Thursday, December 15, 2016
Collision Low Crossers by Nicholas Dawidoff - Book Review
Collision Low Crossers: Inside the Turbulent World of the NFL by Nicholas Dawidoff (Little Brown & Co, 2013, 475 pages, $13.63/11.99) belongs to a sub-genre of sports books, “A Year with the Team”, including books from John Feinstein's Next Man Up, and Season on the Brink, and Michael Gaffney's The Champ: My Year with Muhammad Ali. In these books, the authors spend a year, or a season, as a fly on the wall, watching the action, assessing the personalities, and providing readers with an “inside” view of the sport. In Collision Low Crossers (the title is a reference found in the Jets playbook to linebackers hitting potential pass receivers within five yards of the line of scrimmage) Nicholas Dawidoff spent the 2011 season with the NY Jets. He was given “a security code, a desk in the scouting department, and freedom to roam.” He does not posit himself as an expert, but was given unusual access to complement his keen eye for detail, ear for nuance, and sensitivity to individuals. These qualities come together in Collision Low Crossers to provide a real understanding of the violence, intimacy, and job insecurity each person associated with an NFL football team experiences. As Dawidoff's year with the Jets develops, so does the reader's empathy with the team, and, for me at least, a much greater appreciation of the athletic skills and human vulnerability of these uniquely gifted men.
Dawidoff came to the Jets two years after Rex Ryan had come from the Baltimore Ravens, where he had been Defensive Coordinator, to the New York Jets as head coach. Ryan, a larger than life personality who tried to stay above the fray, preferred to run the team from a distance, although his reputation for stout defensive football clearly influenced the way the team drafted and how they trained. Early in the book, Dawidoff points out that football is the most watched and least understood sport of all. Even the coaches don't fully understand what's happened in the game until after they've viewed the films.
Dawidoff was given unparallelled access and soon was viewed by the coaches and players as a member of the team. He was often the butt of jokes and pranks, responded appropriately, thus earning the trust and affection of players and coaches alike. He apparently came to “the facility,” the Jets offices and practice fields in New Jersey, each day, going to meetings, watching practices, and interviewing all parties on the team. Because he took the time and did his research, the reader comes to see the players as real people. He doesn't duck the prior life experiences various parties bring to the team: poverty, absent parents, violence, or the communities from which they come. With two thirds of the players coming being African-American, race is often an underlieing issue. On the Jets, such possibilities are minimized because they're talked and joked about. Furthermore, there's a solid mix of races in the coaching staff, perhaps easing some of the issues.
For coaches work at the facility is a full time business. Numberless hours looking at college films and assessing possible free agents leads up to the draft, seeking to bring together the team within a salary cap negotiated between the league, the players, and the teams' managments. With the average professional career lasting less than three years, turnover is always a problem, while maintaining a balanced squad is essential. The amounts of money are large and the pressure is constant. Tempers among and between levels within the organization can erupt easily and need to be dealt with. The athletes, despite their size, strength, and agility are often emotionally fragile. Managing all this stands on a pyramid with the head coach at the top. Dawidoff, with literary skill and psychological insight brings this all together in rich detail. The stories are funny, touching, horrifying, revelatory and useful in understanding both individuals and groups. If there's a major problem in the book it lies in the number of people and the difficulties growing out of trying to keep over 100 characters straight. The provision of a complete appendix listing all the personnel and roles helps with this issue.
I was first introduced to Nicholas Dawidoff through his book In the Country of Country, a trip through the world of mid-twentieth century country musicians, written with rare insight into the music and the people who made it. I liked the book enough to order several more of his books with Colission Low Crossers being the first I read. This volume is as good about the world of professional football as the previous one was about country music. Dawidoff graduated from Harvard College and won several fellowships for advanced study. He wrote for Sports Illustrated, resigning to freelance. Since then, he's written five books covering a variety of topics from his own life story through music and more sports. His range is wide, his viewpoint broad and comprehensive, his mastery of descriptive language and dialogue superb.
Collision Low Crossers: Inside the Turbulent World of the NFL by Nicholas Dawidoff (Little Brown & Co, 2013,475 pages, $13.63/11.99) sets a standard for sports books that won't be easily surpassed. Dawidoff's facility with description and dialogue makes his books believable and readable. He humanizes people whose careers have often given them iconic qualities setting them apart from ordinary people. Dawidoff finds ways to make the people he writes about approachable and distinctive at once, a rare skill. Most important, I have been watching football with new eyes since reading the book. I find that I both enjoyed the book and learned how to appreciate its vast complexity better through reading it. I bought the book from Thriftbooks.com, my go to online used book dealer of choice. My experience with them is that they provide lots of choices and their descriptions are always accurate. Their delivery costs are reasonable (free with multiple orders, even from different vendors), accurate, and timely. I highly recommend the book and the vendor.