The Essentials: Five Books on Football History

Sports columnist Sally Jenkins picks out the books that any true sports fan would want to read

When Pride Still Mattered, a biography of Vince Lombardi, is as much about the man as it is about the coach. (Tony Tomsic / Getty Images)

As football seasons—in leagues from Pop Warner to the pros—get underway, Washington Post sports columnist Sally Jenkins provides a list of five must-reads for better understanding the history of the game.

Jenkins, who was named a top sports columnist by the Associated Press Sports Editors in 2010, is the author of nine books, including The Real All Americans (2007), about how, in 1912, a Native American football team at Pennsylvania’s Carlisle Indian Industrial School changed the sport forever.

Saturday's America (1970), by Dan Jenkins

This collection of Sports Illustrated articles on college football, by the writer who launched football coverage at the magazine (and happens to be Sally’s father), is a classic of the genre. Dan Jenkins, now the official historian at the College Football Hall of Fame, takes on the origin of polls that rank top teams, and other seemingly dry topics, and yet “feeds it to you so coated in hilarity you hardly realize you are being solidly informed,” wrote Jim Murray in a 1970 review in Sports Illustrated. Certainly, one of the strengths of the book is its delivery. “He keeps his cool and covers his game like a quarterback who knows his receivers will open up sooner or later. And he never scrambles,” added Murray.

From Jenkins: It's the most captivating and readable book on the list, and it chronicles the explosive popular growth of football in the '60s and '70s, with some charming history lessons thrown in.

Reading Football (1998), by Michael Oriard

Michael Oriard played football at Notre Dame and for the Kansas City Chiefs in the early 1970s before becoming a literature professor at Oregon State University. A riveting cultural study, Reading Football looks at how the sport became, largely due to the popular press, a game not only played by passionate athletes but also followed by adoring fans.

From Jenkins: Oriard traces the origins of American football, explains its departures from British schoolboy rugby and also examines other American traditions from the penny press to cheerleaders to tootsie rolls. Indispensable read.

When Pride Still Mattered (1999), by David Maraniss

This biography of Vince Lombardi, celebrated coach of the Green Bay Packers in the 1960s, is as much about the man as it is about the coach. Maraniss covers Lombardi’s career, from being a student at a parochial high school in New Jersey to an assistant coach at West Point to his two Super Bowl wins. Did you know that both Richard Nixon and Hubert Humphrey considered Lombardi as a running mate? But Maraniss also delves into personal stories about the coach’s Catholic upbringing and strained relationships with his children. The book was the basis for Lombardi, a play starring Dan Lauria (of “The Wonder Years”) that made a seven-month run on Broadway beginning in the fall of 2010.


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