Tuesday, August 16, 2016

The Best Book About American Football I Have Yet to Read

A Thinking Man’s Guide to Pro Football – Paul Zimmerman (1970)

Man, I love NFL football.  I once read an article on the New England Patriot’s coach Bill Belichik which described his vast library of books about football, many of which he inherited from his father who was a head coach at the US Naval Academy for 34 years.  His library contains books on football history, tactics, coaching methods, and training techniques.  I bet he has this book in his library. 
The previous book I reviewed was a first-person diary of the life of an NFL offensive lineman during a full season.  This book is told from the vantage point of a sports journalist who has made his career covering the pro football ranks.  Paul Zimmerman is a bit of a legend in sports writing circles (known as Dr. Z for the past couple of decades), since he has first-hand knowledge of the last 50-60 years of pro football.  His writing is always incisive, humorous. and informative.  He rarely veers into sentimentality or nostalgia.  The best part of this boom is the detail that Mr. Zimmerman provides regarding the specifics of playing each position on the field.
There are glory players in football.  The receivers, running backs and especially the quarterback are all glamorous, flashy positions, with thousands of words written about every single detail of their practices, and game-day performances.  However, the meat and potatoes of American Football takes place in the trenches, in the pit, in the shit, as players describe it.  This is the collision zone between the offensive and defensive lines.  This is where the fates of the quarterbacks, receivers, and runners hang in the balance.  If the offensive line does not hold, the passes will not be successful.  Either the QB will be rushed in his throw, or he will be crushed by 300lb behemoths coming full speed.  If the offensive linemen do not block properly, the runners can gain neither yardage nor glory. 
Because of their anonymity, these linemen seldom get recognition for their work.  They are scorned when they fail an assignment, but rarely are they praised if they did their jobs well.  Mr. Zimmerman goes into great detail about how the different line positions must function, what coaches look for in a player for these positions, and who has been a great player at each position.  His discussions get very specific partly because he was an old offensive lineman in his youth, and partly because these positons are so much more complicated than the average fan understands.  This allowed me to better understand the roles these giant men play as the team seeks victory.
Another area that Mr. Zimmerman sheds light upon is the worlds of the coaches, scouts, and general managers.  The coaches are responsible for game-plans, and tactics.  The scouts have the task of seeking out new talent.  The general managers are the men who make personnel decisions at draft time, trade time, and when the teams have to make the dreaded “cuts.”  Their world is at once simple, and exceedingly complex.  They spend untold hours scrutinizing every last detail of an opponent, watching reel after reel of game film, and then trying to put everything they have learned into a game-plan which they then have to teach to their players.  This happens week in, week out.  It is an exhausting life.
As a lover of pro American Football, the parts of this book that most resonate with me are when I can feel Mr. Zimmerman’s enthusiasm as a fan of these athletes.  The sections where he discusses the greats of the game, or the legendary coaches, or the early stars of the sport all fill me with a deep admiration for the men who helped create this game which I so love now.  The final chapter of this book is dedicated to the player whom Mr. Zimmerman, as well as many others, considers the greatest football player they ever saw.  That would be Mr. Marion Motley, a monster fullback who also played offensive line and defensive linebacker.  The only person who could compare is the great Jim Brown, who played almost a decade later.  Mr. Brown did not play both ways though, and was not feared as a maniacally powerful hitter.  The old days when the players played both ways will never come again, but they still inspire.
A few years ago Mr. Zimmerman suffered a series of bad strokes which caused him to lose his ability to speak, and much control of his body.  He had to stop writing.  He lives with his wife (who he would affectionately refer to as “the Flaming Redhead” when he mentioned her in his columns) and has had to go through rounds of physical therapy.  He may never again regain his ability to speak or write, but he has given the world decades worth of high-quality writing and analysis.  He has written several books.  He has shared his deep passion for the sport with all of us lucky fanatics.  Thank you Dr. Z.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

A Year in the Life of an NFL Offensive Lineman

Instant Replay: The Green Bay Diary of Jerry Kramer – Jerry Kramer, Dick Schapp (1968)

            I have loved the sport of American Football, specifically the National Football League, ever since I was a youngster.  It was one of the first “American” things that I fully embraced after my family moved to Houston, Texas from Ponce in Puerto Rico.  I remember the bike I got for Christmas that year.  It was a Houston Oilers BMX-style bike.  I loved that bike!  The Oilers were my favorite team right away, even though it took me quite a few years to actually understand even the basics of the sport.  In fact, to this day I still watch games and learn something new nearly every single time.  The complexities involved have kept me deeply interested.  Even though I have loved football for over 35 years now, I never took much interest in reading about the sport itself.  I read magazine articles and articles online, but I never dug into the vast library of published work on American Football. 
            What I have seen countless times are any and all NFL Films programs put together by the Sabol family.  I learned the game’s history from these films.  I appreciated the stories about teams that won championships when my father was only a decade old.  I especially loved seeing the yearly re-runs that ESPN would air before the Super Bowl.  They consisted of 30 minute highlights of each Super Bowl leading up to the current one.  I saw the great Vince Lombardi and his Green Bay Packers win the first two Super Bowls.  I saw Broadway Joe lead the Jets to a guaranteed victory.  I saw the shots of what seemed to me to be grizzled old men, fighting it out on the gridiron for the championship.  These men were younger than I am now, but to a young kid or teenager, they were ancient-looking warriors!  I learned not only about the past greats, but also the lore of each team, of the league itself, from the Doomsday Defense to the Purple People Eaters.  I learned about players and teams from before the Super Bowl era.  I memorized the names of the great coaches and the great athletes, and I dreamed of seeing my team win the big one.
            Out of all those films, none made the impression on me that the Green Bay Packers’ films did.  There was only one reason for this, and that was Coach Vince Lombardi.  Here was a man who seemed on the verge of a histrionic fit, screaming at his men, shouting about their mistakes and errors, but his men all loved him, admired him, and would do anything to please the man.  He seemed, and still seems, like the epitome of a great coach.  His voice alone was thrilling.  In 1967, the Green Bay Packers won their second consecutive Super Bowl and their third consecutive NFL championship.  Coach Lombardi retired after that year.  In reading articles from sportswriters, they would sometimes quote a book by Green Bay offensive lineman Jerry Kramer.  Mr. Kramer was asked before the season began to use a tape recorder to take down his thoughts daily as the preseason and then the season progressed.  This is the book that resulted from those recordings.
            A wonderful aspect of this book is that it is purely episodic.  It is a nearly daily diary of the events that occurred in Packers training camp and during the season.  There are eleven positions on both the offense and the defense of a football team.  Mr. Kramer played Offensive Line, specifically Left Guard.  That not only meant that he had to block the most fearsome lineman of the opposing team each week, but that he did so in obscurity and anonymity.  O-line players do not accrue stats.  They do not touch the football.  Their work is not glamorous and highly violent.  Anyone could have written a relatively entertaining account of what a quarterback’s season was like, or a running back, or a star defensive linebacker.  It is beautiful how this year’s tale is described by one of the men in the trenches.  This shines a light on a world that even a die-hard football fan sees little of and hears even less of. 
            Mr. Kramer discussed the doubts that come in training camp, whether he is willing to abuse his body once again, whether he can escape injury and make it through the whole season, whether or not he should just quit while ahead and leave the game behind.  He fears for the jobs of the marginal players, as the team rosters must be cut down by the start of the season.  He details life outside the game, and how little things like a group of teammates going to the local bowling alley to have a bottle of “pop” after brutal practices allowed them to feel human.  He describes his relationships with his teammates, with his coaches, and with the other NFL players.  He recounts his most fearsome opponents, men like Alex Karras and Merlin Olsen, huge brutes who were as fast and intelligent as they were massive and violent.  Greatest of all, he describes Coach Lombardi, with unflinching words.  He states flatly at times that he has hated no one more than Coach Lombardi, and then he describes how much love he feels for the man when Coach Lombardi breaks down sobbing after trying to announce his impending retirement.  He paints the full picture, and quotes the great coach liberally.  It is like being there in the locker room.  I got amped up at times just hearing Lombardi’s words echo in my head.  Having seen him on film so many times in my life, I carry his loud, Italian New Yorker voice in my brain with me.  I would guess anyone who worked for him or was coached by him has the same.
            One cool thing about the 1967 Green Bay Packers season is that the NFL Championship game that year was and is remembered as the “Ice Bowl.”  American Football has quite a few legendary games, each with their own nickname, and the Ice Bowl was one of the first I ever learned about from NFL Films.  The Dallas Cowboys and the Packers met in Green Bay and played a game in a temperature of 14 below zero, the coldest game on record at the time.  The game was evenly fought and was won at the last minute by the Packers who, after a masterful drive by QB Bart Starr, plunged into the end zone on a QB run with Jerry Kramer providing the lead block.  It was so cool to read Mr. Kramer’s descriptions of that day as I had seen it on video so many times. 

(*side note, in 2006 I drove by myself to Canton OH to see my old Oiler’s QB Warren Moon get inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame alongside other greats.  The day after the ceremonies, I headed to the Cracker Barrel to go get some breakfast and who should I be sitting next to but the great one himself, Mr. Bart Starr and his wife enjoying some fried eggs.  It was like eating with royalty for me.  I did not bother the man, but wow.)
            Now I am hooked on reading books about American Football.  I hope they are all this great.  Mr. Jerry Kramer went on to have a great career as a TV analyst for games, and wrote one other book also.  I am glad he wrote this one.  As he describes in the end, the one thing he would miss upon leaving the game would be his teammates, his coaches, the people who he lived and fought and suffered with.  That is what brought him back year after year. 

(This book can be purchased here:  https://www.amazon.com/Instant-Replay-Green-Diary-Kramer/dp/0307743381 )

Friday, July 22, 2016

Buckminster Fuller's ideas are more relevant than ever

Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth – R. Buckminster Fuller (1968)

            There are, in the history of humanity, certain people that come along whose minds have the ability to absorb and analyze information in a way that helps them create a vision of what our collective future could and should be, but which, due to the fearful and conservative nature of mankind, only end up accepted and affecting the world at large after some time has passed.  R. Buckminster Fuller was such a person.  His life was focused for the most part on the fields of engineering, cartography, architecture, geometry and philosophy.  The combination of these intellectual pursuits fermented in the man a deep and overwhelming need to correct the prevalent thinking of humanity, and gave him the means to explain to the rest of us just how amazing our world could be.
            Mr. Fuller was around 70 years old when this book was published.  That is a lot of life-experience and knowledge brought to bear on a very critical topic.  This topic, how best to utilize the amazing world we find ourselves in to improve the existence of every human, animal, and plant on the planet, would drive him to the last days of his life.  Ideas, once created, do not die.  They sometimes must wait for receptive minds.  Buckminster Fuller’s ideas found in this short book have the power to propel humanity onward to a far more noble path than just the aggregation of power and money, or the control and subjugation of each other and the world around us.
            One of the first things I felt in reading this book was the truly infectious joy and love for the inventiveness of humanity that Mr. Fuller had.  As he describes us, we humans are the masters of generalization.  We have the ability to understand and utilize wildly divergent information and experience to create whole new worlds, thoughts, capabilities, and successes.  It is only through our ability to be generalists that we have survived and grown and developed our worldwide complexity of experience. 
Fuller gives the single most “simple” yet profound description of human society’s development I have ever read.  He describes how in the early days of humanity, everyone understood and knew just the tiny bit of Earth (sometimes just a few square miles) that they experienced in their short lives.  Through the development of sea travel and other means, certain humans began to understand that the world was much larger and much more varied than what they originally accepted.  The humans that could aggregate the most information, that understood the significance of wide ranging knowledge, became the leaders of the world.  Eventually, these “Great Pirates” as Buckminster Fuller calls them, controlled the entire world, utilizing resources in one area to make riches in another and to use those riches to control the populations of yet other areas of our Earth.  They placed kings and barons as titular heads of state, when in fact these rulers only did the bidding of the Great Pirates.  Because information was never readily available, and because the Great Pirates used their kings and leaders to forment nationalism and jingoism and fear of the unknown, they were able to control ever greater parts of the Earth, all the while leaving regular people to believe that their kings were valid rulers, that their laws were divinely inspired, and that they would do well to stay in their place, where they “belonged,” and never upset the status quo. 
These Great Pirates made sure to retain control by forcing the rest of the world into ever more specialized and niche positions.  The men who built their ships did not know what the men who sailed the ships knew, and they in turn did not know what the captains who controlled the ships knew, and they in turn did not know what the business men who financed these expeditions knew.  This was the first trick the Great Pirates understood to maintain their control, and it is still used to this day. 
Fuller describes how the fields of science had become ever-more specialized, until scientists began to realize the inter-connectivity of what they were doing.  Once you get small enough, all botany is biology, all biology is chemistry, and all chemistry is physics.  We are all atoms.  We are all energy.  Everything is interacting with everything else.  Nothing exists in vacuum, not even vacuums.  Einstein put the final nail in the coffin of scientific specialization with his simple equation describing the interchangeable relationship of matter to energy.  Because of this, Fuller states, the Old Great Pirates were fought and broken in the first World War.  After that, governments, the puppets that the Great Pirates had created to run their desires, assumed that they were in charge, and proceeded to try and gather up the power left behind by the demise of the Great Pirates.  This led directly to the second World War.  Specialization is the bane of human existence.  Those who focus on one thing, are blind to the other things that need attention.
Fuller describes how all the specialization ideas coalesced to fool mankind into thinking that not only are resources and wealth limited, but that they were inexorably running out.  This has helped create a mindset among human cultures that “we” must get what is coming to us, at the expense of “them,” that there is no way to share what there is to go around.  This is bullshit.  As an example, Fuller states how politicians and the powerful always claim that universal health care is too expensive, that there is too much cost involved in fixing the environment, that funding a truly capable universal education system is just too damned expensive.  However, a month later, when some tragic or terrible “threat” to a vague concept such as our “safety” or “freedom” arises, those same politicians will somehow find plenty of money to throw at the military, usually in amounts far more vast than what is needed to address the true problems.  It is horrible.
Fuller describes our current state.  He shows the lie that there is not enough to go around.  He understood that only by thinking BIG, but attempting to achieve a vast generalized knowledge, can humans keep from self-destructing.  We are all passengers upon Spaceship Earth.  We are al travelling through the cosmos, fed by the energy of our wonderful star, Sol.  In 1810, when the GDP of the USA was estimated to be 4 billion dollars, the idea that government should pay to fund inter-state roadways, universal schooling, or massive infrastructure changes was ludicrous.  However, since then, humans invented the means to converse through electricity, to fly at supersonic speeds, to travel through space, to see into the farthest reaches of our Universe, and a million other amazing things unthinkable back in 1810.  This shows us that what we deem unthinkable or undoable today is but an illusion.  This illusion must be destroyed if humanity is to continue on this wonderful planet. There is plenty of everything to go around.  It is all or nothing for humanity.  Either we thrive together, or we all die.  There is no need for 1 billion people to live in poverty, for 500 million to be nearly starving every day.  There may not be any more Great Pirates controlling the whole world, but the wanna-be Little Pirates continue to exert their undue influence. 
It is truly the sign of a great mind to be able to include all this and so much more in a book of barely 140 pages.  R. Buckminster Fuller is someone whose ideas need to be shared and spread to the world.  This small volume needs to be required reading for those that are entering a University-level education, to show them the need for generalized knowledge, and for responsible use of that knowledge.  Mind blowing stuff.  Like Buckminster Fuller, we must all be enthusiastic about mankind's "extraordinary and timely ingenuities."  They will save us all.

(This book can be downloaded in PDF format here :
designsciencelab.com/resources/OperatingManual_BF.pdf )


Thursday, July 14, 2016

I love getting a glimpse into the mind of a favorite author

The View from the Cheap Seats: Selected Nonfiction – Neil Gaiman (2016)

            I love this type of book.  Any volume that collects together the non-fiction writing of an author whose fiction work I love is mandatory reading for me.  It allows me to learn about the person behind the stories.  Neil Gaiman is a master of stories, mainly the type that people categorize as fantasy/horror.  However, those categories do not do his work justice as he is always looking for truth, something that many readers quickly dismiss as unavailable in genre fiction.  (I hate when people say this.  There is truth to be found in all things, even outright lies.)  This book is an excellent resource for anyone who has wished to hold a long conversation with Neil Gaiman, but never had the opportunity, for you will hear his thoughts coming to you from his true voice, not a character or a narrator.  Books such as this one are like finally meeting a person you have admired and appreciated for years and years, and then finding out that the person is even more interesting than you could ever have imagined.
            Neil Gaiman started out as a journalist.  He then branched out into comic book writing and fiction writing.  I say “branched out” as if he just began to work in a new field, but what Neil Gaiman actually did was to change the face of comic books in our world, to reinvigorate the fictional exploration of myth and legend, to craft a cohesive world the likes of which Lovecraft, Poe, or Douglas Adams would be proud to have created.  His Sandman comic book series may be the best fictional exploration of humanity’s legends ever, and serves up as much truth and insight as any of Joseph Campbell’s scholastic works, all the while delivering deeply engrossing stories.  His novels continued in this vein and are just as amazingly thrilling and evocative.  His writing was never intended to be esoteric, although his topics always seem to be.  He writes with an ease of communication that makes the reader forget that she is experiencing something of great magnitude and deep wisdom. 
            This book is divided up into separate parts.  Some collect the various speeches and introductions that Neil Gaiman has given at conventions, seminars, or workshops.  Other sections deal solely with the many intros he has written for books he loves or books of friend’s he admires.  One part compiles writings that deal only with music and musicians. Another deals with individual books or authors he has interviewed or worked with.  It is a grab-bag, but the best kind of grab-bag, especially for someone like me who loves information for information’s sake.  I was familiar with many of the works and authors he discusses, but I have found several that I was unaware of, either because they were not popular in America, or because they have been forgotten in time. 
            I love seeing what is important to my favorite authors.  One of my greatest reading joys as a young teenager was reading Danse Macabre, Stephen King’s non-fiction collection of essays about horror, horror literature and film, and the art of writing such horror.  This was also a seminal book for Neil Gaiman himself!  I read and re-read it, always finding new insight and ideas.  Some of my favorite books by Kurt Vonnegut are also collections of non-fiction writing.  It is more direct.  The idea is expounded upon without the need for the framework of story.  I love story, but I love ideas more. 
            It is a very rare thing to get to meet your idols or your heroes.  Some people advise against it, for you will most certainly be disappointed in what you find.  Books like this one make it a pleasure to meet one’s idol!  It fills in details that normal writer’s bio pages do not cover.  This book helped me understand Neil Gaiman’s childhood, his obsession with reading and libraries (something else we share in common), and his endless intellectual curiosity, even if that curiosity took him to places his mind was not yet prepared for as a child. The same thing happened to me.  We are all much more alike than we are different.  This is something that is implicit in much of Neil Gaiman’s work.  It is another of the many truths that a lie like “fiction” can convey.  I am so glad someone gathered up these ephemeral bits.  Thanks for all the stories Neil.

(This book can be purchased here: https://www.harpercollins.com/9780062262264/the-view-from-the-cheap-seats )