Note: I first wrote this review for Epinions in early 2006.
Americans live in Footballworld. I myself live in Footballtown number four. (Buffalo, New York - four AFC titles in a row! Not even the mighty Patriots of today's era have matched that!) Football is the sport that defines the American psyche, a violent, primal, crush-everything-in-its-path mentality without which our beloved country wouldn't be at the top of the civilized world. (Or as hated, but lots of people think the grass is always greener on the other side.) One who attempts to understand the culture of the United States must learn how the game of American football works. It'll explain a lot.
It should be no surprise that football is the number one sport in the US. The only surprising thing about it is that baseball was at the top for so long. Baseball, America's pastime, and its players, the noblest of all our professional jocks. It's what America aspires to be, but football, as is pretty much the entire theme of Michael MacCambridge's America's Game, is what America is. No doubt Americans, as well as any foreigners familiar with our national metaphor for war, can see exactly why this is. It's as George Carlin noted in his famous routine, in football the quarterback, also known as the field general, leads his troops across a gridiron into enemy territory. He attacks from the air using shotguns and bombs and maintaining a ground attack which punches holes in the enemy's forward defense. In baseball, the object is to go home and be safe.
The business of football is an interesting subject even during the offseason, with league negotiations, trades, and drafts. (Look at what the New Orleans Saints went through this past season. Everyone was listening as they looked for new places to play home games.) MacCambridge builds on the business aspect of football and gives us the full behind-the-scenes story of the country's passion and its development from World War II to today.
People argue that pro football entered the spotlight with the classic first overtime game of December 28, 1958, with Johnny Unitas leading his Baltimore Colts against the New York Giants and their star running back Frank Gifford and defeating them at Yankee Stadium with 45 million people tuned in to the televised game. But MacCambridge begins his fascinating look at football's evolution in 1945 with one of the sport's most storied franchises, the Rams, winning their first title in Cleveland before packing up and moving to Los Angeles. These were old times indeed: They took place before the NFL had a commissioner and before the Cleveland Browns even existed, let alone as part of the NFL. These were the times when Browns coach Paul Brown was considered a revolutionary, and with a record of 80-8-2 over nine seasons, few would argue his disciplinarian methods. This was even before the times of facemasks and logos, when helmets were made of leather.
Few hear about the AAFC, the All-American Football Conference, because the teams which survived the AAFC's merger with the NFL never had their legitimacy questioned. But that's where the Cleveland Browns, as well as a handfull of other teams, started out and where the Browns - one of the dominantly featured teams in America's Game - nearly destroyed the league because their dominance meant a lack of competition. Some of the most interesting sections of America's Game occur when the NFL is at war with other emerging leagues. The AFL, of course, is where the bulk of the wars with other leagues is focused since it brought a new style and personality to the game which the more grounded and tradition-based NFL was unprepared for. The AAFC is prominent in the first few chapters before Bert Bell's emergence as the commissioner, and the defunct USFL of the 1980s is mentioned and its impact on the NFL noted when the USFL teams begin signing coveted college draftees to exhorbitant contracts. Unfortunately, the indirectly competing Arena Football League (of which Yours Truly has become a fan) is not mentioned, probably because the league mostly consists of ex-NFL players who got sick of warming benches. The joke known as the XFL, which presented itself as a true football league and a potential contender to the NFLs throne, also isn't mentioned.
America's Game tells its story by focusing on six of the franchises which have become synonymous with football the Cleveland/Los Angeles/St. Louis Rams, the Cleveland Browns, the Baltimore/Indianapolis Colts, the Dallas Cowboys, the Dallas Texans/Kansas City Chiefs, and the Oakland/Los Angeles Raiders. This is an excellent approach to the modern history of football because it allows us to see the story not only through the eyes of NFL commissioners Bert Bell, Pete Rozelle, and Paul Tagliabue, but also football men like Dan Reeves, the Rams owner who moved the team from Cleveland to Los Angeles; Paul Brown, legendary Browns coach whom the team is named after; innovator Tex Schramm of the Cowboys; Raiders owner Al Davis, who seems to think the rest of the league is against him (which would explain a few things about the team) and Lamar Hunt, the Foolish Clubber who was inspired to begin a whole league out of a simple desire to see a football team in Dallas.
Along the way, we even get to see the inventions of helmet logos, facemasks, and plastic helmets. (Well, okay, not so much the last one.) America's Game gets into minute details like that at times. MacCambridge mentions a sketch from In Living Color in 1992 made specifically to compete with the Super Bowl halftime show, which prompted the NFL to start grabbing big-name acts like Aerosmith and U2. On the subject of the Super Bowl, by the way, we learn that it was created without the league's primary audiences in mind, and that Pete Rozelle openly hated the term "Super Bowl" because he thought the word super was unsophisticated.
Michael MacCambridge writes in a style which really makes you feel all the trials and tribulations of the people in charge. While they are presented as businessmen, they are equally represented as fans, and so you actually feel bad for Art Modell, who is written as a Clevelander without choice when he takes the Browns to Baltimore. Everyone is written in a way which doesn't make you hate them as owners - that fan-against-owner mentality - but you sympathize with them as you are reminded that they too are football fans who got into the leagure because they love the game. My one complaint about the writing is that some of the strictly business sections can bore you. MacCambridge spends a bit too much time talking about the impact of certain presidents' interests in football too.
Some of my favorite anecdotes from the book:
-The Minnesota Vikings, convinced they were a powerful running back away from a Super Bowl, coveted Cowboys running back Herschel Walker so much they traded a total of 13 players - seven draft picks (three in the first and second rounds, one in the third) and five players - for him.
-Johnny Unitas going to a game between the Indianapolis Colts and the Baltimore Ravens and rooting against the Colts.
-Paul Brown playing any of his roles: Saying to his first group of players that he wants people to think of the Cleveland Browns whenever football is mentioned; Paul Brown drilling his players like a hardened drill sergeant, even telling them not to have sex the nights before games; Paul Brown eventually returning to the NFL with the Cincinnati Bengals years after the Browns fire him.
-The Ice Bowl, and Vince Lombardi showing a contempt for the AFL only to tell a columnist before Super Bowl III that Joe Namath was perfectly capable of defeating the Colts.
-Paul Tagliabue telling the Rams that any given team could win the Super Bowl in any given season, an idea that was absurd to the Rams. They had gone 4-12 the previous season, and were expected to go 8-8 before their starting quarterback went down in the preseason, but they went 13-3 and won the Super Bowl.
America's Game is full of fun little anecdotes like these which add up to tell an amazing story of how an underdog game evolved intto one of the most popular sports in the world. If you have any love for football, don't miss America's Game. (And in light of the upcoming Super Bowl, go Steelers!)
MacCambridge has written an outstanding history of modern professional football known as the National Football League. The primary theme of the book is how football has eclipsed other sports, specifically baseball, to become America's game. The book starts out with the Baltimore Colts defeat of the New York Giants in overtime on December 28, 1958 in the National Football League championship game. The game was televised and is called the Greatest Game Ever Played, partially because it catapulted … more