.]

Johnny U: The Life and Times of John Unitas