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)

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From Jenkins: Gorgeously written, illuminates our fixation with the game through the life of its greatest obsessive, and it also explains ourselves to ourselves.

The Best of the Athletic Boys (1975), by Jack Newcombe

As a bureau chief at Life magazine, first in London and then in Washington, D.C., journalist Jack Newcombe covered the invasion of Czechoslovakia and Nigeria’s civil war. But, as a topic, sports were not entirely foreign to him. Newcombe had worked at Sport magazine, a title that predates Sports Illustrated, for a time, and during his tenure at Life he wrote The Fireside Book of Football. The Best of the Athletic Boys, though, which he wrote in 1975, three years after Life folded, is his best-known book. It is a stunning biography of Jim Thorpe, a pioneer in the sport who played with the Carlisle Indians.

From Jenkins: This is a lost masterpiece. The book is more than a biography. It is also a chronicle of the emergence of football as mass spectacle early in the 20th century, and the short but brilliantly distinctive role played by American Indians in shaping our athletic culture.

The Yale Football Story (1951), by Tim Cohane

When the Harvard Crimson reviewed The Yale Football Story, by longtime sports editor of Look magazine, Tim Cohane, in 1951, the college paper was able to set aside its rivalry with Yale and acknowledge that the book was better than other college football histories that “read like almanacs” and catered only to “that species whose cocktail party coup is to name the starting lineup of the 1909 Harvard-Yale debacle.” In fact, the publication called the book “an unexpectedly fascinating account of how Yale and her Big Three rivals conceived the monster that today is college football.” Surely, the energy Cohane brings to the subject of Yale football has something to do with the intimacy with which he experienced it in his own life. He grew up in Westville, Connecticut, the neighborhood just next to Yale’s football stadium, the Yale Bowl.

From Jenkins: With this chronicle of Yale football you get most of the important historical facts about the evolution of the game, but told through a series of anecdotes about the most indelible characters and greatest of the early games, when the Yale-Princeton rivalry was so important that New York City churches moved their services to accommodate the kickoff.


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