Sports fans often get a bad rap in the literacy department. They'd rather watch sports columnists berate each other on ESPN than read what any of them actually write. And when an afternoon can be spent watching the Brewers play the Mets, two NBA playoff games and a golf tournament, as was the case last Sunday, who has time to crack a book?
But with the sports pages devoted to stories like Barry Bonds' steroid use, Michael Vick's dog-fighting jones and Brett Favre's trade me/don't trade me demands, the best escape might be found in the sports writing that appears between two covers.
Here are some summer reading picks:
The Real All-Americans: The Team that Changed a Game, a People, a Nation
by Sally Jenkins (Doubleday)
The legend of Notre Dame football holds that Knute Rockne and Gus Dorais pioneered the forward pass in 1913. But in her just-released book, The Real All-Americans, Sally Jenkins gives credit for this to Glenn Scobey "Pop" Warner, coach of the Carlisle Indian School, in Carlisle, Pa. Warner ran Carlisle as a kind of football laboratory, inventing the single-wing formation, the blocking dummy, the three-point stance and numerous other aspects of modern football.
"Today," writes Jenkins, "every time a quarterback feigns a handoff, or rears back to throw, a debt is owed to the Indians."
Carlisle was established as an experimental boarding school for Native Americans in 1879 by Army officer Richard Henry Pratt, who liked to say, "Kill the Indian, save the man." The school quickly formed a football team and began to play Ivy League teams, meaning its much smaller athletes had to rely on innovation to beat bigger, stronger teams from Harvard and Yale, as well as West Point.
Much of The Real All-Americans revolves around the 1912 season, when the Indians started 10-0-1 before facing the U.S. Military Academy. The game was an athletic counterpart to the battles between the Indians and the Army on the prairie in earlier generations. Army's backfield held four future World War II generals, including Dwight Eisenhower. But Carlisle's star was Jim Thorpe, just returned from winning both the pentathlon and the decathlon at the 1912 Summer Olympics in Stockholm.
I won't spoil the ending for you (even though Sports Illustrated did with its excerpt), but I will say that you can get it on Amazon for about $19.
The Blind Side: Evolution of a Game
by Michael Lewis (Norton)
A few weeks ago, the Cleveland Browns made former Badger left tackle Joe Thomas the third pick in the 2007 NFL Draft. That choice will likely net Thomas somewhere near $20 million before he ever plays a down for the Browns. In The Blind Side, Michael Lewis explains why.
Ever since New York Giants linebacker Lawrence Taylor brutally broke Washington Redskin quarterback Joe Theismann's leg on Monday Night Football in 1985, ending his career in the process, the guys who protect a quarterback's blind side - in the case of a right-handed quarterback, the left tackle - have been cashing in.
Lewis is the same writer who brought us Moneyball, which blew apart traditional baseball scouting philosophies by calling attention to an objective, statistics-based system used by Oakland A's general manager Billy Beane. In The Blind Side, he explains how left tackle became the game's most coveted position while telling the story of Michael Oher.
Oher, currently playing college ball at Mississippi, is a 6'4", 330-pound behemoth who was essentially rescued from homelessness by a wealthy Memphis family and enrolled in a private high school; there he attracted college recruiters' attention with his freakish athletic ability. Like Oher, Thomas is enormous (6'7", 311 pounds), but also intelligent and surprisingly agile - all ideal left tackle qualities, according to Lewis' book.
Twilight of the Long-ball Gods: Dispatches from the Disappearing Heart of Baseball
by John Schulian (Bison Books)
This 2005 book is a deeply satisfying collection of essays from Sports Illustrated contributor and Chicago Sun-Times columnist John Schulian. The title piece, located about mid-way through the slim paperback, begins: "Lord, how they hated to see Moe Hill come to Waterloo. When he had a bat in his hands and a Wisconsin Rapids uniform on his back, a sense of dread rose from those Iowa townies like summer heat off a two-lane blacktop."
The guys who rant about Vick and Bonds on ESPN every night probably wouldn't get much out of Moe Hill's story, but that's kind of the point. It's low-volume stuff, perfect for a warm summer night with the Brewers game on the radio.