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Goodell focused on helping players during and after their careers

EMIGRANT, Mont. -- Now there's a dateline I never thought I'd use: Emigrant, Mont. I came here Thursday at the invitation of Atlanta owner Arthur Blank to moderate a couple of football discussions for Falcons clients and suite-holders at Blank's Mountain Sky Guest Ranch. Now I know why the Spielberg family comes here for a week a year. No TV. No computers. I forded a creek on a horse Friday. ("Forded.'' Always loved that word. Never thought I'd actually do it.)

One of those discussions was with NFL commissioner Roger Goodell. And on Friday morning just after 6, we sat on the porch of the main house to discuss the news of the day.

Me: What's been your focus in the wake of Junior Seau's death about what to do with NFL programs for players post-career?

Goodell: "Our focus has been on the total health of our players. We have programs from the time they enter the league, programs while you're in the league, and over the last year or two. Now [director of player engagement] Troy Vincent has been creating programs helping them transition out of the game. It's much more difficult for these individuals than we might think. Talking to the players and talking to professionals, that transition needs some focus in how we provide them the resources. It's not just their physical health, like cardiovascular screening and joint replacements, it's expanding of the mental health resources. How do we help identify somebody that may need help, get that help to them and what are the resources that he has? ... There's still that stigma that mental health is a weakness. It's not. Depression, anxiety, these are very common and can be dealt with in a variety of different fashions. Some with medicine, some with counseling, some with other forms of assistance. When they're not dealt with, they have a tendency to spiral and to become much more complicated.''

Me: London Fletcher told me mental health counseling for players post-career should be mandatory.

Goodell: "Well, at least an evaluation. That's something that's being discussed as a part of your exit physical. Part of that is mental health evaluation to see what it can be. I've heard that from players myself. And we are evaluating it.

Me: What's the most disturbing thing, to you, about Seau's death?

Goodell: "The most disturbing thing is the tragedy itself. That a young man that was so successful and had so much good to learn and had so much promise made the decision to end his life. All we want to do is make sure that we're doing everything we can to prevent another tragedy, to have the resources available to our players and to recognize in talking to the VA, to the National Institutes of Health, that professionals in this area that we've spent a great deal of time talking to say that there's two sides to a very complex issue that involves multiple factors. Speaking with all the professionals, that support system and that structure and the loss of those two factors is very powerful. I hear it from the professionals and I hear it from the players. Some of the players that you and I both know that I respect a lot. I see it in their eyes a little bit -- not having their team, which they consider their family in some ways, and that constant support system and seeing the other guys motivate the other guys. Losing that is a really difficult challenge. Then the structure. As you know, these players are given a very specific structure. 'This is the schedule for tomorrow. This is the schedule for Wednesday, Thursday, Friday.' That's gone all of a sudden. I had a couple of players tell me, 'It's Monday morning and next thing I know it's Friday. Nobody was structuring my life.' Those are all contributing factors to just that transition and what do I do, how do I do that, how do I get myself motivated and moving. When they're not dealt with effectively, that's what makes people spiral downward. You feel less about yourself. I'm not an expert, so I don't want be saying on the record that leads to depression or could lead to depression. It's really that spiral effect that we keep talking about.

Goodell spoke of a relatively new peer-to-peer counseling program, the Ambassador Program, which pairs former players with current ones, discussing preparing for retirement and being available for players after they retire. He said the number of Ambassadors is up to about 50 now.

Goodell: "The reason we think this is so important is peer-to-peer is important because if you've been through it that's usually a big help ... We're focusing on that assistance, so when they [recently retired players] feel that kind of hopelessness or desperation, they have a place to come ... If somebody wants it to be anonymous, we have that option as well. [Eventually] depending on where it goes, the counseling may go completely out of the system. They might be going to a professional that has nothing to do with the NFL, which is the way it should be. That's OK ... One of our biggest challenges is to get the players [to come forward to be able] to teach them.

Me: Meaning?

Goodell: "We've had mental health forums where they could come with their spouses and they could hear different things and different challenges that you might have. What to look for, how do deal with it, how to manage it. Very few players showed up. It's the same old thing. We have a lot of individuals that have tremendous pride and they're not always going to raise their hand and say, 'I may need help.' But we all need help. And we all need assistance.''

Me: Your thoughts on the master complaint from more than 2,100 players claiming the league did too little about head trauma and concussions ... Do you think this endangers the NFL as we know it?

Goodell: "Our lawyers are going to focus on that. We obviously feel very strongly that the complaint is not accurate. We have long made player safety a priority. We have made the game safer and the other games safer. We will vigorously defend litigation and the lawyers will do that in the courtroom. In the meantime, we're going to keep focusing on what do we keep doing to make the game safer and the rule changes and the equipment changes and investing in pioneering research that we think could make significant strides in better understanding of the brain.''

Goodell said he has spent more time this offseason on player safety than on any other issue -- more time, he told me, than on the Saints' bounty program. He also pointed to the National Institutes of Occupational Safety and Health study that said former NFL players lived a longer life than average male citizens as bursting a myth that the life span of football players is shortened by the game.

Me: What have you learned, let's say, since the end of the season that's contributed to your continuing education on head trauma and concussions?

Goodell: "The head, neck, and spine committee met back in early- to mid-February. I think we had 48 professionals in that room, leading doctors and scientists from institutions all over the world, virtually all of them unaffiliated with the NFL. I think the thing that strikes me the most about it is how much more we have to learn as a society, as a medical profession, as scientists. There's still a lot of unknowns about the brain, either brain disease or brain trauma and how it reacts. That's not unusual in science and medicine as you know. You have different findings and medical debates. We could see that in the room. There are some tremendous professionals that are taking a very cautious and conservative approach that are making it safer for our troops, NFL players, girls soccer players and that you can manage the risk of concussions, that we can do more to prevent it and that we can understand it better to make sure you fully recover from these injuries. The first thing to do is prevent it. That goes to rules, equipment. The second is our sideline assessment tools. We have made changes to that. There are some new technologies that make this very soon in the future where on a tablet, you can actually take a test on the sideline to determine (the concussion).''

Me: A tablet? An iPad? This year?

Goodell: "It's possible.''

Me: How do you expect the system to work this year?

Goodell: "The player has to self-report and has to tell professionals. We have spotters, as you know, our ATC [athletic trainers] spotters program, which we implemented late in the season to sort of identify hits that would require an evaluation. That will be expanded and fully in place this season. There's an ATC, which is an athletic trainer who's not active right now, but they'll be upstairs. They will have access to all the video and if they see a hit that involves a significant blow to the head or if a player demonstrates any kind of dizziness or potential slowness to get up, they call down to the sideline and make sure the medical professional has that number and they can go make an evaluation ... Now we have the technology to send the play down to the field, so that if a medical personnel wants to look at that, they can look at the play and that has been very helpful in the playoffs. It's almost like the instant replay setup. You'll see the equipment down behind the bench area. The ATC spotter can actually, just like we do with instant replay, send a play down if the trainer or the doctor wants to see a play. They can look at the play and see what they call the mechanisms of injury. That's the term that's used. Through the mechanism of injury, you can determine, 'OK, I need to look at that.' It's a tremendous tool for the doctors.

Me: Would the Colt McCoy story have been different with this set-up?

Goodell: "He was examined, but they were focusing on his hand, because that's what he was complaining about. There are two or three injuries on that one play that happened in different places ... I have to go back and look, but I'm quite certain we had the ATC spotter when the Colt McCoy hit happened. What was happening though was the doctors were in looking at him [at his hand, not his head], so the ATC spotter said, 'Well, he's being evaluated, so that's fine.' What was the fallacy in it is that they were evaluating the wrong thing. What we're going to do now is to say regardless of whether you see them being evaluated, you are to speak to them and you are to tell them that there is head-to-head contact and here's the play and look at it. You would have seen the Colt McCoy hit and would have said, 'Forget his thumb now. Let's focus on if he had any type of injury to his head.' ... He would not have gone back in after three or four plays. One of the things we're learning about concussions is sometimes the symptoms don't occur for several minutes. We don't know about the brain. It may just not be apparent for some period of time and that's another complicating factor to this."

Me: Next on your to-do list?

Goodell: "Clearly how we want the game to be safer for the current players, the former players and then how do I make the game more exciting for fans? There's fans still looking for new and different ways to engage with the game. Technology is a great opportunity to do that. We've talked about the player and health safety and the initiatives and that's first on my mind, but ... those new platforms, mobile devices, bringing technology into our stadiums, how do we make that stadium experience exciting? Those are ongoing challenges.''

We ended discussing the in-stadium experience. I said I'd learned a lot about the appreciation of the game from watching cricket in England with absolutely no bells and whistles and 105-decibel music -- simply the game. And he talked about how he'd love to find a way to replicate the natural excitement and fan involvement of world soccer, where, among other things, fans break out in song and chants through the game.

Sounds like a great goal for the NFL. To me, the way to do that isn't to bombard people with piped-in noise.

The NFL's a cauldron of news. I could have asked him about 25 other things. Hope you got a few things out of his words.

***

Here's an angle of the players' head-trauma litigation you haven't thought of.

A source with knowledge of the roster of the more than 2,100 players who have joined the various lawsuits against the NFL for ignoring and/or minimizing the results of head trauma in the pro game says some of the players in the suit will have zero or very little evidence of long-term damage.

I sought one of them out -- Rich Miano, 49, who played 11 years in the NFL, with the Jets, Eagles and Falcons -- and asked why he got involved.

Miano is hardly your typical plaintiff. He doesn't hate the NFL; he's thankful for what professional football did for him. He loves football. He says he doesn't want money. What he wants, other than to raise the focus on the importance of educating players about the risks of head injuries, is the ability to be covered by insurance if the day comes that he begins to suffer from dementia or a similar malady.

"This isn't about a money grab,'' Miano said from his home in Hawaii on Saturday. "It's an education grab. Colt McCoy gets [concussed] last year in a game and goes right back in. Two high school players here in Hawaii got put back in a game after concussions. There needs to be a huge outreach across all levels of football to educate people about the dangers of head trauma and football. Whatever happens -- win, lose or draw -- this is going to be good for every generation, past and future, because it will continue to educate people.''

One of the things Miano hopes, he said, for the next generation of athletes, and their families, is to believe football is safe enough to play. "I really want the soccer moms of America to feel better about football,'' he said.

Miano will be 50 in September. His former Eagles teammate, Andre Waters, would be 50 had he not killed himself. Another safety of their era, Dave Duerson, would be 51 today had he not killed himself. "It's bone-chilling to think about,'' said Miano. "Why am I so fortunate to be in the shape I am today when I played the same position as Andre and Dave? I made 700 tackles in 11 seasons and I seem to have withstood the punishment at least neurologically so much better.''

Miano said if he "takes a turn for worse'' mentally, "at 50 or 52 or whenever, I'd like to be able to be medically monitored.'' Still, the prospect of someone joining in a lawsuit who is asymptomatic to the base purpose of all the lawsuits will prick the NFL's interest, and could give the league a litigation strategy. How many more Mianos are there, and why do you sue an entity you're thankful to have been a part of?

"I go to bed every night knowing I'm in this for the right reasons.'' Miano said.

***

Things to think about with Darrelle Revis ...

Last week, I said Revis, due to make an average of $6.75 million in the last two years of his contract, would be justified in thinking he should be rewarded for being the best cornerback in football over the last two years of that contract. It's indisputable that he is the best corner in the game. But I doubt the Jets will entertain re-doing his deal for a few reasons.

1. Revis, out of college, signed a six-year contract. This will be his sixth year in the league. The Jets re-did his contract after three years. To address it again after five, with two years on the re-do of the original, would create a precedent GM Mike Tannenbaum probably wouldn't want to create, particularly with the cap remaining relatively flat in the next two years.

2. It's more likely the Jets could renegotiate Revis' deal next season, with a year left on the contract he signed in 2010. That would follow the lead of the Arizona Cardinals with Larry Fitzgerald. When the Cards reworked Fitzgerald's deal last season, it was with one year left on the reworked original contract.

3. It's not believed Tannenbaum ever told Revis or his representatives that he'd open up the contract again after two years.

It'd be surprising, I think, if Revis opened training camp with the Jets in late July. It'd also be surprising if the Jets didn't draw a pretty hard line in 2012.

Some of you like this section, which has begun to take over one of my 48 Monday columns each year, and some of you don't. For those who don't, skip the next 4,000 words or so. For those who do, I appreciate all the support you've given this idea over the years, and I hope you find a book here -- or anywhere, quite frankly -- to give the Dad who really wants a book. I can tell you one of the gifts of the last four or five weeks has been the gift of unplugging so I could read the books I've listed here.

The other day, in Montana, I toured a one-room schoolhouse (more about that later) and picked up a little tome called English Reading for Schools. The book was published in 1926. Inside were these words: "The virtue of books is the perfecting of reason, which is indeed the happiness of man.''

Well, I always thought the happiness of man was the Red Sox winning the World Series. But reading's pretty good. I urge you to pick up one of these for the man who needs to get back to reading. Thanks for reading.

That's Why I'm Here: The Chris and Stefanie Spielman Story, by Chris Spielman, with Bruce Hooley (Zondervan). Non-fiction.

Once, when I was in Detroit in the early '90s, sent by Sports Illustrated to write about linebacker Chris Spielman, I gave him a pitch for a story I wanted to do: I'd go home with him after practice one day and watch how Mr. Intenso went about his preparation for film study for the next game. Spielman listened to me as I sold the inside look into his world harder and harder -- "I want America to see who you are,'' is approximately something I said -- and after a few minutes he gave me a bit of a patronizing stare and said he'd think about it. The next day Spielman told me no. "My life's not the friggin' NFL Today!'' he said.

Imagine my surprise, then, when I cracked this book and read some of the most intimate details, conversations and eruptions a family of six can have as the noble wife and mother careens toward death. Chris Spielman, one of the most balls-out football players I have ever covered, but also one of the most private, delves into things like:

• Asking Stefanie: "How do you want your funeral?''

• How to tell ninth- and seventh-graders their mother is dying. The oldest child, Madison, wrote the foreward to the book. What a strong, eloquent girl she is.

• Drawing baths for Stefanie as the end neared, making sure the water was just the right temperature and her favorite lotions were there for her ... then lifting her in and out of the tub, drying her off after the bath.

• The painful dialogue with the younger children, telling them their mother wouldn't be around much longer, then letting it sink in, then giving little Audrey time to think. "What are you doing?'' Chris called out a few minutes later. Said Audrey: "Crying my eyes out.''

• Watching a tape Stefanie left the family, to be viewed only after her death. "She told each one [of the children] that she had prayed for their future spouse for a very long time,'' Spielman, with Hooley, writes.

• The last words he speaks to her body before he personally lifts her into the crematory and pushes the button ... for her to be cremated. "I didn't want her to be alone at that moment,'' Spielman writes.

It's a stunningly unvarnished look into the most painful time of a family's existence, and how the deeply religious couple copes. I had to call Spielman and ask, with a mixture of surprise and great admiration: "How could such a normally private person have done this?''

"It's funny,'' he told me Saturday. "But I've done some interviews about the book, and people will say to me, 'It must be so therapeutic for you to tell these stories and talk about this.' No. It's painful. But in order to make the story credible, you've got to tell it all. To have an impact, to really help people, you've got to put it all out there.''

For those of you too young to remember much about Spielman the player or character (I can't believe I'm writing those words; seems like Spielman was suiting up for the Lions five years ago), he was a blood-and-guts player the way Jack Youngblood or Dick Butkus was. Here's Spielman describing one of his old offseason habits as a player: "After getting in my running at Rochester (Mich.) High School, I'd put on a plastic suit, get in my truck, roll the windows up, and turn the heater on full blast. I'd drive around with my mouth full of chewing tobacco and see how long I could last without spitting. I'd just swallow the tobacco juice and fight the urge to puke. It tested me mentally to see how long I could go without throwing up. It helped me simulate playing through distractions and taught me to focus. I think I lasted an hour and 29 minutes one time.''

Well, all right then.

Through the book, Spielman's growth as a person is highlighted. He describes once, pre-breast cancer, how his wife and he had an argument and he says to her: "Why don't you put all your ideas on how I can be a better husband into a suggestion box, and I'll read them when I get time?'' He said he knew a lot of people felt that Neanderthal side defined him. But he became significantly more religious, mirroring Stefanie, when she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1998. He decides to take the year off from football to help with family things and to be there for his wife, and though he misses the game desperately, he never feels he's done the wrong thing. And from there, as you'll read, he and Stefanie are thrown into the cancer cauldron, with great hope followed by crushing disappointment. And then, of course, the ultimate disappointment.

"I took my wedding vows seriously,'' Spielman told me. "When I said, 'In sickness and in health,' I meant it.''

Spielman sounds different in the book, and in person, than he was as a player. "There are blessings in contentment,'' he said. "If I'd said that to you back when I was working out at Rochester High, preparing for a season with the Lions, I'd have expected you to punch me in the head. But we got such great blessings from Stefanie's life. When we were all sitting there, watching the tape she'd made for us to watch after she died, she spoke to each of the kids individually. So impressive. One of the things she said was, 'Never use my death as an excuse for anything.' That was important for the kids to hear.''

I think the book's terrific. I'm surprised it hasn't generated more positive press; you feel like you're in the battle with the Spielmans. I strongly recommend it, particularly to those going through the pain of a loved one fighting cancer. It has a very strong religious bent, which will be over the top for some readers. But the story itself is inspirational, and raw, and, I would think if I knew someone going through a bout with cancer, helpful. Praise, too, to Bruce Hooley, Spielman's friend, who knows how to tell a story and helps Spielman tell it exceedingly well.

***

Canada, by Richard Ford. (Ecco). Fiction.

I'm sure I'm not the first to say that, among Ford's novels, I liked The Sportswriter and Independence Day better than Canada. But that's akin to saying I like Drew Brees and Tom Brady better than Matthew Stafford. Canada, Ford's newest book, is a slog in two or three spots. The story's narrator, a 15-year-old twin boy whose life is turned incredibly upside down in the span of a few months in 1960, first in Montana, then in Saskatchewan, is an appealing, sympathetic and literate character defined perfectly by Ford. My only beef is I found myself saying, when the sameness of the kid's life dragged in two or three spots, "Get on with it!''

A small price to pay, though, for one of the best stories I've read in a while. Young Dell Parsons is growing up in Great Falls, Mont., the son of a slick and idiotic father and a timid and reclusive mother who, from the start, you can see never should have been married. The father gets into debt with some locals and comes up with the brilliant idea of robbing a bank -- and convinces the wife who hates him to drive the getaway car.

From the observations of this friendless boy Dell, the story is at times hilarious, at times heartbreaking. It feels so real. And Ford writes some of the best sentences I've ever read. How perfectly he describes his mother on the eve of the bank robbery: "Anyone might think a woman whose husband was possibly losing his mind (or at least part of it), and who was preparing to rob a bank, who'd led his family almost to ruin, who considered it a novel idea to involve his only son in the robbery, who was threatening jail and disaster and the dissolution of everything the two of them understood about life (and a woman who was already thinking of leaving the same man, anyway), you'd think this woman would be desperate for an opportunity to get away, or to involve the authorities to save herself and her children, or would find an iron resolve, would hold her ground, and would let nothing go forward and thereby preserve her family by the force of her will (my mother, as small and disaffected as she was, seemed to have a strong will, even if that turned out not to be true). But that isn't how our mother behaved.''

I tell you about the bank robbery not to be a spoiler, because Ford brings it up in the first paragraph of the book. But the sordid familial sex, the murders, the suicide, the cancer, the stark and incredibly unfortunate life turn in Canada, the remarkable resilience of young Dell and what he makes of his life ... those you'll have to read for yourself. I strongly urge you to do so.

A Ford book, to me, is like a U2 CD. I'm a huge fan of the writer and the group, and too much time passes between the releases of their gems. Do not take from my note about the slog above that Canada will not be worth your while. I read its 420 pages in 48 hours, and if life hadn't interceded, I'd have finished it quicker.

***

Over Time: My Life as a Sportswriter, by Frank Deford (Atlantic Monthly Press). Non-fiction.

For many of us in the business, Frank Deford is the Holy Grail. He's simply one of the greatest sportswriters of all time. If he's the New York Yankees, I'm honored to be the Double-A Trenton Thunder. Just to play the same sport as Deford is something wonderful.

His memoir has a little bit of everything -- great stories about interviewing everyone from Richard Nixon (why, Nixon wondered, didn't Sports Illustrated cover bowling more, seeing that millions in the country bowled?) to Jerry Jones. (Now there was a story. During the Deford-Jones chat, in a bar late at night, the waitress wondered if Jones would autograph her breast. He did, then suggested Deford autograph the other, which he did. "Sportswriters, as a general rule, are not often given that opportunity,'' Deford wrote.)

Deford played with the Harlem Globetrotters, introduced the world to Bill Bradley, really disliked Rodney Dangerfield, edited the only national sports daily in our history (The National), and has great takes on the history and characters of Sports Illustrated in its formative years. His interview with the Babe Ruth of Japan, Sadaharu Oh, is one of the great lost-in-translation stories you'll ever read.

I love Deford's description of the modern media, told from his aging-sportswriter perspective:

"About all you share anymore with most of the players is their sport itself -- or listening to them talk about themselves. Soon, the coaches and managers are the ones of your vintage. As you grow older, in fact, you gravitate more toward doing stories about coaches -- not just because they're your new contemporaries, but because they've lived longer, more complicated lives. They're simply better stories. After all, most of them failed, in that they couldn't cut it as players. That's why they become coaches.

"Coaches are movies. Players are snapshots.

"So the one great irony of writing about sports is that the most important people in sports are young and unformed, and consequently, if through no fault of their own, less interesting ... Now, with television, everyone with a clicker is privy to seeing the same thing clear as day on HD as are the pros on the scene with media passes, so you have to eschew the games and write about the athletes as people.

"And that can be a trial. Too often, it's reminiscent of when someone asked Fred Zinnemann, the movie director, what a certain young actress was like, and he replied: 'What makes you think she's like anything?'

"Therefore, more and more we tend to celebrate the loudmouths -- the highest percentage, it seems, being wide receivers in football -- who first make themselves accessible, then voluble, and thereupon qualify as 'characters,' but who are, really, just so many obnoxious jerks.''

Deford's the best.

***

The Art of Fielding, by Chad Harbach (Little, Brown & Company). Fiction.

I mentioned how much I liked this book in Monday Morning Quarterback when I read it in January. I'm not a voracious reader of books, but I like them, and I like fiction that sucks you in and doesn't let you out. Thrillers do that. For me, John Grisham has always done that. But this book is the best piece of fiction I've read in years, and it's not political or some covert espionage job. It revolves around a phenom baseball player from South Dakota named Henry Skrimshander after he enrolls at the fictitious Westish College in Wisconsin. The book is 525 pages. I only wish it were 1,525.

What happens to a precocious baseball player and incredibly naïve college student, when his life in so many ways begins to spin out of control? And the lives of so many people around begin to spin in a wayward way as well? I won't spoil the drama of what happens in the book, only the part about the first of several things to go terribly wrong with Henry:

He is such a great shortstop that he's being scouted by the pros as a surefire first-round draft choice for the major leagues ... until he suffers from the kind of ballplayer sickness that plagued Rick Ankiel, Steve Blass, Steve Sax and Chuck Knoblauch. They couldn't throw the ball where they wanted to anymore.

If Harbach didn't play hundreds of games of baseball, I'd be surprised. The way he writes about Henry's trouble, it's like Harbach himself had it. As in this segment about one throw gone awry: "The distance called for a casual sidearm fling -- he'd done it ten thousand times. But now he paused, double-clutched. He'd thrown the last one too soft, better put a little mustard on it -- no, no, not too hard. Too hard would be bad too. He clutched again. Now the runner was closing in ... '' It's that kind of writing that makes you feel Henry's pain.

But the amazing thing is, as much of a baseball fan as I am, I thought the book got better when it veered away from the baseball scenes. The story about Henry's gay roommate, the Westish college president, his daughter escaping a bad marriage, the baseball team captain ... it all makes for a compelling read.

If the dad you have in mind is a huge sports fan, he'll like this book a lot. If he's a baseball fan, he'll love this book. If he's a fan of good writing and a great story, hand this to him and get out of the way, because once he starts he won't want to stop reading.

***

The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer, by Siddhartha Mukherjee (Scribner). Non-fiction.

Cancer, obviously, is one of the great mysteries of life. There's something in this 470-page book -- part research tome, part history book, part emotionally patient-focused storytelling -- for anyone with any ties to cancer. I was interested, in part, because my two parents and both of my wife's parents died of it (my mother also had emphysema), and I've been mystified over the years about why, with all the money we pour into it, we can't finish it off.

The answer, Mukherjee writes, is because cancer is not one disease. It is many. He delves into the history and the technical side of the various forms of the disease -- and I won't lie, I skipped some of the chemical and scientific parts of the book, though he writes in prose understandable to Neanderthals like me. But the human stories make the book important, and the social stories.

Mukherjee devotes a significant section to how the tobacco companies kept America smoking, even as evidence began to surface that smoking was bad for you. In the mid-50s, when 45 percent of the adult population smoked, one ad for Camel cigarettes noted, "More doctors smoke Camels,'' certainly in part to help customers understand that if doctors smoked an unfiltered cigarette, how dangerous could it be? In the '50s, Mukhurjee writes, doctors line up for free cigarettes at the annual America Medical Association convention. And you wonder why it took so long for America to wise up about the dangers of smoking? Why would they get smart -- when the professionals paid to keep them healthy were smoking?

The book isn't a page-turner, or a lazy beach book. It's well-written, by a leader on the front line, and one of the best books I've ever encountered that explains a terribly complicated series of diseases so that they're understandable -- and so that we can understand how difficult it is to solve the cancer problem. Mukherjee writes how difficult the task is, but that it's not the impossible dream either.

***

The Essential Smart Football, by Chris B. Brown (CreateSpace). Non-fiction.

Amazing how much football knowledge Brown, a lawyer and sportswriter (you may know him from his smart takes on football at, fittingly, @smartfootball on Twitter), packs into 139 pages. He sets out to explain how football, which often looks to be a street fight, is actually more of a chess match. His premise: Football works because it teaches us that, as in life, you've often got to play as part of a team and you've got to get up after getting knocked down.

"Yet,'' he writes, "football is also great because, due to its complex arrangements of twenty-two roving players across a wide expanse of green grass -- coupled with repeated opportunities for synchronized action and planning -- it's a sport for those who think ... Football is the rare pastime that has the opportunity to stimulate our left and right brains equally.''

Brown, in one instance, explains why Vince Wilfork is such a valuable player for New England. He takes a snap from the AFC title game last season, late in the fourth quarter, when the Patriots made a pre-snap adjustment that resulted in Wilfork being one-on-one with an overmatched Matt Birk. At the snap, with no help, Birk was powerless to hold off Wilfork because Wilfork is stronger and got the leverage first. Wilfork forced Joe Flacco, who had planned to throw quickly, to throw much more quickly than he'd wanted, and the pass was incomplete.

So often, terms like one-gapping and two-gapping are thrown around in line play the way four-seamer and cutter are used in baseball. Fans hear them, but do they know them? In the Patriots' amoeba-like defense -- New England prides itself in being so multiple you can't get a read on what the D does half the time -- players like the strong and quick and massive Wilfork are important because they can both one-gap and two-gap.

One-gapping is easier, as Brown explains, because the defensive lineman is responsible for attacking and controlling one gap. Two-gapping is tougher because it requires a defender to take on an offensive lineman while minding the holes on either side of him. If the offensive lineman is pushing him in a certain direction on a running play, for instance, the defender has to think there's a reason for it and understand that he could be trying to open the gap for a running lane. So the defender has to fight that, while watching to see where the play's going. "It is the most violent, most complicated, and most beautiful ballet I can think of,'' Brown writes.

Often, many of you ask me for a good, educational football book to read. I've told you scores of times to read Tim Layden's Blood, Sweat and Chalk, about the origination of many of the important innovations in football history, and, more recently, I advised you to read War Room, Michael Holley's book about the Belichick personnel tree. Now I'll tell you to buy The Essential Smart Football, for one simple reason: It's going to make you and dads in this world a lot smarter about football.

***

Imperfect: An Improbable Life, by Jim Abbott and Tim Brown (Ballantine Books). Non-fiction.

Smart, cool way of writing the story of Abbott, who was born without a right hand and went on to be a good major-league pitcher -- and inspiration to the physically challenged everywhere. Abbott and Brown weave the heroic Abbott's life story through and around the inning-by-inning reportage of his 1993 no-hitter against Cleveland. (What a lineup -- Kenny Lofton, Carlos Baerga, Albert Belle, Manny Ramirez and Jim Thome, among others.)

The best stuff isn't baseball. It's life. "The thing about a disability is, it's forever,'' Abbott writes. "And forever might not end, but it has to start somewhere.'' That was in Michigan for Abbott, born to Flint teens. "It was pity I didn't want and couldn't stand,'' he writes. "By fifth grade I was being carpooled across town to play flag football on muddy fields lined by parents. The murmuring about that kid, the one people stared at, usually would start in the parking lot. Those doing the whispering must not have thought so, or didn't care if I did, but I could always hear them. I could see them. They'd hold their conversations through our warmups, and then when I was the one playing quarterback, and then whenever the thought struck them ... In the years that followed, only the crowds changed. They got bigger and louder, but the reaction was always the same."

Abbott writes of the pain of being bullied for his disability, and, much later, of being a beacon for so many families of children with disabilities. In many ways, the stories of touching so many families reminds me of what we've seen over the last couple of years with Tim Tebow. Good, decent human beings convinced that part of their calling in life is the humanness as well as the sports.

"Imperfect'' is very well-written. I'm glad a story as good as Abbott's is showcased with such fine writing.

***

Drop-Dead Healthy: One Man's Humble Quest for Bodily Perfection, by A.J. Jacobs (Simon & Schuster). Non-fiction.

Esquire writer A.J. Jacobs tells us before his quest for bodily perfection begins that his wife looked forward to going to the gym the same way he looked forward to reading on the couch while she's at the gym. At 41, he decides to go on a two-year mission to be the healthiest person alive. The book is about more than losing weight or being muscular. Jacobs covers all the bases when it comes to a healthy body: hearing, teeth, skin care, strong feet, posture, sleep and breathing, along with the expected diet and exercise chapters. There's even some unusual, but always welcome, advice about going to the bathroom.

It's a fun and exhaustive journey through myriad theories, myths, fads and facts, an engaging story brought to life by his family -- his wife, three young sons, grandfather and eccentric, raw-foodist Aunt Marti from Berkeley, Calif., who Jacobs calls the "single most health-minded person in America." When he phones to tell her about his quest for great health, she berates him for calling on his cellphone, lecturing him about its dangers to the brain. Marti comes to visit to do a sweep of his apartment to detoxify it. Everything in the home is toxic, and she looks at his refrigerator likes it's a "Superfund site."

There's a chapter on the evils of sitting and how even a strenuous workout in the morning can be undone by a day at your desk. Our grandparents, he learns, burned an average of 800 calories a day more than us without the benefit of exercise equipment. Committing to the idea that motion equals health, Jacobs turns his treadmill into a desk and writes nearly his entire book from there. While the book can feel a bit disjointed at times, like a series of magazine articles, Jacobs makes up for it with his slightly cynical yet sincere take on the crazy world of health gurus and the mountains of conflicting advice, evidence and studies. And the scatological musings of his sons are priceless. By the book's end, he's lost 16 pounds, halved his body fat percentage, completely changed his eating habits and competed in a triathlon.

I'll leave you with a list of his exercise advice at the end of the book:

1. Literally run your errands.

2. Have meetings like you're a character in "The West Wing," walking and talking, moving quickly.

3. Use small plates at meals.

4. Put your fork down between bites.

5. Eat an apple, a bowl of soup with cayenne pepper, two glasses of water or a handful of nuts. They all suppress the appetite.

6. Don't eat white food -- white rice, white bread, anything made with white flour.

7. Fidget. It's bad to sit still.

It's a good book. If you want to lose weight or live a healthier life, the ideas here will make you think, and laugh.

"A lot of things are legal in Las Vegas that are not legal anywhere else. Last night robbery was among them.''

--Columnist Ron Borges of the Boston Herald, reporting from Vegas, where Timothy Bradley "upset'' Manny Pacquiao in a junior welterweight bout in a split decision.

I'm not a boxing guy (haven't been, anyway, since covering Aaron Pryor back in my Cincinnati days), and I did not see the fight. But the kind of outrage among my peers who cover the fights and/or watch them regularly made me think the decision was a miscarriage of justice. (In boxing? Surprise!) Borges reported that CompuBox, which charts how many punches each fighter throws in a fight, had Pacquiao throwing more punches that landed in 10 of the 12 rounds, with one round a draw. Surmised Borges: "That means Bradley somehow won a fight in which he was outpunched in all but one round.''

This fight should be analyzed closely -- as should the flood of late money Saturday toward Bradley, an oddity considering Pacquiao was favored -- and I'll be watching to see how the two judges who scored the fight for Bradley, C.J. Ross and Duane Ford, defend their cards.

"Offense, defense and special teams doing their job, each group have different objective and motives, but playing in harmony for each other, for the good of everyone. Wouldn't it be nice if Congress operated the same way?''

-- Giants coach Tom Coughlin, during his team's visit to the White House Friday as the president honored the Giants for winning the Super Bowl four months ago.

"I would. If I was convinced that his coach had received the right training, that they were being monitored in the right way, that people were making good decisions about teaching kids good skills, not only about the game of football, but what it teaches you about honor and sacrifice and teamwork, of course I would."

-- NFL Players Association executive director DeMaurice Smith, asked by National Public Radio Thursday if he would allow his son to play football.

"I would be shocked if he doesn't sign his tender by July 15 or whenever it is, and he shows up. At the end of the day, I think Matt knows it's business. He's still getting $7-whatever-million to play this year. So he's gonna show up.''

-- Chicago quarterback Jay Cutler, to ESPN 1000 in Chicago, on the contract stalemate between Matt Forte and the Bears.

Cutler is probably right -- but when the quarterback of the team says that, and Forte is fighting the team for a new long-term contract, and the quarterback says in effect, Don't be silly -- of course he's going to show up for the franchise number, I would think Forte would be wondering why his teammate is screwing around with his leverage.

"Fire ants got in my pants. I was freaking out. Oh, ants! When those ants get close to those testicles, there ain't no laughing about that.''

-- Dallas fullback Lawrence Vickers, to the Dallas Morning News, after a case of ants in his pants at a Cowboys workout session last week.

This could be the only appearance of Vickers in Monday Morning Quarterback this year, but it's a noble effort.

Last season, the most startling statistic for the Falcons, quite possibly, was the number of screen passes nifty receiver-out-the-backfield Jacquizz Rodgers caught in his rookie season: one ... out of 256 snaps he played on Atlanta pass plays.

Under new offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter, you can expect two 2011 rookies -- Rodgers and Julio Jones, to have more opportunities to do what they do best. The Falcons drafted Rodgers to be a Darren Sproles-type running back, and time will tell whether that's possible. But there's no way he'll be one if the Falcons don't get him the ball more often in space behind the offensive line. In all, according to ProFootballFocus.com, the Falcons were last in the NFL, including playoff games, with 33 screens in 17 games.

And though Jones averaged 17.8 yards per catch, the Falcons are convinced he should have more chances down the field. When they interviewed Koetter after former offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey took the Jacksonville head-coaching job, Atlanta brass was convinced Koetter would take more chances throwing deep with Jones.

Last season, ProFootballFocus.com had Jones 43rd among the 130 receivers with at least 20 targets in downfield depth; the average Atlanta pass to Jones was 13.1 yards past the line of scrimmage. Nothing wrong with throwing Jones some intermediate stuff he can turn into big plays, but that number has to jump up a few yards, emblematic of Matt Ryan airing out 20 or so more balls to him.

Rodgers short and Jones long. Keep that in mind as you watch the Falcons play in September. If they don't accomplish more of that, Koetter will be in head coach Mike Smith's office explaining why.

Want to know why Chad Ochocinco failed in New England? Trust. He just never built it up with Tom Brady, and the Patriots admitted their error by cutting him last week. (More in Ten Things.)

How the Patriots' big four -- Wes Welker, Aaron Hernandez, Rob Gronkowski and Deion Branch -- compared in what I'd call the Trust and Production Ratio to Ochocinco shows how he just never fit in.

The Big Four caught 68.4 percent of the balls Brady threw to them. Ochocinco caught 46.9 percent. Throw the blame wherever you wish, but the point is simple: Brady and the Patriots' offensive playcaller, Bill O'Brien, trusted the incumbents and didn't trust the new kid on the block.

Ate dinner Friday evening in a group that included a veteran Yellowstone National Park ranger, Jim Evanoff, who told us one of the most amazing things I'd heard in a while.

When Old Faithful erupts at Yellowstone, the water gushing out of the ground is more than 600 years old, scientists have told Evanoff. That's how long it takes the mountain snow to melt, run down through rivers and streams into the ground, and then percolate below the earth and explode into the sky every 93 minutes (give or take 10 minutes) at very high temperatures.

"That means,'' Evanoff told our group, some of whom would be visiting Yellowstone the next day and witnessing Old Faithful, "that the geysers you'll see tomorrow are formed from water that entered the earth before Christopher Columbus discovered America.''

Now there's something to think about.

One of the great things about traveling to a place like Montana is it gives you an appreciation for people and places you'd otherwise know nothing about.

One of the wranglers who helped me survive a two-hour walk/trot on a horse Friday, Kylie King, is a summer employee of Blank's ranch, earning money for college. She's a bright, smiley girl from the Montana ranching town of Winnett, and I asked her a lot about her life growing up.

She comes from a town of 200, and a county of about 370. There were 30 students in her high school, eight in her graduating class. Her high school partnered with another one a half-hour away for high school sports; that school had 20 students. She ran cross-country and played basketball at school, and helped herd cattle and birth calves with her family. They played six-man football at her high school, and once, when her school had two injuries among the seven players on the roster, they could field but five players. So their opponent that week, in a gesture of sportsmanship, played only five too.

For her high school graduation present, her family gave her a trip to New York City, where she went with her mother and grandmother. She loved "Mamma Mia,'' stayed in a hotel in Times Square, and was scared of only one thing: the crazy cab drivers. Now she'd like to work with horses for the rest of her life.

On Friday, I visited a one-room schoolhouse that served the community of Emigrant from 1928 to 1948. Blank helped restore it when he bought the property. It's one of the most amazing little buildings -- about 12 feet by 20 feet -- I've ever seen. The building, which housed the first- through eighth-grade in Emigrant for 21 years, looks like a tiny white chapel. Inside there are eight seats and attached desks, the original desks from the school, with carved-in initials; one kid generations ago had carved the words "CHAMPS'' on a desk.

The teacher might have two first-graders, no second-graders, a third-grader, a fifth-grader and three sixth-graders one year, for instance ... and would have to teach each single student or small group each day at their own grade level. At the end of eighth grade in those days, there was no expectation most of the students would continue with high school, which was 26 miles away in Livingston. Many stopped schooling then and went to work on the family ranches.

The books were the most interesting things. One on the teacher's desk was a 1928 English text titled Teachers Manual For Happy Times. Our guide, a local named Mark Rose, told us an elderly woman who once taught in the school dropped off a load of old texts at an antique shop in the area a few years ago, and these books were placed back in the school to lend an authentic air to it, seeing that, of course, some of them actually were used in the schoolhouse three-quarters of a century ago.

I picked up one book of a four-volume green set with barely legible letters on the cover. It was the collected works of Mark Twain. I looked at the title page. Published in 1871. I was holding a 151-year-old book.

I was in Montana for only a couple of days, but I'll remember it a long time. And I'll be back.

"Tim Bradley's wife didn't think he won."

-- @ByTimGraham of the Buffalo News, following the judging controversy in the fight Saturday night that had Bradley outpointing Manny Pacquiao, much to the consternation of most fight fans.

"As a kid I vowed I'd never drink coffee. Now I can't start the morning without it."

-- @GeoffSchwartz76, the Minnesota offensive lineman, who thinks a lot like I think.

"Pedroia is just a little ready. He's in the dugout in uniform at 2:48 p.m.''

-- @PeteAbe, Boston Globe baseball writer Pete Abraham, on Dustin Pedroia being prepared last Tuesday to play his first game back from a thumb injury.

Being in the dugout in uniform at 2:48 means Pedroia was ready to go 4 hours and 22 minutes before the first pitch. The guy likes what he does.

1. I think the NFL lost one of its quiet statesmen Thursday, when Jacksonville cut defensive end Aaron Kampman, who just hasn't been able to stay healthy enough through two major knee injuries to stay on the field for the Jags. He's as classy and as good a teammate and effort player as the league has employed.

On Twitter, defensive tackle Terrance Knighton said: "Aaron Kampman is THE best teammate I ever had.''

The values instilled in Kampman during his formative days in Iowa never left him. If this is it for him, the NFL needs to find a way to keep Kampman involved in the game. I might suggest some sort of ambassador role with high school football, where Kampman can pass along lessons learned from the late and great Ed Thomas at Aplington-Parkersburg High in Iowa.

2. I think the referee dispute is going to be a tough one for the men in stripes to win. At least in the court of public opinion. Nine out of 10 of the NFL officials have other jobs. Last year, rookie officials earned an average of $78,000, a figure that would more than double over the life of the seven-year NFL offer. A five-year official last season averaged $115,000 per year; in 2018, he'd earn an average of $183,000 per year.

The officials certainly have some leverage; the league is asking them to be significantly more vigilant this year regarding player safety on the field, and looking out for players who appear to be dazed. Hard to expect neophyte replacement officials to be remotely as competent as the NFL men, so it's important the NFL settles this. But it could drag on for a while. I don't expect many fans to sympathize with officials working only weekends (plus their homework) between August and January for well into six figures.

3. I think, however, Goodell has to devote some time to figuring a bridge to this problem if it drags on, say, into August. The league simply cannot have officials who have never done an NFL game on the field when the real games start in September. Officials blow calls all the time, but the thought of the wrong team winning a game -- particularly early in the season when the new guys are still getting used to the speed and mayhem of the pro game -- and influencing a playoff spot is simply unacceptable. And it could certainly happen.

4. I think I love Martellus Bennett saying he's fine to play at 291. You're a player who figures in the Giants' passing game, Martellus, not Brandon Manumaleuna.

5. I think, in many ways, it would have been better for the NFL's case if arbitrator Shyam Das had ruled for the players and said Goodell didn't have the authority to impose discipline on players for offenses that happened before the CBA was signed last summer. Because if Goodell rubber-stamps the sanctions after hearing the appeals, the Saints' players will say they never had a chance. But if Ted Cottrell or Art Shell, the hearing officers, presided over the appeals and found the players culpable, the league could say, See, it's not just Goodell who looked at the evidence and thought you were guilty.

6. I think, by the way, it's good to hear that Saints GM Mickey Loomis has offered to spend his eight-week suspension in New York or in the place of the league's choice to help spread the word about sportsmanship and how bounties have no place in the game. The league's thinking of taking him up on the offer.

7. I think Chad Ochocinco was always a square peg in a round hole with the Patriots, leading to him being cut by the team last week. I go back to his first practice with the team. He had no swagger, no juice, and just wasn't comfortable -- and, observers to the Patriots say that never changed to the point where the Patriots trusted him in big spots. On that first practice day, Ocho dropped a 50-yard post throw from Tom Brady when he had two steps on the corner, and then had stone hands on a 15-yard cross from Brady. The capper came in a drill with no defense on the field, when Brady hit him wide open in the end zone, and Ochocinco dropped it.

The confidence a receiver has to have ... Chad just never had it in New England. And Brady didn't have it in him. Remember last year when 98 percent of you -- other than those in Mike Brown's home -- thought I was crazy for considering the Bengals owner and de facto GM the executive of the year, after getting first- and second-round picks for Carson Palmer? Well, he got fifth- and sixth-rounders from the great Bill Belichick (wideout Marvin Jones from Cal was the fifth- last April; the sixth- will come in the 2013 draft) for Ochocinco. That's four draft choices for players who were part of the past, not the future.

8. I think I can't get too fired up about the Seahawks losing two June practices because of contact during sessions that were supposed to be non-contact. As former player and now media maven Ross Tucker said: "It reminds me of recruiting violations against a college football power. Pretty much everybody does it to some extent and the only question is which college powerhouse, or in this case NFL team, gets this year's slap on the wrist.

"The only way NFL teams get caught is if a player turns the team in to the NFLPA or there is something as egregious as a couple of injuries and a fight breaks out that the media is there to report on, which is what happened in Seattle. Plus, live contact during OTAs is inevitable. As long as the cameras are on, the coaches are evaluating and forming opinions. If coaches are forming opinions, players will continue to increase their intensity so that they look good until it escalates to an unacceptable level per the CBA rules.''

9. I think the Eagles' changes last week -- the rise in influence of GM Howie Roseman, the consolidation of power to coach Andy Reid, the decline of president Joe Banner -- was a pretty easy decision. Roseman, 36, was the ideal man to handle football operations for the Eagles. Don Smolenski, 45, was the ideal person to handle the business operations for the Eagles. Why ideal? Because Roseman and Smolenski have the jobs of their dreams, running the football and business side of a pro football team. Banner, the outgoing president, wanted to do more. He wants either to have final say of a professional team or own one. That wasn't going to happen in Philadelphia. There's no animosity here. Just a common-sense move by owner Jeff Lurie.

10. I think these are my non-football thoughts of the week:

a. How terrific that the Stony Brook Seawolves are going to the College World Series. Just amazing that their 7-2 win in the decisive game of the best-of-three series Sunday at LSU shocked the college baseball world and earned this research university on the north shore of Long Island an incredibly unlikely trip to Omaha and the World Series.

In the first game of the series, Stony Brook couldn't maintain one-run leads in the ninth, 10th and 11th innings and lost. In the second game, the Seawolves dominated in a 3-1 win. On Sunday, in game three, Stony Brook dominated. The charm of college sports is when Lehigh beats Duke, or when Stony Brook takes one of the power franchises of college baseball to the edge of the cliff. Great stuff.

b. Sports Quiz: The Stony Brook University baseball field is named after which major leaguer? (Answer below.)

c. I was about to write about how the Los Angeles Kings' playoff run brought back memories of the Edmonton Oilers. Not so fast. What a great playoff sport hockey is. And how great this one has been without fighting.

d. Al Michaels is getting very worried about his Kings. And the Devils are back in it, of course. But I still think it's going to be a huge challenge for New Jersey to take the next two. At some point, L.A.'s power play is going to get a huge goal. It's so much better than New Jersey's.

e. I sat in a downtown Seattle sports bar with my wife and daughter Saturday night, ping-ponging back and forth between Game 7 in the NBA and Game 5 in the NHL. Didn't know what to watch for about 20 minutes at crunch time of each.

f. Good for you, LeBron James.

g. The great thing about sports: America can sit out here and say some guys can't play in the clutch, and those guys have the opportunity to shut America up, as James did with 76 points in the two games after the Heat went down 3-2.

h. Rondo should shoot more threes. After the Eastern Conference Finals, I trust him in the clutch more than anyone on that team except Ray Allen. And I guess Allen might not be on that team much longer.

i. What if a no-hitter fell in the forest and no one was there to hear it? Would it make a sound?

j. I mean, was that six-pitcher no-hitter in Seattle Friday night, with most of the country in bed, the most invisible no-hitter ever?

k. Safeco: Still one of the best, and most comfortable, places in the world to watch a baseball game. Experienced it again Sunday afternoon.

l. Happy wedding, Jim Nantz.

m. Morose evening in TV land last night: Last episode of the first season of Veep.

n. Coffeenerdness: You'd think the coffee in Montana would be strong and dark. I had it in three places and, well, no. It's mostly nondescript and unnecessary, like the coffee on the Acela.

o. Beernerdness: Enjoyed Bent Nail IPA, from Red Lodge, Mont., on the Mountain Sky Property. Very hoppy and dark, with a big IPA taste.

p. Bailey and Anne Hathaway's dog are friends. They chat in the neighborhood. Via sniffing.

q. Answer to Sports Quiz: Joe Nathan Field, at Stony Brook University, is so named because the Texas relief pitcher played there -- and gave $500,000 to assist in the field's construction.

r. I turned 55 yesterday. Sure am going to miss adolescence, whenever that day comes.

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