The Essentials: Five Books on Football History

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

Vince Lombardi Green Bay Packers
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.

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 FootballThe 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.

Get the latest History stories in your inbox?

Click to visit our Privacy Statement.