My two favorite sports books happen to be about football. My dad gave me George Plimpton's Paper Lion on a rainy Saturday afternoon during junior high, immediately after snatching the remote control from my hands. The book details Plimpton's Walter Mitty-esque experience of training with the 1963 Detroit Lions.
I devoured it in about two days and soon after hit the library looking for similar books. Through Paper Lion, I gained an appreciation for literary sportswriters like Frank Deford and John Feinstein.
In college, a friend shoved a copy of Friday Night Lights by H.G. Bissinger into my hands. That book, about high school football in Odessa, Texas, remains my all-time favorite read. It shares some inside-the-locker-room secrets while exploring a struggling blue-collar town that cares more about football than anything else.
Any football book I read is destined to fall short of those two tomes. So I wasn't expecting much inspiration when I picked up Barry Alvarez's book, clumsily titled Don't Flinch ' Barry Alvarez: The Autobiography ' The Story of Wisconsin's All-Time Winningest Coach. But the book does have some good stories for fans who have followed Badger football during Alvarez's 15-year run.
For instance, Alvarez talks about the time he spent in the Minnesota Vikings training camp right out of college before admitting to legendary Vikings coach Bud Grant that his heart was in coaching, not playing. He also reflects on the pressure of being the big man on campus at a Big Ten school and how it led to his guarded public persona.
'If you walk in somewhere and you don't feel comfortable, you need to do one thing: exit,' he writes. 'It took me awhile to learn that.'
Don't Flinch is full of nods, name checks and shout-outs to former players, assistants and colleagues. It's as though Alvarez wrote it with a checklist of people he wanted to be sure to mention.
There are also frequent references to University of Miami. Alvarez tells how he wanted to play college ball there and details being sought out for the school's head coaching job in 1995 and again in 2001. Current coach Larry Coker is under fire, with the Hurricanes dropping from the national rankings for the first time in seven years.
Is Alvarez's book a cover letter for the Miami job? Throughout the book, he stresses how important preparation and thinking several steps ahead have been to his career.
Don't Flinch is an 'as told to' story with Capital Times columnist Mike Lucas serving as the book's ghostwriter. That form was pioneered by Dick Schaap with Instant Replay, the 1968 book he wrote with Green Bay Packer guard Jerry Kramer; it was re-released in hardcover earlier this year.
During the 1967 season, Kramer kept an audio diary, often speaking into his recorder in the Lambeau Field locker room. He mailed the tapes to Schaap in New York; the two met after the season to produce Instant Replay. The title refers to the winning touchdown at the end of the famous Ice Bowl game at Lambeau, when Packer quarterback Bart Starr leaned across the goal line behind a surging Kramer. Replays of the score have made Kramer arguably the most famous offensive guard in the history of pro football.
'Thank God for instant replay,' Kramer told Schaap.
But the story Kramer takes the most care to tell has to do with what happened immediately after the Ice Bowl, when reporters mobbed him in the locker room. An Esquire magazine article published the previous month had criticized Lombardi for his hot temper and psychological pressure; Kramer wanted to set the record straight.
'Many things have been said about Coach and he is not always understood by those who quote him,' Kramer said on national TV. 'The players understand. This is one beautiful man.'
Unlike other sports autobiographies, Instant Reply is less about its author than his coach. Lombardi dogs Kramer and his teammates throughout, but the moments where he praises them are instantly inspirational.
Schaap, who died in 2002, said he recruited Kramer for the book after stumbling across the guard reading poetry aloud from his dorm room at Packer training camp. And Kramer's appreciation for literature, including Paper Lion, is evident throughout the book.
'I'm tempted to say some things about [Detroit defensive tackle Alex] Karras, but we're always the people who don't say bad things about anybody,' Kramer writes after one crushing loss to the Lions. 'I'm tired of that nice-guy stuff, but I guess I really shouldn't say anything about that nearsighted hippopotamus.'