Marv Levy, like so many novelists, worries about being misunderstood. Levy's specific worry is that people will think that because his football teams lost four Super Bowls, he made his first novel, Between the Lies, a mystery about whether or not someone fixed the Super Bowl. This is a fair concern because Levy's first novel is, in fact, a mystery about whether or not someone fixed the Super Bowl.
"But it's about so much more," Levy says. "I hope that this book will have literary value."
He often uses that phrase: literary value. Well, Marv Levy has always been a literary man. He might be the only former NFL coach with a master's degree in English history from Harvard. He might be the only former NFL coach who recommends books about Winston Churchill "based on what part of his life you'd like to study" and explains in detail why Charles Dickens's Great Expectations ages better than his Bleak House. In the middle of dinner at Harry Caray's in Chicago, Levy breaks into a recitation of the poem Invictus and Jaques' soliloquy from Shakespeare's As You Like It:
The sixth age shifts
August 14, 2011
Into the lean and slipper'd pantaloon,
With spectacles on nose and pouch on side;
His youthful hose, well saved, a world too wide
For his shrunk shank. ...
His wife, Frannie, watches and beams. Nobody in the crowded restaurant seems to notice them; they look for all the world like a retired college professor and his doting wife. That was always the impression Levy offered, anyway, a professor: white hair, crisp pronunciation, punctilious vocabulary (Who else would call a ref an "over-officious jerk"?) and a sense of perspective. When asked once if a game was a "must win," Levy remarked, "World War II was a must win."
So what could a football life of near misses mean for such a man? Levy gave up his dream of being a lawyer in 1950 to coach football at St. Louis Country Day. In 1960 he became head coach at California and hired a high school coach named Bill Walsh as an assistant. The team didn't go to the Rose Bowl. Levy was let go after four seasons.
He coached at other colleges, in Canada, in the NFL. He was fired by the Chiefs—a move the late Lamar Hunt, the owner, often called his biggest mistake. Maybe people don't know that Levy was special teams coach for the 1972 Super Bowl Redskins. Those Redskins lost to the undefeated Dolphins, his first bit of Super Bowl pain.
There would be much more. For four straight years, from 1990 to '93, he coached the Bills to the Super Bowl. That team is memorable for its no-huddle offense and for an attacking defense led by Hall of Fame end Bruce Smith. "It's unheard of, to go to four straight Super Bowls," Frannie says.
Marv looks at Frannie and nods. "That team had great character," he says. The Bills, of course, lost all four Super Bowls.
I mention to him that people will stop and take notice when they see that Marv Levy has written about the fixing of a Super Bowl. He nods. "But I can't emphasize this enough," he says with a writer's earnest concern. "I want this book to have literary value. Please include that. Literary value."
Between the Lies, which will be published Sept. 1 by Ascend Books, follows an honorable Los Angeles sportswriter named Mel Herbert—what other football coach would make his hero an honorable sportswriter?—who tries to report the Super Bowl fix story. There's also a love story, various inside football tidbits and quirky character names that Levy loved inventing—movie mogul and team owner Cedric B. Medill, quarterback Q.T. Pye, a cheerleader named Angela (Yum Yum) Baklava and, yes, a quarterback named Kelly James, whom Levy concedes might have been inspired by Bills quarterback Jim Kelly.
"All my life, I've been writing things down," Levy says. "Plotlines. Character names. I would put them in a folder. I always knew that at some point in my life I wanted to write."
Levy is 86 years old, and he seems blissfully happy. He runs every day. He dines out with Frannie just about every night. They travel together. They spend time with their granddaughter, Angela. Marv, who published a memoir, Where Else Would You Rather Be? in 2004, now has time to write. When I ask if he watches football anymore, he shrugs. "I watch some," he says. "But I don't follow it like I did."
I tell him that this must be the happiest life he could imagine, and he smiles and nods.
"So," I ask, "does it really make any difference now that you didn't win the Super Bowl?"
"Oh, yes," he says without hesitation. "I would be much happier if we had won one, two, three or all four of them."
Frannie looks surprised. "Really?" she asks. "How does that affect your life now?"
"Look," he says, "I'm being honest. You asked me, Would I be happier if we had won any or all of those four Super Bowls? And my answer is yes. And yes. And yes. And yes." Now he doesn't sound like a professor. He sounds like a football coach. "I'll never really get over it," he says. "But I can't change it."
Marv Levy has lived a life of literary value. But sometimes, yes, he wishes he had a Super Bowl trophy, too.
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Marv Levy, whose Bills lost four Super Bowls from 1990 to 1993, has written a novel about, well, whether or not someone fixed the Super Bowl.