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The next month is a hell of a time to read a football book: Either your team is still in the Super Bowl hunt and you want to further stoke your passion for the sport, or your team has been eliminated and you want a football-themed distraction. Or maybe you just love books. Whatever the case, here’s a handful of terrific non-fiction football reads to carry you through the playoffs, the harsh winter, and beyond.
The Last Headbangers (2012)
By Kevin Cook
Headbangers got overshadowed by other recent releases, but that doesn't make it any less useful and compelling. The book is a reminder of where the league comes from, as opposed to where it’s going (which is the more popular subject now, in head injury-focused volumes like League of Denial and Collision Low Crossers). Cook keeps his eye on the 10 years from 1972 to 1982, and almost exclusively on the Steelers and Raiders. Read it for the throwback nostalgia (long hair, drugs, more candor by everyone involved in the game) to a time before the league was so corporate and buttoned-up. If the book perhaps lionizes this era a little too much, it makes up for it with adept descriptions of specific games and memorable plays.
The Education of a Coach (2005)
By David Halberstam
If you’re not a Patriots fan or Bill Belichick completist, you may have missed this fabulous, exhaustive biography of the league’s most inscrutable coach. You’ve seen Tom Brady’s emotionless, hoodie-clad guru on the sidelines, sure, but did you know about the influence Belichick's father had on him, or that the Pats coach, now exhaustingly serious on and off the field, was something of a party kid at Wesleyan? As the Times pointed out in its 2005 review, Belichick as subject “poses a narrative problem” for Halberstam, who had to put his “vibrant storytelling skills against the public blandness” of the coach. Well, Halberstam solved the problem; its subject may be brainy and withdrawn, but the book is readable and fascinating.
Where Men Win Glory: The Odyssey of Pat Tillman (2009)
By Jon Krakauer
The outdoor/adventure journalist Jon Krakauer is still chiefly known for Into Thin Air and Into the Wild and perhaps always will be, but his book about Pat Tillman may be his best work, in terms of the reportage. Half-focused on war and Tillman’s time in Afghanistan, it’s also about football: Krakauer maps out exactly how big, lovable Tillman got a taste for the game (his high school football coach originally laughed at him), made himself big, excelled as a safety at Arizona State, and then reached the pros, where he made a splash with the Cardinals. Then his searing patriotism compelled him to join the army, where tragedy occurred. The book is a reminder of how, in ways sad but true, football and war share a strong tie to American identity.
Paper Lion (1966)
By George Plimpton
Read about a journalist talking his way onto the Detroit Lions as a quarterback, and then bumbling his way through practices as he strips bare the personal strife of being an NFL rookie. The book, now nearly 50 years old, is known to all—you’ve no doubt heard of it—but hasn’t actually been read by all. Journalists, especially, love to cite Plimpton’s book and name-drop him along with other practitioners of the so-called New Journalism, but many of them have never made their way through the thing. It is bawdy, surprising, and plain fun.
Friday Night Lights (1990)
By H.G. Bissinger
This was before the author now known for his fancy-pants fashion obsessions began calling himself Buzz. You may think you know the story of Permian High School’s football program from watching the (very good) TV show, but the book, about the Panthers’ 1988 season, is better than the movie that came from it, which is in turn better than the show (an unpopular opinion, granted). Read the 1990 bestseller and then, if you’re craving even more Booby Miles, read Bissinger’s recent Kindle Single, After Friday Night Lights, in which he finds that the minor fame Miles enjoyed from the original book didn’t much help his fortunes.
THE HONORABLE MENTION
Slow Getting Up (2013)
By Nate Jackson
This self-deprecating, candid memoir by former Broncos tight end (among other positions) Nate Jackson is the newest book of this roundup, but hasn’t gotten the attention it deserves. Yes, the Times reviewed it (quite positively) and Deadspin ran a long excerpt. But anecdotally, the book is deserving of even more buzz than there’s been. Jackson holds nothing back in his story, giving us a view into the very secrets you probably wonder about (drug use among players) and even those parts you would maybe rather not read about (masturbating in hotel rooms). When Jackson and his teammates go out to the clubs, “Everything,” he writes, “is open wide: arms, doors, and legs.” Do not miss this one, which isn’t just a great football book but one of the best books of 2013, period.