Sunday, December 24, 2006

Books #2 - Two Football Books

Two Football Books - Next Man Up and Blind Side

John Feinstein has practically patented the niche of sports books about “a year in the life of.” In books like A Season Inside, A Season on the Brink, Inside the Ropes, and Open as well as more than a dozen other books, Feinstein has brought baseball, football, basketball, and golf alive to fans hungry for an inside view of sports. He avoids hero worshiping hagiographies for telling the story of how a sport works from the inside. In Next Man Up, Feinstein was given almost unprecedented access to all aspects of the team. He tells the story of owner Steve Bisciotti, head coach Brian Billick, star players like Ray Lewis and Jamal Lewis, as well as players who are put on the roster to fill a specific role, play in one game and disappear forever from the NFL rosters. Along the way, Bisciotti and Billick become flesh and blood people who balance their desire to win with a sense of the value of their players as both athletes and human beings. The players are revealed in their strengths and weaknesses. The game is shown in all its complexity.

For instance, Feinstein tells the story of the agonies of Ray Lewis, the great linebacker and, in many ways the spiritual leader of the Ravens, who was accused of murder in a strange and not completely explained fracas in Florida. Lewis emerges as a passionate player and deeply committed Christian as well as a man who tries to balance between conflicting elements of his own character.

In another portion of the book, Feinstein shows how the massive Jonathan Ogden, 6’9” and 345 lbs. has been a part of the elevation of the offensive left tackle. As the passing game has developed, the position of left tackle has become increasingly important because of the necessity of protecting the passer on his blind side. Since most quarterbacks are right handed, left tackle has become a key position. Left tackles are often among the highest paid of all players on the field, and Ogden is one of the prototypes for this position.

In Blind Side: The Evolution of a Game, Michael Lewis approaches the issue of the left tackle from a very different perspective. When was the last time you read a sports book with footnotes? Michael Lewis uses statistics as if his book were the kind of business book he started writing while he uses the human interest story of Michael Oher to awe and inspire a reader. All this is within the context of the crucial importance of the left tackle as the position has developed through the past two decades.

Lewis opens his book with Lawrence Taylor’s destruction of Joe Thiemann in a play witnessed by millions on ABC’s Monday Night Football. He then segues to the arrival of inarticulate, confused black kids from the depths of MemphisBriarcliff Christian School of a “force of nature.” Michael Oher is sixteen years old, 6’ 5” tall, can a basketball from center court, move like a point guard, and has never played football. In his life, he has attended eleven schools, often missed as many as fifty days, and no school has ever been able to get a readable achievement or IQ test score for him. He has never shown any aptitude for school, he has no noticeable social skills, and there doesn’t even seem to be any evidence that he exists. Briarcliff, a Christian school founded as a segregation academy in the seventies accepts him, even though they really don’t know quite how to use him.

And then Sean Touhy and his wife Leigh Ann appear and, for some reason, take on Michael Oher. A wealthy Memphis business man and former point guard for Ol’ Miss, Touhy has the resources to provide financial support for Michael Oher. But it is his wife Leigh Ann, the Ol’ Miss cheerleader daughter of a racist retired military man, who sees the fear, loneliness, and human potential of Michael Oher, and takes him into her home, eventually adopting him. As the Touhy's love for Michael grows, my respect for them a products of southern culture developed in new ways. This family comes to understand the needs, desires, humanity of Michael Oher as an individual in ways that transcend race the their background. Their terrier like persistance in helping him become the person he can be teaches the reader new understandings about southerners and race.

The story of the athletic development and human socialization of Michael Oher, who is currently a sophomore at the University of Mississippi, is placed within the context of how Bill Walsh, and others, developed the “western” style of football offense to counteract the violent rush of linebackers like Lawrence Taylor. In developing the short, precise passing game, coaches like Sid Gillman and Walsh needed to re-conceptualize line play and the role of the massive left tackle emerged. Thus Blind Side: Evolution of a Game emerges as a fascinating story from both the technical side and the human interest angle.

Michael Lewis, whose previous books include Liar’s Poker, which follows Lewis’ own career on Wall Street while examining the world of junk bond trader Michael Milkin and Money Ball, the story of how Billy Beane, general manager of the Oakland A’s uses a new understanding of statistical analysis to winning baseball while keeping costs of running a team low. This approach, called sabremetrics, has, in this time of exceptionally high priced athletic talent, revolutionized personnel policies on many teams. In order to show how the position of offensive left tackle has become the second highest paid position in football, Lewis uses the language of market forces. Lewis brings the analytical mind of a Wall Street trader to the world of sport along with the insight and compassion of a thoughtful writer to telling his story in a compelling and immediate narrative. Together, these two books illuminate the game and the people within it in ways that any fan can enjoy.