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About the Manliest Sport

Last night’s Super Bowl, in which the the New York Giants defeated the New England Patriots by 21 to 17, was one of the most exciting of the XLVI games so far. From the improbable first score — a two-point safety ruled against the Patriots’ Tom Brady on a technical violation — to Ahmad Bradshaw’s turn-around-and-sit-down touchdown with 57 seconds remaining, the Giants’ four-point win was almost enough to blot out the image of 53-year-old Madonna strutting and fretting upon a stage that looked as if it had been left over from an Obama rally.

Three years ago, after the heart-pounding finish to an earlier Super Bowl, I wondered why there are not more American football novels. Not much is new or changed since then. Eli Manning, last night’s winning quarterback, collaborated with his brother Peyton Manning and their father Archie Manning — all three of them signal callers in the NFL — to produce a children’s book called Family Huddle (“Archie was in the front yard in New Orleans, playing with his three sons, Cooper, Peyton, and Eli. It was Peyton’s turn at their favorite game: Amazing catches.”) Ex-players like Tiki and Ronde Barber and Jason Elam also turned out disposable popular titles.

But novels that take the American game seriously are few and far between. Joiner (1971) is the most promising, and not because James Whitehead played football at Vanderbilt before an injury reduced him to literature. Eugene (Sonny) Joiner, narrator and protagonist, is an offensive lineman rather than a glamor player; he squints up at the game from an unusual position. Ultimately, though, the novel falls victim to post-1968 nonsense. Styling himself a “radical historian,” Joiner teaches calculus and spelling to underprivileged children at a progressive school after he quits pro football, and becomes the disciple of a fifteenth-century Hussite.

The late Peter Gent ran routes and caught passes for the Dallas Cowboys for five seasons in the sixties, then wrote North Dallas Forty (1973), a novel that was more distinguished for its rage at the professional sport than for its scenes of action on the field. Dan Jenkins’s Semi-Tough (1972) displayed a raw satiric talent, but was nearly as angry in tone as Gent’s novel, filled with gall. His 1984 novel Life Its Ownself, with the twin linebackers Orangejello and Limejello, is a great favorite of COMMENTARY editor John Podhoretz, who describes it as a work of comic genius. (I think it’s funnier if you don’t already know that Mark Lemongello was a righthanded pitcher for the Houston Astros in the late Seventies.) Don DeLillo’s End Zone (1972) has great fun with the language of the game (“Monsoon sweep, string-in-left, ready right, cradle out, drill-9 shiver, ends chuff”), but it is not about football as the game was played last night at Lucas Oil Stadium, but a wild, wacky football that is more metaphor than reality.

Much the same is true of Howard Nemerov’s far less ambitious novel The Homecoming Game (1957), which does not even try to describe what occurs on the field. Here a professor’s F, leaving the star ineligible for the big game, serves merely as a pretext for an exploration of moral ambiguity. Ivan Doig’s The Eleventh Man (2008), which follows the members of a state championship team after they enlist for the Second World War, is more attentive to life after football. John R. Tunis, perhaps the greatest sports novelist of all time, wrote only one book about football. All-American (1942) is the best of a bad harvest — understanding that it is a boys’ book and that, like all of Tunis’s books, it has more to do with a boy’s fumbling for values than handling a ball. No one is better at describing the action on the field, but many readers will find Tunis dated, and his moral concerns inartistic and unliterary. So too for the other boys’ novelist who wrote about football: the former basketball coach Clair Bee, whose series of “Chip Hilton” books were my passionate favorites as a kid.

Perhaps the problem is that football is understood (wrongly) as the least individual of sports, where ignorant coaching systems clash by night; or perhaps the problem is that The Great Gatsby’s Tom Buchanan cast the mold for football players in American literature, condemning them for all time to being represented as careless brutes. The truth is that it is the most masculine of sports, more so even than boxing, not merely because it requires manliness, which Harvey Mansfield defines as confidence in a situation of risk (boxing takes that too), but because it demands the masculine virtues— patience, patrimony, moral courage, physical strength, loyalty to friends, submission to legitimate authority, service to others.

Especially with the hyperventilating anxiety about concussions in football, the game is rich in moral complexity. You’d think it would attract America’s best literary talents. Not so, apparently. James Wright’s little poem “Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio” may be the best thing ever written about football. The best book-length stuff is history and reportage: John J. Miller’s The Big Scrum, Michael Lewis’s The Blind Slide, Lars Anderson’s Carlisle vs. Army: Jim Thorpe, Dwight Eisenhower, Pop Warner, and the Forgotten Story of Football’s Greatest Battle, H. G. Bissinger’s Friday Night Lights, David Fleming’s Breaker Boys: The NFL’s Greatest Team and the Stolen 1925 Championship. The definitive American football novel is yet to be written.

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