The Fathers Day Book Section
My annual look at books I’d recommend for dad/brother/uncle/grandfather/male friend/male whoever, with Fathers Day just six days away, is a bit abbreviated this year. It should include one I never got to but had recommended very highly to me: “Redeployment,” by Phil Klay, a series of stories about our troops trying to figure out their meaning and roles in chaotic Iraqi and Afghan theaters, which I’ll be reading on my vacation this summer. That does you no good now, but maybe you could get it for dad as a Labor Day gift once I report back. A few I’d recommend:
A Good Walkthrough Spoiled: The Best of Mike Tanier at Football Outsiders, edited by Aaron Schatz (Football Outsiders). Non-fiction.
So Mike Tanier, who works for Sports On Earth now, is one of the best football writers alive. Some of you might not know him. I urge you to change that. Read Mike, and you’ll learn a lot about football, and a lot about irreverence, and a lot about things you never thought of when you watch football. “Football Outsiders” is the longtime passion of Aaron Schatz, a football geek with a smart streak in him, and he saw some brilliance in Tanier, then a high school teacher (who once taught a high-level math course to Joe Flacco in New Jersey), and the marriage was a good one for the eight years they worked together. This volume is Tanier’s greatest hits. I picked out one chunk from a prescient story by Tanier about Jerry Rice’s rookie season, written in 2006, but with an eye on 1985, when the Niners started 6-5, and Rice had 10 drops in 11 games, and there was pressure on Bill Walsh to take some of the kid’s reps away and give them to vets Freddie Solomon and Dwight Clark.
Rice spent so many years as the league’s distinguished veteran that it’s shocking to imagine him as a jittery rookie, one false move from the bench. It seems unfathomable that he was once Santonio Holmes or Chad Jackson … Walsh saw the future; its name was Jerry Rice. But he also had the present to worry about, and his team was struggling to stay in playoff contention. “Walsh has made a lot of critical decisions in his seven years as coach of the 49ers—some brilliant, some not so brilliant,” [beat man Charles] Bricker wrote. “If the 49ers fail to make the playoffs this season after winning the Super Bowl, he might be severely judged by sports historians for his use of Solomon and Rice.” … Just days after his head coach defended him, Rice had his worst game as a pro. In front of 57,000 fans in a Monday night game at Candlestick, Rice dropped three more passes. The Niners won, 19-6, thanks in part to a 27-yard touchdown catch by Solomon … [But the next week against the Rams] by the end of the game, Rice had 10 catches for 241 yards and a touchdown. The 241 yards broke a team record. Ironically, the Niners lost the game, but Rams defenders knew what Walsh knew: Rice was special. “I think the nickname that man’s got, ‘All-World’ or whatever, is deserved,” said Rams free safety Johnny Johnson after the game. “The man’s got unbelievable speed and a great burst.” Local writers who advocated for Rice’s benching suddenly changed their attitudes. “Somebody say ‘I told you so,’ and get it over with,” Kristin Huckshorn wrote in the Mercury News.
By Christmas, Rice the disappointment had become Rice the viable Rookie of the Year candidate. Fellow receiver Eddie Brown took the AP honors, but Rice was named the NFC Rookie of the Year by UPI.
The struggles of 1985 aren’t even a distant memory. They are a forgotten footnote for most fans. Only diehard fans, and perhaps Rice himself, truly remember that for a few months, his name was synonymous with dropped passes. We can’t judge Rice’s critics too harshly. Most of the things that were said about Rice at the time were true. There were times when he hurt the team. The 49ers might even have won one or two more midseason games if Solomon had a larger role in the offense. Now, Rice is retired, Walsh is battling leukemia, and the Niners are preparing to move to the suburbs. It’s a fitting time to remember the glory days. But we must always remember them as they really were. Rice didn’t start his career with one foot in Canton. He really had one foot on a banana peel for most of his rookie season. The next immortal, the player we’ll be writing about in 20 years, is probably battling for his job right now, dropping passes or fumbling and having personal crises on the bench. Jerry Rice remembers. And we remember.
Perspective, thy name is Tanier.
Sycamore Row, by John Grisham (Doubleday). Fiction.
I never get tired of John Grisham. I believe this is the 28th Grisham book I have read, because it is the 28th book he has published (not including his teen-book series). And I do believe my least-favorite of them all was the one about the football player who went to play in Italy, “Playing for Pizza.” The rest of them, mostly taut courtroom thrillers, have this kind of hold on me: I start it one night, reading in bed, and then try as I might, one of the next three or four nights I read until 3 or 4 in the morning, ruining my night’s sleep. It’s always worth it.
This book I flew through—a four-nighter. It piggybacks Grisham’s first book, “A Time to Kill,” the book I’ve always thought was Grisham’s paean to Harper Lee, about a small-town southern lawyer defending a seemingly guilty black man and getting ostracized by the community for doing so. In “Sycamore Row,’’ the richest man in his Mississippi county, the same setting for Grisham’s first book, hangs himself because he doesn’t want to suffer through terminal cancer. He leaves a will that shocks his family and the entire county, and dredges up one of the worst hanging stories there ever was, and leads to a harrowing cleansing, and if I tell you much more, I’ll be spoiling a typically spellbinding Grisham tale.
Missing You, by Harlan Coben (Dutton). Fiction.
Coben is just as riveting a writer as Grisham. Unlike Grisham, he varies his tales, and often they’re more modern, dealing with 2014 stuff. This is a very good story with lots of tributaries, but the central one is about a third-generation New York City cop, a woman named Kat Donovan with lots of tragedy in the family. Her grandfather the cop committed suicide, and her father the cop was murdered, and that is part of the story. But the main part is finding her ex-fiance on a dating site she’s signed up for, and finding out he’s part of the disappearance of a women in a case she’s investigating, and then finding out it may all be a catfishing scheme. Sounds crazy and far too nutty to be coincidental. But as usual with a Coben book, he fits things together seamlessly.
By my count, there are eight separate stories happening in “Missing You.” Good writers tie them together so you look forward to the tying-up of loose ends on one story as you’re getting pulled into the second and the third and the fourth. I’m not a daily reader or what anyone would call an avid reader. But of the authors I read, Coben is the best at making six or eight tributaries flow into one body of water sensibly. And with a racing pulse at the same time.
The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt (Little Brown). Fiction.
If you have a voracious reader on your list this Fathers Day, Donna Tartt’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel clocking in at 771 pages is sure to satisfy the appetite. Tartt tells the story of Theo Decker, who, at 13, is taking refuge from a rainstorm in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art when a terrorist bombing takes place. Theo’s adored mother is killed and he is instructed by a dying man to save The Goldfinch, a small painting on display there by Dutch painter Carel Fabritius. For the next decade or more Theo is both thief and caretaker of the painting that his mother loved.
As many reviewers have pointed out, the book reads like a 21st Century Dickens novel with its collection of memorable characters, class struggles and winding plot. There is the kindly Hobie, a furniture restorer who takes Theo in and teaches him the business; the wealthy, eccentric Park Avenue family of a friend who also gave him a home for a time; and Theo’s gambling, alcoholic father and his drug-using girlfriend who take him to Las Vegas, where Theo and his new friend Boris spend their adolescent hours smoking pot, eating pizza and committing petty crimes. All this before Theo grows up a drug-addicted, swindling antique dealer who eventually finds himself entangled with Russian mobsters and international art thieves before finding redemption. It’s a compelling and beautifully written novel that covers tremendous ground while examining the complex inner life of an adolescent boy and the meaning of art and its ability to shelter us from loneliness and even grief.
There’s only one Pulitzer winner on this list. And it can’t be recommended more highly.
Tigers vs. Jayhawks: From the Civil War to the Battle for No. 1, by Mark Godich (Ascend). Non-fiction.
Godich, a senior editor at Sports Illustrated and a friend of mine, is a Mizzou alum, and I never understood his nutty affection for Tiger football ’til I read his excerpt from this book in our magazine last fall. Particularly the 2007 game between the teams, which has to be one of the craziest stories in recent college football history. Two teams that weren’t in the preseason Top 25 (47 teams got at least one vote in the poll; Kansas wasn’t one of them) were playing to be the number one team in the country in a late-November game, and playing to be one step closer to being in the race for the national championship. Also, this was the first time in 60 years that Kansas City had hosted the game; a longtime dream of the late Lamar Hunt was to play the game at Arrowhead Stadium every year.
The scenes from the day of the game are cool. Like this one, at the Missouri hotel: “At the Marriott, the Mizzou players were soaking in ESPN GameDay. For the first time, the magnitude of the game truly hit them. Defensive tackle Lorenzo Williams walked into safety William Moore’s room. The defensive players always played spades on game day, but there they all were, staring in disbelief at the TV set. The comment on ESPN that the winner at Arrowhead would ascend to No. 1 in the BCS was lost on exactly no one. “Dog, we’re not playing spades today,” Williams recalls one teammate saying. “I said, ‘No, we need to play spades. If we keep looking at this, we’re going to drive ourselves crazy. Let’s do our normal thing. Get the spades game going. Let’s not talk about it. Shut it up and move on.’ ”
It’s a good and quick read, particularly if you, like me, have zero education on one of the underrated rivalries in sports.
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A few words about my schedule for the next month or so.
I’ll be taking two weeks vacation starting tomorrow, then returning to work for one week, for some unique coverage of Canadian football during the week of June 24. We’re going to cover the opening week of the Canadian Football League season, assuming the players and owners have their labor (or should I say, “labour”) situation straightened out, and they seemed close to a resolution on Sunday. Assuming the league is playing in week one, we’ll be covering it at The MMQB. When that coverage ends on July 1, I’ll be away until July 17.
I will be writing Monday Morning Quarterback, live from Regina, Saskatchewan, on Monday, June 30. The Saskatchewan Roughriders, defending Grey Cup champions, open their season on Sunday, June 29 (assuming they’re not on strike), and I’ll be there. Unless I screw it up, my MMQB on Monday the 30 ought to be a CFL spectacular. I’m looking forward to my time in Canada. And for you Winnipeg fans, you’ll have Jenny Vrentas at your opener on Thursday, so treat her well.
As is our usual custom, we’ll have replacement “Monday Morning Quarterback” columnists for four of the next five weeks. San Francisco tight end Vernon Davis will write one, and Chicago coach Marc Trestman will write another to kick off our Canada Week festivities; Trestman, as noted above, coached the CFL’s Montreal Alouettes for five years before taking over the Bears last year. Oakland first-round pick, Khalil Mack, is slated to write another one of the MMQBs, with Rich Eisen of NFL Network rounding out the fearsome foursome. Looking forward to reading what they’ve got to say.
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And a few words of thanks.
I am privileged, and humbled, to accept the National Sportswriter of the Year award tonight here in Salisbury, home of the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Hall of Fame. I’ll be here with fellow honorees from all 50 states—friends like Mike Klis from Denver, Bob Kravitz from Indianapolis, Mike Vaccaro from New York (if he’s not at game three of Kings-Rangers), Hal McCoy from Dayton, and Jim Wyatt from Nashville will be honored as state winners. Rick Reilly and Marv Albert will be inducted into the Hall of Fame tonight, while Doc Emrick is recognized as 2013 Sportscaster of the Year. (He’ll definitely be in New York for the hockey and be honored in absentia.) I’m grateful to so many people and institutions for the honor, to Sports Illustrated for giving me the platform I have, and for allowing The MMQB to take shape in the last year; to those in the NSSA membership who voted for me when so many great writers were nominated; and to you, the readers who make it possible for me to do this job. Thank you all.
Also, thanks to Time Inc. for recognizing the work we’re doing at The MMQB. We were honored at the annual company awards ceremony Thursday with The Henry Luce Award for best work by a blog in the Time Inc. empire—specifically for the 14,000-word series and video we ran last December on a week embedded with an NFL officiating crew. It’s one of the most interesting stories I’ve ever worked on, and it proved to me that you can still, in this age of overwhelming NFL coverage, find original projects to educate and entertain people about pro football. Thanks to John DePetro for traipsing around the country with me and producing such strong video work—to ref Gene Steratore’s home in southwestern Pennsylvania while he agonized over grades from a previous game, to back judge Dino Paganelli’s AP history classroom near Grand Rapids to show the real lives of the crew, to umpire Wayne Mackie’s housing job in New York City, to the day-before-the-game meeting at a Chicago airport hotel, and to crazy game 150, the storm-interrupted Ravens-Bears game at Soldier Field. Thanks to the editor, Mark Mravic, who worked long hours to put the piece together and made it look so good and read so well. And thanks to the staff at The MMQB for creating the kind of place that emphasizes new thoughts and new ideas in a business in which originality has become so challenging.