'Football' Captures Moments Of Grace And Violence

Three great sports writers join NPR's Scott Simon to discuss the new anthology, Football: Great Writing About the National Sport. We hear from John Schulian, Jeanne Marie Laskas, and Frank DeFord.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Pro football is a violent game with flashes of grace, moments of drama, head concussions and quite a few interesting characters. So some of the best writing about sports has been about football. John Schulian has edited a new anthology for the Library of America, "Football: Great Writing About the National Sport." It includes the likes of Jimmy Breslin and Y.A. Tittle and defeat. George Plimpton is the paper lion - Gale Sayers in the first notes of what led to "Brian's Song," Buzz Bissinger's first take on "Friday Night lights" - Jimmy Cannon, Fred Exley, Red Smith and many and much more. We're joined now by three of the names in this anthology - Frank Deford, a familiar voice on NPR's Morning Edition and one of the talents who invented modern sports writing at Sports Illustrated. Frank, thanks for being with us.

FRANK DEFORD: Yes, thank you very much, Scott. Please - I didn't invent sports writing. I'm not that old.

SIMON: I just said modern sports writing, OK?

DEFORD: Ok, All right.

SIMON: And Jeanne Marie Laskas, the author of many books - most recently, "Hidden America." Thank you very much for being with us.

JEANNE MARIE LASKAS: Oh, my pleasure. And I'm a big Frank Deford fan.

SIMON: All right, so that's one of us. And the anthology's editor John Schulian. He was a widely respected sports columnist in Chicago and Philadelphia and our first Sports commentator here on WEEKEND EDITION. John, thank you for being with us.

JOHN SCHULIAN: It's good to be here, Scott. Thank you.

SIMON: I'm sure a lot of great stuff had to hit the floor. But what's the piece in here?

SCHULIAN: I was looking for pieces that touched my soul in some way, whether it was a piece that made me laugh or made me cry. And there's certainly some of both.

SIMON: Frank, let me ask you about your story in here. It's titled "the Best There Ever Was." You almost need to explain, nowadays, who you're talking about.

DEFORD: Johnny Unitas - I don't think there's any Babe Ruth in any other sport. He was above and beyond. But I think the closest person to Babe Ruth in professional football is Johnny Unitas. I think he really is the father of all modern quarterbacks.

SIMON: Is your story as much about Baltimore as Johnny U and the relationship between Johnny Unitas and Baltimore?

DEFORD: It had to be, Scott. And, of course, I grew up in Baltimore. And Baltimore was - had nothing in the way of sports whatsoever even though it's the 6th or 7th largest city in the country. And it got the Orioles and the Colts at relatively the same time, early in the 1950s. But it was the Colts who rose to the top first. And I can remember living where I was a mile. A mile away at a Sunoco station, you could go down and often see the Colts - three or four of them kind of kicking tires down there and hanging out. They would get $25 from the general manager to go to a crab roast or something. And they were just part of the community. And Unitas, of course, was the chief. He was the head of them all and extraordinary, not only with the fans. I mean, the players talk about him - those that are still alive - in a way as if he was some sort of a demigod. They really do. They worshiped him.

SIMON: Jeanne Marie Laskas, your story in this anthology originally appeared in GQ, and it is called "G L O R Y" - a beautiful story that opens with a young woman getting sick.

LASKAS: Yes, her name is Adrian. She's a member of the Ben-Gals. That's the cheerleading squad the attached to the Bengals. And it was interesting because - just listening to Frank talk, and I was thinking about how the cheerleaders really are still part of the piece of football that is about the community. These women grew up in Cincinnati or Kentucky or right nearby, and the dream was to be a cheerleader. But they're not there for football. They're not there for money - $75 a game. You know, they all have real jobs. They don't make a living at this. But Adrian's job was - she poured cement. She worked for a cement company. And she poured the cement at Paul Brown Stadium, upon which she cheered. So she really had both sides of understanding of her place there.

SIMON: You can't talk about football today without talking about concussions. There's a very moving story in here by Paul Solotaroff from Men's Journal on Dave Duerson of the Chicago Bears, which just breaks your heart.

SCHULIAN: It's tragic. I mean, because Duerson was this incredibly bright guy. I remember him when he was breaking in with the Bears - went on to have an All-Pro career. And then he went off to all of this success in business. And then things started happening in his head. And they eventually drove him out of his head. He wound up committing suicide by turning a gun on himself so his brain would be intact, and he left instructions for it to be sent for, you know, specialists to examine.

SIMON: I've got to direct a question to all three of you, finally, because on the one hand you read his anthology - really reminds you of what so many people - myself included - love about watching pro football. But is it hard to watch football these days when you know that a good number of people you admire on the field are going to wind up getting very damaged because of the game they play?

LASKAS: For me personally, it's very difficult. I can't watch anymore. And I do wonder if football goes the way of boxing, eventually, where it becomes a sort of marginalized sport.

DEFORD: I think the difference between boxing and football is that boxing is an individual sport. Football is teams. They represent cities and colleges. And in that sense, there's a much deeper connection which will be much harder for football ever to fade away.

SIMON: John Schulian, how do you feel about that?

SCHULIAN: Sometimes, I subscribe to the Roman Empire theory. Football players are our gladiators. And we're the howling masses. In a way, we're giving thumbs-up and thumbs-down, I guess. It's who we are. I don't think it's a particularly lovely picture of American society. And yet, we can't get away from it. We can't pull ourselves away from it. And I think that the equipment will get better. Medicine will get better. But people will still get hurt, and we'll still watch it.

SIMON: John Schulian, joining us from member station KPCC - Jeanne Marie Laskas from WESA and Frank Deford. They all appear in the new anthology, "Football: Great Writing About the National Sport From the Library of America." Thanks so much all of you for being with us.

SCHULIAN: Thank you, Scott.

LASKAS: Thank you.

DEFORD: Thank you, Scott.

SIMON: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News.

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