Have you heard the tale of Jill and the hill? Or the Little Quarterback's test of will? And what of the choice of Jonathan McBoo or Home Run Pete, who went 0 for 2?
Actually Home Run Pete went 0 for 1, fanning in the bottom of the ninth, but rhymes are not this reviewer's mètier. They are, however, the province of Bear safety Shaun Gayle, the author of a quartet of rhyming books for kids that now boast over 120,000 copies sold. That's enough success to make even grizzled sports scribes jealous or at least make them wonder how a hard-hitting 11-year NFL veteran still has enough brain cells left to write such lines as, "So whether we get candy or apple pies, God wants us to love with our hearts, not our eyes."
O.K., it's not Milton, maybe not even Milton College (the defunct alma mater of Lion quarterback Dave Krieg). But it's quasi-Seuss, and kids dig Gayle's sports tales because they were written by an active athlete who just two weeks ago had an interception and a fumble recovery in a 17-7 win over New Orleans. Gayle, who has a degree in education from Ohio State, admits that working in rhyme was a bit of a test, but that he felt verse was needed to keep kids' attention and to help young readers remember his messages about perseverance, humility, teamwork and confidence.
"It's like a puzzle," he says of being haunted by every poet's dilemma—searching for, say, a word that rhymes with orange. "It's like reading your key and seeing the tight end come upfield and expecting the back to flare out, and the linebacker is waiting for your call and you make it, and the back comes out, and if it works, it's like, 'Ah!' "
If Gayle's books (brightly illustrated by veteran comic-book artist Patrick Owsley) seem simplistic, that, says the author, is the point. "I'm always thinking about things that might improve the world around us, especially things that might help kids in this society," he says. "I see these stories as things that might spark discussions between children and adults. We need that."
Indeed we do. Lest one assume The Little Quarterback is a tale about Doug Flutie or that Home Run Pete deals with Pete Rose's quest to enter the Hall of Fame, Gayle wants you to know that his tales are parables for right living, dealing with issues that confront everyone, not just sports stars.
The inspiration for the series came to Gayle almost like a wallop from a pulling guard. "It was 1992," he recalls. "We were 4-9, had just lost six in a row, and it was the Saturday night before we played the Steelers. I was in my hotel room, fiddling with my computer, and suddenly I started writing about a little quarterback and how he had to persevere through thick and thin. I think unconsciously I was writing about what was going on with the Bears at the time."
The Little Quarterback led to three more books, and soon Gayle had a publisher (Victor Books) that printed the set and included in the deluxe edition a tape of Gayle reading each work. The high point of each tape comes at the end, when Gayle explains the lesson of the story. Oddly, the man who once broke his neck making a tackle, who currently has a fractured right wrist, a metal rod in his left leg running from knee to ankle, arthritis from a fractured left hip, a torn pectoral muscle, bad knees and a surgically repaired right shoulder has a voice as comforting as a nightingale's.
"I know football fans want Rambo and heads getting cut off," he says of his day job. "Bin that's not why I play. I want to be seen as being outside the stereotype."
No problem there. Rambo could barely talk, let alone rhyme.