Football: Great Writing About the National Sport edited by John Schulian, Library of America, 463 pages, $18.95 paper. Football may indeed be the great current national sport by a considerable margin. But despite its near-perfection as a presence on home and barroom TV screens, it runs a distant third in the American literary sweepstakes, after baseball and boxing.
Even so, here is a book which goes as far as it can go in hauling football up to the level of writing about baseball and boxing (whose respective American pastoralism and urban downtrodden empathizing make them natural milieus for writers to turn to).
Yes, of course, it begins with editor John Schulian – former sports columnist for the Chicago Sun and Philadelphia Daily News – telling us how Grantland Rice in 1924 gave American prose one of its most orotund and quoted passages with this thunderous description of four gridders from Notre Dame: “Outlined against a blue-gray October sky, the Four Horseman rode again. In dramatic lore they are known as Famine, Pestilence, Destruction and Death. These are only aliases. Their real names are Stuldreher, Miller, Crowley and Layden.”
It concludes more than 400 pages later with Roy Blount Jr. in his 2012 return to the Pittsburgh Steelers to discover that no, the company of its current players wasn’t quite the same for him as it had been in 1974 when he published “About Three Bricks Shy of a Load.”
”In my day,” writes Blount, discovering, in the famous saying, that “nostalgia ain’t what it used to be”: “Steelers fans were just beginning to sense that their team could actually win and they were besides themselves...Now what Steelers fans do is wear Steelers’ stuff.”
In between, you can read everyone from Red Smith, Shirley Povich, Jimmy Cannon, Frank Deford and David Maraniss to Frederick Exley, George Plimpton, Jimmy Breslin, Richard Price and Michael Lewis. “The game is on the verge of major change,” admits Schulian, “and this seems the right time to salute what is beautiful and soul-stirring about it while taking a look at its highly visible failings.”