Pigskin Poets, Teamed in 'Great Football Writing' Sports literature is no longer a landscape for just baseball writers. Sports Illustrated has published a new collection, Great Football Writing, adding a new chapter to the canon of great American sports writing.
NPR logo

Pigskin Poets, Teamed in 'Great Football Writing'

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/6393994/6395558" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Pigskin Poets, Teamed in 'Great Football Writing'

Pigskin Poets, Teamed in 'Great Football Writing'

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/6393994/6395558" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


Baseball might be the national pastime, and it has inspired countless movies, songs and books, but the editors at Sports Illustrated believe there's literary merit in another fall classic. They've put out a new collection of great football writing. Think George Plimpton, David Halberstam and Frank Deford. Rob Fleder edited the new book and joins us now from our New York bureau. Hello there.

Mr. ROB FLEDER (Editor, Sports Illustrated: Great Football Writing): Hi, Debbie.

ELLIOTT: The introduction to this book states that over the years it's been carved in stone that the greatest sports journalism, indeed the only writing in sports worthy of being call literature, has come from baseball writers. I take it this book is challenging that assumption.

Mr. FLEDER: I hope it does. Peter King, who wrote the introduction of the book, certainly challenges it directly, and he offers a lot of reasons why baseball ruled the literature of sports for a long time, and one of them certainly has to do with the long history of baseball. It has probably twice as much history as football, though, and in the golden age of - the so-called golden age of sports in the '20s, the glamour team in baseball was from New York, and the glamour teams, such as they were from the ragtag world of football, were from places like Green Bay and later Baltimore, eventually Chicago. But as football became America's sport somewhere around the '60s, it started to attract a better and better group of writers.

ELLIOTT: Now, the articles in this book date back to the 1960s, but there's one article in particular that dates back to those ragtag days. It's call The Game That Was, and it's by Myron Cope. It's the set of oral histories from some of football's pioneers, and I'd like for you, if you would, to read for us from one of those, the one about Ed Healey?

Mr. FLEDER: Yeah, I'd love to. Myron Cope is known to many people as the voice of the Pittsburgh Steelers for many years, but as I was editing this book I found that he was really one of the great writers in the history of Sports Illustrated. And I'll read a bit from his story about The Game That Was, as he calls it.

This is about a guy named Ed Healey, who played for the Rock Island Independents and later the Chicago Bears and was known as the first pro football player ever to be sold. And this is in - Myron Cope writes in the voice of Ed Healey himself. And so this is - imagine Ed Healey.

In 1922, the Rock Island Independents sold me to the Chicago Bears following a game that I remember as clearly as if we played it just today. We had a great team. We had lost just once. And on the Sunday prior to Thanksgiving we played the Bears at Wrigley Field. Now, understand, in Chicago the officialdom was such that on occasion it made it a little difficult for an outsider to win. On this day the game was a really tight one. In fact, it was going along nothing to nothing. George Halas, who, along Dutch Sternaman, owned the Bears and played for them, was at right end, the opponent for myself, who was the left tackle. Halas had a habit of grabbing a hold of my jersey, see, my sleeve. That would throw me a little off my balance.

I didn't enjoy being the victim with reference to this holding. So I forewarned him what I intended to do. Likewise, it was necessary for me to forewarn the head linesman, whose name was Roy. Roy, I said, now Roy, I understand to start with that you're on the payroll of the Bears. I know that your eyesight must be failing you, because the man - this man Halas is holding me on occasion and is completely destroying all of the things that I am designed to do. I said, Roy, in the even that Halas holds me again, I am going to commit mayhem. Well, the condition of the field was muddy and slippery, a very unsafe field. Halas pulled his little trick once more and I come across with a right, because his head was going to my right. Fortunately for him, he slipped and my fist went whizzing straight into the terra firma, which was soft and mucky. My fist was buried. When I pulled it out, it was with an effort like a suction pump.

This was on a Sunday, and on the following Tuesday, I believe it was, I was told to report to the Bears. George Halas had bought me for $100.

ELLIOTT: Now, the language in these stories from back in the '20s is interesting. You know, words like terra firma and mayhem, not exactly the kind of words that you expect from a football player today.

Mr. FLEDER: I know. They were great characters back then, and they spoke in a combination of elevated sort of erudite language and as the mostly uneducated guys that they were. I mean in the early days of the game, football was played by a lot of, you know, tattooed, beer-drinking, very tough characters. They played because they liked the games. They had other jobs for the most part. It was about as far as you could get from a big money glamour profession back then.

ELLIOTT: Now, it's not just traditional sportswriters that you've included in here. I think our listeners might be surprised to know that you actually have a chapter in here by Jack Kerouac, actually recalling when he played football in high school and college. It's called Vanity on the Gridiron.

Mr. FLEDER: Yes. It was a - I was surprised to find this myself as I was making my way back through Sports Illustrated's archives to put this book together. It was an excerpt from his autobiographical novel and in thinly disguised fashion talks about his days at Columbia - although it's not called that in the story the book - and about a coach with whom he in fact had had a bitter relationship, ended up fighting with this coach and eventually dropping out of Columbia.

ELLIOTT: You know, you got the sense that he really loved the game of football. He sort of poetically writes about sand lot games when he was a kid. Throughout the article you also get the sense that he's, in the back of his mind he's going to be a writer, he's going to be a writer. He's thinking about that as well.

Mr. FLEDER: Yeah. The language of the Kerouac piece - there's a story in the book by Don DeLillo. There's a short story by John O'Hara. Some of the literary characters who popped up in having written stories in Sports Illustrated about football was really surprising, in they all do it with tremendous affection for the game. You could see that they all had direct experience with it. They write extremely knowledgably about the game and they write about it from the inside. But the language is so distinctive in these stories, you can tell there are real writers at work here.

ELLIOTT: Rob Fleder edited Sports Illustrated's Great Football Writing. Thank you for talking with us.

Mr. FLEDER: Thank you very much.

Copyright © 2006 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.