Holiday Gift Guide: Books

Reading recommendations that cover everything from football to life to leadership, from page-turning nerds including Andrew Luck, Pete Carroll, Ray Lewis, Michael Phelps, Steve Smith Sr. and Peter King
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Welcome to the inaugural edition of The MMQB Holiday Gift Guide: Books. Down below, we’ll list a couple dozen books that have been recommended on this site over the past year by NFL coaches, players, front-office executives and more. But first, some thoughts on reading from The MMQB editor-in-chief Peter King. 

We lived in Connecticut growing up, about halfway between New York City and Boston, and we didn't travel much. But we were a reading family. My mother was a big reader, and my father liked to get four or five newspapers on Saturday and Sunday and spend a couple of hours poring over them. Like Mom and Dad, like Son. Fun times were library trips for the four King kids, and when a new town library opened up walking distance from our home, it was a big deal.

• HOLIDAY GIFT GUIDE—APPAREL: Dominic Bonvissuto shares his picks on everything from hoodies and hats to jackets and jerseys, for men, women and kids

I don’t read nearly as much as I should. I'm like so many other people today: phone-addicted, drawn to Twitter as a news source and social-connecting device, fan of news channels. But I still love reading. If ever asked by young people for advice on how to get in the business, one of the things I always say is, Read. And not just the internet. Read books. We need to do more of it, I think. Thinking is good, as is losing ourselves in thoughts and books. I've incorporated a book section in my Monday Morning quarterback column—it’s called On Their Night Table—and I've been impressed with some NFL players’ love of reading. Jacksonville tight end Julius Thomas even went on a “1984/George Orwell” riff!

In the past couple of years, I’ve read some books I highly recommend. I do love sports and football books, and there are some here. But I love to lose myself in mysteries, and in different cultures or jobs or parts of the world. I’ll never be a teach in North Korea, but I’d love to know what it’s like ... so let’s start there.


Without You, There Is No Us, by Suki Kim. A Korean-America volunteers to teach smart kids of the North Korean elite. Desperation ensues. Incredibly enlightening.

When Breath Becomes Air, by Paul Kalanithi. A brilliant surgeon in his thirties is diagnosed with a fatal form of cancer. I've never read a book so tragic, yet so uplifting.

QB: My Life Behind the Spiral, by Steve Young with Jeff Benedict. How about an MVP NFL quarterback being so socially anxious with separation anxiety that it almost ruined his career? You won't read a more candid bio from a top athlete. I loved this book. So personal.


Billy Martin: Baseball's Flawed Genius, by Bill Pennington. Billy Martin, one of the most complex and interesting personalties in sports history (I mean it), is put under the microscope posthumously by a brilliant writer and reporter.

Twenty-Six Seconds: A Personal History of the Zapruder Film, by Alexandra Zapruder. I have not read this book by the granddaughter of the man who shot the home movie of John F. Kennedy being assassinated in 1963. (Quite a disclaimer.) But I am dying to. Six feet of home-movie film told the tale of the biggest crime of the 20th Century. I've read three reviews on it, have ordered the book, and will devour it when it arrives.

Home, by Harlan Coben. Coben and John Grisham, legal-thriller and mystery-thriller writers, have one thing in common: When a book of theirs arrives in my home, it is finished in four days. Sometimes 1.5.

Being Nixon: A Man Divided, by Evan Thomas. Deconstructing the most mysterious president of the 20th Century, with incredible insight. Such as: After Nixon voted in the 1960 election (for himself, I presume), he, an aide, and a Secret Service agent drove to Tijuana, where he had a couple of Margaritas, relaxed, and returned 125 miles back to await the election results.

Chuck Noll: His Life’s Work, by Michael MacCambridge. As I said in a blurb for this book, if MacCambridge wrote about painting a house, I'd read it. He is so complete, so interesting, and gets to to the real reason why things happened. Nell is the most important person in the last 50 years of the NFL that we know the least about, and it's all in here.

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Now for more recommendations pulled straight from The MMQB articles throughout the year, as well as On Their Night Table, the popular book section of Peter’s Monday Morning QB column. (Click on the bold red link or picture for purchasing information.)

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Oh The Places You’ll Go, by Dr. Seuss
Recommended by Bucs coach Dirk Koetter

Turns out, football coaches love the lessons in this popular children’s book. Bucs coach Dirk Koetter has a copy in his office. “Every message a coach gives his team is in that book,” Koetter told Peter King in July. A few months later, The MMQB’s Emily Kaplan was at Western Michigan, where coach P.J. Fleck is an unabashed ‘Places’ fan too. “Anything you need to know about life can be found in that book.”

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The Purpose Driven Life, by Rick Warren
The Power of Your Subconscious Mind, by Joseph Murphy

Recommended by Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps and Hall of Fame linebacker Ray Lewis

From a Peter King column in AugustOn Facebook Live on Saturday, before the race, Phelps spoke about his relationship with Lewis. “Ray is a brother to me,” Phelps said. “Ray has become a brother from another mother for me … He had some very inspirational messages for me this week that have helped me.” Phelps said he’s read two books this year—“The Purpose-Driven Life,” and “The Power of Your Subconscious Mind”—while preparing for the Olympics. He said: “One person gave me both those books: Ray Lewis. He … told me to read those books, and they have changed my life, that's for sure.”

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The Andrew Luck Book Club
Selections by the Colts quarterback

In July, The MMQB offered a platform for Luck to write about his passion project: The Andrew Luck Book Club. Here are a few selections that Luck has recommended to either his teammates and/or members of his book club:

Unbroken, by Laura Hillenbrand. Says Luck: When Vick Ballard was going through rehab for his ACL tear, I gave him Unbroken, the incredibly inspiring novel about former Olympian and WWII vet Louis Zamperini. I thought the book’s theme of resilience might be helpful to Vick during rehab.

The Boys in the Boat, by Daniel James Brown. Says Luck: A couple of years ago the media figured out how much I enjoyed reading, and periodically would ask me what I was reading and what I would recommend. The soccer pundits “Men in Blazers” asked me about my favorite book during an interview. When I told them it was The Boys in the Boat, they agreed with me that it’s an incredible read, and half-jokingly suggested I should start a book club. That kind of planted the seed and then several months later, in April 2016, I launched the Andrew Luck Book Club.

Hatchet, by Gary Paulsen. Says Luck: I picked this because it was another one of my favorite books when I was younger; coincidentally, it was my girlfriend’s favorite as well. It is a great story of survival, and I think it is a perfect summer read since it takes place outside and involves camping—well, a very extreme kind of camping.  

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Gunslinger: The Remarkable, Improbable, Iconic Life of Brett Favre, by Jeff Pearlman
Recommended by Peter King

A new book on Favre came out in October and King wrote about it in his MMQB column:Jeff Pearlman has a new book out. It’s an exhaustive effort to chronicle the life and times of the most interesting person I’ve covered in my 32 years on the NFL beat (Pearlman writes that he spoke to 573 people for the book), with the scars and the wonder. The scars include his tempestuous relationship with Aaron Rodgers, which has been well-documented in the run-up to the release of this book. And it also includes the claim, late in Favre’s career, by offensive lineman Artis Hicks of the Vikings that Minnesota had a bounty program at the same time as New Orleans was found guilty by the league of having one. 

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Win Forever: Live, Work and Play Like a Champion, by Pete Carroll with Yogi Roth
Recommended by Dolphins coach Adam Gase

“Talk about a guy with an interesting life and a lot to say,” Gase said of Carroll. “Pete said, ‘This is the way I’m going to do it, because this is what I believe in.’ The ups and downs of coaching … he’s been fired, he’s won a lot, he’s lost, he’s moved to new jobs. I just love his addiction to always trying to get better. I underlined so much in that book when I was reading it.”

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Counting the Days While My Mind Slips Away, by Ben Utecht
Written by the former NFL tight end

Profiled by The MMQB’s Emily Kaplan in AugustAt 35, the former tight end is fearful for his mental health—the ultimate price of having suffered five major concussions between college and pro football. To preserve the memories he still has, Utecht wrote a book that is framed as a love letter to his family.“This book is a keepsake,” Utecht says. “I wanted to provide content for my daughters to be able to hold on to, to have forever.”​

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The Knight in Rusty Armor, by Robert Fisher
Recommended by Broncos tackle Russell Okung

Writes Okung: “The Knight in Rusty Armor, a short read, speaks to a lot of men in our day. Everybody is trying to keep a façade and no one really searches to find his purpose or who he really is. This book really speaks to that life: to understand that there is this destiny, this purpose, that's bigger than what you do and more about who you are. It challenges the reader to make that first step. It’s a little bit of both existential and philosophical. A lot of men see themselves as that knight, wanting to save the ‘damsel in distress.’ It has this very deep philosophical meaning that can apply to a man or a boy of any age. The armor itself is a metaphor for this façade or this imagery of emotion that you think is attached to your identity of how you’re supposed to act and how you’re supposed to be. It brings clarity to that issue and challenges you to look at your own life. This is a book for everyone, because I think we all have a purpose, and our purpose is so much bigger than ourselves. It’s about family and our ability to do our best with what we have. If we can really identify that and not so much associate our identity with what we do, I think the sky is the limit. Then, we’ll realize what our true potential is.”

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The Martian, by Andy Weir
Recommended by Browns guard Joel Bitonio

The Martian, made into a major motion-picture starring Matt Damon last year, is a science-fiction novel about an American astronaut stranded on Mars in the year 2035. In an email, Bitonio wrote: “Once I picked it up I couldn't put it down, and was finished with it in a couple of days. I enjoy futuristic adventure books. This one has twists and turns throughout that keep you on the edge of your seat. The book is a diary of the main character for the majority of it, and he brings a great sense of humor, including some pretty good pop culture references, cool NASA science and perspective that makes you feel like you’re part of his journey on Mars. I tend to read a lot of the books that become feature films, and I usually get pretty angry after the movie doesn’t do the book justice, but I’d have to say ‘The Martian’ does a pretty good job in recreating the book. If you want an easy read that will put you on an emotional roller coaster from start to finish, I would definitely pick it up.”

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The Road To Character, by David Brooks.
Nominated by Seahawks coach Pete Carroll

This book, by New York Timescolumnist Brooks, is centered on the premise that people should focus more on their eulogy virtues (standing for the right things, being generous with time and resources, and basic kindness) than résumé virtues (striving for status, and for great careers and wealth). Writes Carroll: “I thought it was an extraordinary understanding that he had that he could communicate really clearly in the book. I couldn’t wait to communicate it with our players because I saw our team, and the bulk of our guys, going through a young life in football, being challenged to develop a role on a winning football team, make it to the championship and win it and come back and do it again, with new contracts and Pro Bowls, and it was very much in line with the résumé side in his explanation. The reason that it made such an impact on me is that all our guys were looking for more … more understanding on how they connect with their game and their career and their team, which really took me to the other side of his explanation. It just all made sense, and so I have just utilized his explanations to make it more clear to our guys what to expect and where they could go and how they can direct their life in a way to be productive. It has been a big deal to me and I think most people can learn from his writings.”

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1984, by George Orwell.
Recommended by Jaguars tight end Julius Thomas

“It’s a very interesting book,” said Thomas. “Published in the late 1940s, it provides a glaring example of a dystopia. We are taken inside the thoughts and feelings of a man realizing that a society with the right type of control cannot be overthrown.”

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The Go-Giver: A Little Story About a Powerful Business Idea, by Bob Burg and John David Mann. 
Recommended by Falcons assistant GM Scott Pioli

“The Go-Giver is a parable that centers on a business story,” Pioli said, “but it’s more about a way of living. This short, simple book is a great reminder that we all have resources or gifts that we can share to help one another. Some people have time, some have money, others have encouraging words or a platform to be an agent of change. It’s not a new idea. But it is a reminder of one of my core values: ‘To whom much is given, much is required.’”

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How to Lie With Statistics, by Darrell Huff
Recommended by Vikings punter Jeff Locke

The fourth-year player from UCLA graduated with a 3.89 GPA and majored in Economics. This book was written in 1954, but Locke says it has tremendous lessons for today—namely, don’t believe everything you hear. It is the biggest-selling statistics book in history, with more than 1.5 million copies sold. “I read this book and took so much from it,” Locke said. “The overarching point is: Don’t believe what you first hear or what you first see. Dig into the stats and find out the truth. It might be what you first heard, but it might not be either.”

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Legacy: What the All Blacks Can Teach Us About the Business of Life, By James Kerr
Recommended by Falcons coach Dan Quinn

Quinn gave me a copy of the 193-page inspirational tome about the legendary New Zealand national rugby team, more than a century old, and he inscribed it thusly:

Read this book in the off-season. Gave copies to staff and a few players. Leaders create leaders.
Go Falcons,

Quinn emphasized how important it was for the All Blacks—and the 2016 Falcons—to make their own history. He told his players to embrace transferring “leadership and therefore responsibility from the coaches to the players.” One interesting point was that the All Blacks give each new man upon making the team a black leather book, followed by the history, the standards, the ethos of the team. The final pages of the book are left blank—as Kerr wrote: “Waiting to be filled. It’s time to leave a legacy. Your legacy. It’s your time.” The final five pages of the book Quinn gave to his coaches and select players are left blank. It’s their time.

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After tearing his Achilles last season, Steve Smith leaned on this Regina Brett book for inspiration during his long recovery.

After tearing his Achilles last season, Steve Smith leaned on this Regina Brett book for inspiration during his long recovery.

God Never Blinks: 50 Lessons for Life’s Little Detours, by Regina Brett. 
Recommended by Ravens WR Steve Smith Sr.

Smith read the book last fall while bed-bound and recovering from surgery for an Achilles tear. On the occasion of her 50th birthday, Brett, a newspaper columnist, wrote about the 50 lessons she’d learned in life, and a member of Smith’s foundation figured he’d need to read something inspirational during his downtime.

Brett’s lesson, Smith said, was this: “You can dwell on things, or you can embrace them and actually do something to clean them up and really change your perspective. Since I knew I had two-and-a-half months of not being mobile because of the Achilles, I thought it was a great opportunity for me to sit, read and go through the grieving process of the injury. It could be better, but it could also be worse. So, what are you going to do about it? It was an outstanding book.

“She had some great points in there. She was actually an alcoholic and had a very toxic relationship with her husband. She used alcohol to mask troubles throughout the marriage. Then she ended up getting cancer, and she had to overcome that. When you read this book, you catch yourself like, ‘I hope nobody saw I had a bad day.’ And after reading it, I was like, ‘This day is great!’”

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Fear No Evil: Tackling Quarterbacks and Demons on My Way to the Hall of Fame, By Charles Haley
Written by the former defensive end

Back in 2002, three years removed from his last season, Haley was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. After years of being in denial about his illness, he’s now working as an advocate for mental health. The MMQB spoke to him about his experiences and how he thinks the NFL can help players who might be suffering just like he was.​

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Under Our Skin: Getting Real About Race, by Benjamin Watson
Written by the Ravens tight end

Profiled by Jenny Vrentas in November 2015It all started last summer, when the tight end saw news reports about an unarmed black teenager, Michael Brown, being fatally shot by a white police officer, Darren Wilson, in Ferguson, Mo., and the ensuing riots. Three months later, while Watson was playing on Monday Night Football, the news broke that a Missouri state grand jury did not indict Wilson. A few days after the grand jury announcement, his feelings still raw, Watson authored a Facebook post that went viral. It was just a few hundred words about the complicated emotions he felt upon hearing the news that night: anger about past and present injustices, embarrassment over the violent protests, sadness for the loss of life, sympathy for both Brown and Wilson without knowing all the facts of the night, and both hopelessness and hopefulness about the racial divide in America. His book grew out of that dispatch and explores the many nuances of the Ferguson case and similar ones from around the country. On the field, Watson is having a career season at age 34, but he’s trying to make an even bigger impact off it. In his book, he weaves his personal experiences as a black man with the events of the past year and asks readers to confront how and why race divides America.

Published every Friday, The MMQB Football Lifestyle column is a curated list of links to what’s catching our eye off the field. The MMQB has affiliate deals with some of the brands featured and receives commission on certain purchases. Have an item for consideration? Share it.