Raymond Berry Football Autobiography

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Raymond Berry is 86 years old now and just published a short autobiography of his life in football and beyond.  While the prose is a bit stilted at times it is an easy to read and digest compilation of his career.

Raymond Berry is probably best known, along with Johnny Unitas, for the Greatest Game Ever Played when his Baltimore Colts beat the New York Giants in the 1958 NFL Championship Game and first ever overtime game in NFL history.  Berry caught 12 passes for 178 yards and a touchdown in that game and was integral in the Colts’ win.  Those kinds of numbers would be incredibly impressive even in today’s pass happy NFL.  The Colts went on to win the NFL Championship the following year and were extremely competitive throughout Berry’s 12 year Hall of Fame career.

What stands out most about Berry is he was not the most athletically gifted athlete, although he was fast and had great hands.  He persevered and became one of the greatest receivers of all time through hard work and practice, practice, practice.  He and Johnny Unitas were the linchpins of what could have been an NFL dynasty had it not been for the roadblock of the Green Bay Packers under Vince Lombardi.

Being a New England Patriots fan I was most interested in his years as the Patriots head coach including their loss to the Chicago Bears in Super Bowl XX 45 to 10.  The 1984 Patriots, while they did go 11-5, really played over the level of their talent in my opinion, which attests to how good a coach Berry was.  He makes the assertion that the reason the game was so lopsided is he was a new head coach and installed a new offense that year, whereas the Bears defense under Buddy Ryan had been running the same system for five years.  Thus, had he had more time to install his offense, the level of play would have been more equal.

While the writing is somewhat uneven and the book jumps around subject wise a good bit, it is a worthwhile read for football fans.

All the Moves I Had: A Football Life

Great Biography of Joe Namath

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If you read one biography of Joe Namath this is the one to read.  It is extremely detailed and well done.

It covers his life growing up in a middle(ish) class family in Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania and his athletic exploits that made him a hometown hero.  He was even brash and bit incorrigible as a teenager, a trait that he clearly kept his whole life.  A solid portion of the book is dedicated to his family history and formative years, which laid the groundwork for his life.

I really enjoyed and learned a lot from the book about his years under coach Bear Bryant at Alabama.  It shocks me that Bear Bryant, the hard-nosed, disciplinarian coach somehow coaxed the best out of a rebel like Joe Namath and then immediately following Namath, Ken Stabler.  Namath was suspended for the last game and a bowl game in 1963 for being caught drinking, but Namath accepted the punishment and to this day speaks very highly of Bear Bryant.  Interestingly, Namath spent the weekend living under the coach’s roof hiding from the media.

Unfortunately for Namath he suffered a serious knee injury at Alabama and he played his entire AFL/NFL career with compromised knees.  He was certainly one of the most gifted throwers of all time and it’s a shame we could not see Namath in professional football at full strength.  His knees were so bad he couldn’t be drafted by the military for the Vietnam War.  People scoffed at the fact he had a medical deferment but played professional sports but that is how bad his knees were.  It’s amazing he was as good a quarterback as he was in the pros.

Of course, the book goes through Namath’s more well known pro career with the Jets of the AFL, his huge initial contract, “the guarantee” and win in Super Bowl III over the Baltimore Colts.  But it also talks about some of his troubles with the League because of his purchase of a nightclub where gangsters/mafia/gamblers hung out and the whole drama over being forced to sell it and his somewhat wild social life.

Finally, the book details his personal life which is somewhat well know and I won’t belabor here.

Overall, I’d highly recommend this book to NFL fans.

Namath: a Biography

What It Takes to be a Winning NFL Team

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Gridiron Genius covers a wide range of topics and is grounded in the author being in the NFL for 30 years and around some of the best minds in the game.

The author, Michael Lombardi considers his three key mentors and greatest NFL minds Al Davis (despite his quirks), Bill Walsh, and Bill Belichick.  He lays out what he considers the ingredients to establishing a consistently winning franchise.  I won’t cover every detail here but hit the big picture.

Culture.  The team has to have positive, supportive, and winning culture to be successful.  Personal agendas among owners, coaches, and players undermine teamwork and undermine the team’s ability to succeed.

Leadership.  Leadership comes from all levels of the organization from ownership, coaches, and players.  But the key cog in the wheel that keeps a team going in the right direction is the head coach.  He sets the tone for the entire organization and the team.  If the team doesn’t respect the head coach (even if they don’t like him) then the ability to succeed starts to fall apart.  The quarterback is also key on a team. For better or worse, the quarterback is at the center of attention and in today’s NFL you can’t win without a good quarterback.

The program.  Another key to winning football, of course, is talent evaluation but with a caveat.  All teams have specific systems on offense and defense they run and player evaluation should be about players that fit the system.  A player can be extremely talented but if their skill set does not fit the system, they won’t be successful.  Players that are versatile and can play many positions are coveted because they can plug and play into any system or take over for injured players at positions they have not played.  Teams that don’t pay attention to this often fail.

Special teams.  The best and most consistent teams also place and emphasis on special teams plays.  Special teams can win or lose games.  How many times have we seen a team loose in the playoffs or Super Bowl because of poor special teams play?  Plenty.

Quarterback. A great quarterback isn’t necessarily the most athletically gifted, although that helps, but it’s the quarterback who is smart, understands the offense, plays within his strengths, and gets rid of the ball fast.  It’s as much intellect as athletic talent that makes a quarterback great.  How many extremely gifted and athletic quarterbacks fail to reach their potential?  Many.  Tom Brady, the greatest quarterback of all time, and Joe Montana, a great quarterback in his own right, are not the most athletically gifted, they are the smartest and know what to do with their talent and the talent around them.

Game planning.  Teams do run systems have certain strengths and weaknesses on their teams.  But those teams that can be versatile in their game plan on both sides of the ball, and shut down an opponent’s strengths and take advantage of their weaknesses are those that win!

Overall this is a very interesting and insightful book and a great look at what it takes to be a winning football team at any level.

Gridiron Genius: A Master Class in Winning Championships and Building Dynasties in the NFL

A Worthy Biography of Ken Stabler

512g898CtmL._AC_UL320_SR212,320_This is a different kind of biography.  The author says part of the idea of writing the book was show a different side of Ken Stabler than the womanizing, heavy drinking, partying Stabler of his youth through his NFL playing career.  He wanted to show the side of Ken Stabler that genuinely care about people, including his teammates, his kids, and even his ex-wives.

So we have three sides of Ken Stabler.

First, the rebellious, woman loving (in many ways), and partier Ken Stabler of his youth through his football career.  Stabler was not only upfront about his partying ways, he kind of bragged about it.  And he embraced the bad boy image of the Oakland Raiders.  It is hard for me to believe that Bear Bryant had two of the most iconic rebel rousing athletes of their day at the University of Alabama in both Joe Namath followed by Ken Stabler.  Both got into deep trouble with Bear Bryant because of their wayward ways and eventually rehabilitated themselves with him.  Also interesting, both love the Bear and it seems the Bear deeply cared about them too.  Stabler continued his fun loving ways with the Raiders, having a lot of fun along the way.

Second, there is the athlete Ken Stabler.  In some ways that goes hand in hand with the rebelliousness as an average athlete probably just doesn’t get away what Stabler did in college and the pros.  He was obviously and outstanding athlete who eventually won a Super Bowl ring and was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.  Here the author makes a strong case for Stabler as a Hall of Famer.  Does he belong in the Hall of Fame? He was certainly a great leader on the football field and the right one for the Raiders.  I think he does belong partly because you couldn’t think of the NFL in the 1970’s without Stabler.  He was a gunslinger and he won a Super Bowl.  But, he also had a woeful number of interceptions.  He had a touchdown to interception ratio of of .87.  But his statistics easily stack up against other Hall of Fame quarterbacks of his error.  Terry Bradshaw, who’s career almost parallels Stabler’s, had statistics that closely mirror that of Stabler and Stabler has a better career passer rating than Bradshaw.  So yes, he belongs.

Third there is the empathic Ken Stabler who cared for his teammates, his family, his kids and his friends.  He was, by all accounts, a great father to his kids even after his divorces and even more so after he retired from football and had more time with them.  He stood up for his teammates and while it might sound odd now, was colorblind.  He exhibited traits, even at the University of Alabama, where he treated all equally regardless of race.  And in his later years he chilled out and relaxed with family and his grandkids.

Stabler had a grand life and this biography does him justice.

Snake: The Legendary Life of Ken Stabler

Review of The Mannings

This book about the Manning family is execrably written, so much so that I frankly wanted to quit reading the book because it was horribly annoying. There are way too many times the author imputes emotions to individuals when he has no idea what the person was actually feeling. Worse, he constantly makes juvenile analogies that are trite to the point of making the reader cringe. It is a very amateurish writing style and a rather amateurish book.

While this is an advanced reading copy, two other items that were irritating is in one chapter Archie’s father is 5 foot 6, and in the next he’s 5 foot 7. In most instances it’s his father’s words, “just be a nice guy,” that drove Archie and his nice guy charm and demeanor, one that was not fake or a put on. But in one instances this is attributed to his mother. These are trivial in terms of the overall narrative, but noticeable and distracting nonetheless.

With that said the book did have some redeeming qualities which, overall, made it barely worth reading. First, I never fully understood the level of fame that Archie Manning had throughout the South, especially in his home state of Mississippi and adopted state of Louisiana. He was nearly a household name after his college stint at Ole Miss as its starting quarterback. Second, the book does an excellent job of describing how Archie’s stern but beloved father and his suicide drove Archie to want to excel on the field and in life, and later how it drove him to spend as much time as he could with is sons and tell them how much he loved them. Archie’s background and family history in a small Mississippi town to become regionally famous paints a clear picture of how Archie handled himself when in the pros, a very good quarterback playing for a horrible team. He kept his head up and marched on.

The book also does a good job of telling the story of Cooper Manning and how, while not a great athlete, would have very likely had a solid college career as a receiver at Ole Miss and how his discovery of a spinal condition that forced him to quit football drove his younger brother Peyton to strive to greatness and professional football to fulfill Cooper’s unfulfilled dreams.

Peyton’s personality has a hard worker, studier and leader comes through strongly in the book as well. His vast knowledge of football, football history, and studying the playbook are legendary. The contrast with the demure Eli Manning is very interesting. Much has been made of Eli’s laid back demeanor, shyness, and some would argue lack of leadership. But it turns out that Eli has been shy and laidback since he was a child. And he never studied football, at least its history, like Peyton did. But he has been successful in his own way nonetheless.

The insights into the personalities of the Archie, Peyton, Eli, and Cooper, along with their family history are very interesting and shed a lot of light on this famous football family.

I do have a few more complaints about the book, however. This book seems to be more about Archie Manning than this two football playing sons. Peyton Manning gets a lot more airtime in detailing his recruitment to the University of Tennessee and his years in college and the pros than Eli. Eli, in some respects, especially his college and professional career, seem almost an afterthought.

Two controversial issues that did not get enough detail or interpretation include the sexual assault allegations about Peyton Manning when he was at Tennessee, and the “forced” trade of Eli Manning from the San Diego Chargers to the New York Giants when he was drafted number one overall by the Chargers.

In the first instance the author does, again, a very amateurish job reporting the incident. He basically takes some things he heard in the media and throws them in the book to check off the box. And some of what is stated in the book is disputed in other media outlets. It’s a really sloppy job of reporting the event.

And very little is detailed about all the behind the scenes actions that lead to Eli being traded from the Chargers to the Giants after he was drafted, with Archie and Eli essentially saying he would not play for the Chargers. Odd given the Chargers were not that bad of a team at the time. There is a big gap in the book on this issue.

The book concludes with Peyton’s ultimate retirement after Super Bowl 50 and does decent job of describing the proud Manning family and the difficulty but inevitability of Peyton’s decision.

While this book has some redeeming qualities, that it’s poorly written and structured makes it a bit frustrating. The Manning’s deserved a better chronicler of their journey.

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