On any given day of the week, moms and dads ferry their children to soccer practices, baseball games, track meets, football scrimmages, and tennis matches in an effort to get their young players to imitate the discipline and to develop the skills of sports heroes.
The kids strive to become the rough and ready warriors of the gridiron, the high-flying wizards of the hardwood, the hard-and-fast skating stickers of the rink, and the bat-cracking, hard-swinging heroes of the diamond. As St. Martin’s senior editor Rob Kirkpatrick tells PW, “We grow up trying to achieve the triumphs of our sports heroes and to emulate the positive qualities we see in them.”
Yet these youngsters and their parents need not step onto a field or a court to discover their heroes’ motivations and the glories and agonies of the sports scene. This holiday season they can reach for a sports biography or memoir or a history of a particular season, sport, or team to relive the thrill of victory or the agony of defeat. “Sports readers love great stories; they love to relive great moments from their favorite sports teams or athletes; they love inside stories from the locker room, and they love the passion of winning a championship,” says Rick Wolff, vice-president and executive editor at Grand Central Publishing.
In a number of new memoirs and biographies, these distant heroes take on a human sheen, shining a new light on their careers, their families, and their lives. In 2012, basketball superstar
Dwyane Wade helped lead the Miami Heat to the NBA championship title, and he brings the same passion and intensity to his reflections on his own struggles growing up among gangs in Chicago, his advocacy for fathers taking a strong role in their children’s lives, and the coaches who served as role models for him in A Father First: How My Life Became Bigger than Basketball (Morrow, Sept.). Morrow editor Henry Ferris, that “Dwyane’s book stands out from other sports books because he has a moving and fascinating story about his tough childhood on the mean streets of Chicago and also a story about his standup role as single father to his two sons.”
Every Sunday, the resounding clangs of helmets and the thud of slammed bodies echo through football stadiums across America. One of the game’s fiercest, loudest, and most outspoken competitors, Warren Sapp, now a celebrity dancer on Dancing with the Stars, chronicles honestly and humorously his own rise to fame as one of pro football’s most dominating defensive players in Sapp Attack: My Story (St. Martin’s, Sept.).
In Sweetness: The Enigmatic Life of Walter Payton (Gotham, Aug.), Jeff Pearlman interviewed over 700 people in his quest to understand the late, great Chicago Bears running back, Walter Payton, who won a Super Bowl ring with the Bears in 1985. “Readers come to sports bios not for recitations of stats and accomplishments, but rather for what they can reveal about the person wearing the uniform,” says Gotham Books senior editor Patrick Mulligan. Meanwhile, Payton’s older brother, Eddie, now the golf coach at Jackson State University, tells his own stories of growing up with the legendary running back in Walter & Me: Standing in the Shadow of Sweetness (Triumph, Oct.). “Eddie Payton knew his brother, Walter, better than anyone,” says Triumph Books’ managing editor Adam Motin. “Eddie really wanted to set the record straight on Walter’s career, his personal life, and even his final days.”
In his debut as the Denver Broncos’ quarterback in 2010, Tim Tebow displayed the athleticism and intelligence that marked his glory days at the University of Florida, but his public displays of his Christian faith turned him into an anomaly on the sports field. In 2011, he was the talk of the NFL as his unorthodox style mixed with professions of faith brought Denver to the playoffs and even a first-round upset win over the Pittsburgh Steelers. Now a quarterback for the New York Jets, Tebow gives us a glimpse into his life in Tebow Time: Tim Tebow in His Own Words (Tarcher, Aug.) and Tim Tebow: A Promise Kept by Mike Klis (Barron’s, Sept.).
Every year, baseball fans follow the boys of summer into the golden autumn of the playoffs. In 2011, St. Louis Cardinals fans held little hope for their team to make the playoffs, but under the guidance of never-say-die manager Tony La Russa the Cardinals swept through the playoffs and won it all. With consummate charm and his legendary baseball acumen, La Russa reveals the behind-the-scenes details of how he led the Cardinals to the World Series victory, despite countless obstacles, in One Last Strike: Fifty Years in Baseball, Ten and a Half Games Back, and One Final Championship Season (Morrow, Sept.). “Tradition is the albatross around the neck of progress,” according to Bill Veeck, the legendary owner of the Cleveland Indians, where in 1947 he integrated his team and the back office, and whose famed pitcher Satchel Paige helped the Indians win the 1948 World Series. Paul Dickson’s Bill Veeck: Baseball’s Greatest Maverick (Walker, Sept.) illuminates this wildly entertaining and visionary figure who spent a lifetime challenging baseball’s and society’s well-entrenched status quo.
With a curly top resembling Sesame Street’s Big Bird (a feature that would give him his nickname), Detroit Tigers pitcher Mark Fidrych earned a reputation not only for his outstanding pitching but also for his eccentric behavior on and off the mound. Baseball writer Doug Wilson gives readers a long overdue look into the life of the first athlete to adorn the cover of Rolling Stone in The Bird: The Life and Legacy of Mark Fidrych (St. Martin’s, Mar.).
Though he’s now mostly forgotten, second baseman Bobby Richardson was a terrific contributor to the 1962 World Series champion Yankees, and he recalls those years and his life and career in Impact Player: Leaving a Lasting Legacy On and off the Field (Tyndale House, Sept.). Tyndale House senior acquisitions editor Carol Traver says, “Reading Impact Player is a little like watching Field of Dreams or The Pride of the Yankees. Bobby just has such an incredible love and respect for the game, his teammates, and life—it’s downright infectious.”
Every Friday night for decades, thousands tuned in to watch the Friday night fights and the golden age of professional boxing, featuring legendary matchups between Sonny Liston and Muhammad Ali, among many others. In the 1980s, Ray “Boom Boom” Mancini was a national hero with adoring fans—and a marquee bout on CBS on a Saturday afternoon versus a young Korean fighter, who would die from the punishment meted out by Mancini. With his gritty upbringing in the steel town of Youngstown, Ohio, Mancini had been cast as boxing’s savior by commentators, a righteous kid in a corrupt game, a real-life Rocky. In The Good Son: The Life of Ray “Boom Boom” Mancini (Free Press, Sept.), Mark Kriegel tells the riveting story of loss and redemption as the young fighter struggles to come to terms with the brutal realities of boxing.
There’s a gift for the rabid rink rat who is probably praying that the NHL’s current lockout won’t last too far into the season. Former hockey great Derek Sanderson, whose glory days with the Boston Bruins faded quickly after he lost his health to substance abuse and millions of dollars to bad investments, tells his sometimes joyous, sometimes sad story in Crossing the Line (Triumph, Oct.). “Derek Sanderson epitomizes ‘old-school hockey,’ ” says Triumph’s Motin. “But he also has an incredible story to tell—not many players have gone from winning the Stanley Cup to sleeping on a park bench.” In a tale that reads like a gripping political thriller, Tal Pinchevsky interviews many hockey players from former communist bloc countries who defected to the U. S. before 1989 to pursue their dreams of affluence in Breakaway: From Behind the Iron Curtain to the NHL—The Untold Story of Hockey’s Great Escapes (Wiley, Sept.). And from Firefly come two wonderfully illustrated gift books: Hockey Hall of Fame Book of Jerseys by Steve Milton and Stanley Cup: 120 Years of Hockey Supremacy by Eric Zweig.
High school sports offers a training ground for athletes hoping to break in big at the college and, later, the professional levels. Several books this season profile the good, the bad, and the ugly of some heralded high school athletic programs.
Football in Valdosta, Ga., is a religion, and the Valdosta Wildcats, playing in an 11,000-seat stadium, is the winningest high school football team in America. In Must Win: A Season of Survival for a Town and Its Team (St. Martin’s, Sept.), Drew Jubera chronicles the 2010 season of a team that has seen better days but whose deep tradition of winning draws a small town closer together in times of crisis. In a town deep in the Florida Everglades, high school football is the only escape, and Bryan Mealer draws an engrossing portrait of Belle Glades Central Raiders, the high school team that has sent 27 players to the NFL since 1985, in Muck City: Winning and Losing in Football’s Forgotten Town (Crown Archetype, Oct.). Crown executive editor Sean Desmond says, “Muck City is an honest, incredibly moving portrayal of that life, both on and off the field.”
Today’s football conferences have grown into Goliaths, gobbling up more and more teams and revenue, with the Southeastern Conference now dominating the sport by winning six straight national titles, argues Ray Glier in How the SEC Became Goliath: The Making of College Football’s Most Dominant Conference (Howard Books, Sept.). “The book is not a celebration of the SEC’s golden era and six milestones,” says Howard Books managing editor Karen Longino. “It is about the road that led to those titles.”
Long before the SEC, or any one conference, dominated college football, Army fielded some of the nation’s strongest and winningest teams. The days when the Army–Navy game was the pinnacle of the college football season are now long over, but in 1958, Army football still stood for greatness. Mark Breech recreates that magnificent season when Army went undefeated in When Saturday Mattered Most: The Last Golden Season of Army Football (St. Martin’s, Sept.).
Every December, one outstanding college player receives the Heisman Trophy, named after John W. Heisman, whom the Downtown Athletic Club of New York chose to honor in 1936 by naming its national player of the year award for him. In Heisman: The Man Behind the Trophy (Howard Books, Oct.), John M. Heisman, the legendary coach’s great-nephew, offers fans the first authorized and definitive biography of one of the sport’s most innovative and successful coaches.
“Football has become synonymous with the American experience,” says Howard Books associate editor Amanda Demastus. A number of books out this season chronicle some of the greatest teams and rivalries in NFL history.
According to University of Nebraska Press’s senior editor Robert Taylor, “Unlike many other sports, the early years of pro football are still being uncovered.” Dan Daly’s The National Forgotten League: Entertaining Stories and Observations from Pro Football’s First Fifty Years (Nebraska, Sept.) “gives football fans a real feel for what pro football was like in its early decades, and brings to life interesting players and reveals how innovative the early years of pro football really were,” says Taylor.
Kevin Cook’s The Last Headbangers: NFL Football in the Rowdy, Reckless ’70s—The Era That Created Modern Sports (Norton, Sept.) “evokes the color and swagger, the drama and excitement, and brilliant, riveting story lines of a more innocent, hard-hitting time. Dad’s and grandpas can give this book to young football fans and say, ‘You see? This is why those teams from the 1970s are better than today’s.” Some books focus on individual teams, such as Bob Griese and Dave Hyde’s Perfection: The Inside Story of the 1972 Miami Dolphins’ Perfect Season (Wiley, Sept.), filled with mini-biographies of players such as Larry Csonka, Mercury Morris, and coach Don Shula.
Armchair quarterbacks can follow the exploits of some of the game’s most seasoned on-field throwers in Adam Lazarus’s Best of Rivals: Joe Montana, Steve Young, and the Inside Story Behind the NFL’s Greatest Quarterback Controversy (Da Capo, Sept.) and Keith Dunnavant’s definitive biography of the Green Bay Packers’ Bart Starr in America’s Quarterback: Bart Starr and the Rise of the National Football League (St. Martin’s, Sept.).
As Nebraska’s Taylor reminds us: “Sports history is American history. Pro and college sports are among our culture’s most powerful community-building institutions, driving American identity as much as politics and entertainment do.” Reading sports books helps us “to celebrate who we are and preserves those great moments and memories and allows us to engage with them more fully.”
Great Sports Writing Collections
One of the season’s most interesting gift books, perfect for Hanukkah giving, is Jewish Jocks: An Unorthodox Hall of Fame (Twelve, Oct.), edited by Franklin Foer and Marc Tracy. The contributors to this collection include many of today’s most celebrated writers, and they cover a diverse set of topics and subjects: there is David Remnick on Howard Cosell; Jonathan Safran Foer on Bobby Fischer; historian Deborah Lipstadt on the legacy of the Munich Massacre; and Steven Pinker on Red Auerbach. Twelve publisher and editor-in-chief Cary Goldstein, who admits that he was born to edit this book, observes that the editors’ “intention was to provide an anthology that would stand on its own as a collection of biographical musings, sociological riffs about assimilation, first-person reflections, and, above all, great writing.”
In his search for the best sports writing of the year, guest editor and ESPN.com columnist Michael Wilbon discovered plenty of reflective, thoughtful sports journalism in the pages of magazines, newspapers, and blogs, and put them together in The Best American Sports Writing 2012 (HMH, Oct.). From the New York Times comes John Branch’s piece about young Derek Boogaard, one of the NHL’s fiercest players who did not live to see 30; from GQ Jeanne Marie Laskas reports on Fred McNeil, the former Vikings linebacker who went to law school while still a player, made partner, but lost his memory, his mind, and his life; from the Atlantic, Taylor Branch reports on the corruption and shame in college sports and asks whether college sports can survive in its present form.
Sports Highs and Lows
This season a number of books reveal the dark side of sports, but just as many tell inspiring stories of athletes who’ve battled back from injury or illness to compete at the top of their games.
In the past five years, more and more professional athletes, especially professional football players, have opened up about the long-term effects they’ve experienced from having played soon after a concussion. The discussion has filtered down to youth sports so that parents and coaches are now encouraging safer playing conditions and equipment as well as more awareness of ways to prevent concussions. Robert Cantu and Mark Hyman’s Concussions and Our Kids (HMH, Sept.) uses groundbreaking research to address the issue and provide preventive solutions. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s senior executive editor Susan Canavan says that “concussions has been one of the most major stories to arise in sports and health for many years, and Cantu and Hyman have written the definitive book on brain trauma and youth sports.”
Throughout the history of sports, players have often gambled on the outcome of games in which they are involved, cheating to make the point spread work in their favor in order to win a few bucks. In Cheating the Spread: Gamblers, Point Shavers, and Game Fixers in College Football and Basketball (Univ. of Illinois, Nov.), Albert J. Figone amasses a wealth of new information from newspapers, archives, and interviews to reveal the widespread nature of cheating and gambling in college sports, including the 1962 allegations of insider information between Alabama coach Paul “Bear Bryant and former Georgia coach James Wallace “Wally” Butts.
For every scandal, though, there’s an inspirational story of an athlete beating the odds to recover from a life-changing injury or to overcome a debilitating illness to compete. In 2010, Rutgers defensive lineman Eric LeGrand’s crushing tackle of an opponent left the crowd stunned as he lay there sprawled on the ground. Paralyzed, he and his doctors saw little hope for the future, but LeGrand tells his inspirational story of faith and transformation in Believe: My Faith and the Tackle that Changed My Life (Harper, Sept.). Olympic bobsledder Steven Holcomb finished sixth in the 2006 Olympics, and had been tapped as the American’s top driver for the future, but he was going blind because of a degenerative eye disease. Holcomb recounts his story and the remarkable surgery that restored his vision in But Now I See: My Journey from Blindness to Olympic Gold (BenBella, Nov.).