My father is an avid football fan, his fervor stemming from his experiences playing high school and college ball back in the day. I have many childhood memories of him yelling at the television during big plays and games. Unfortunately for him, neither of his children inherited this interest, so his arguments with the TV screen were usually one-on-one. As often as not, the TV seemed to win.
Though I didn’t feel any affinity for the game, I did (and still do) love to hear my dad tell stories about the adventures he had while playing. It was clear that he adored his time on the gridiron and that football taught him many of the things parents hope their kids will learn through playing sports. In my childhood, I’d even ask him stuff every now and then while he was watching, like what a safety is and why the fourth down seems to be so significant. (I have no memory whatsoever of the first thing and a vague understanding of the second.)
It was this history of wishing I could have given my dad more of a partner in football fandom as well as a realization that I miss out on a big cultural phenomenon by not really caring about football that caused me to pick up this year’s The Last Headbangers: NFL Football in the Rowdy, Reckless ‘70s – The Era That Created Modern Sports by Kevin Cook. Cook, a former Sports Illustrated staffer, chronicles the history of the game in the twentieth century. As the title indicates, he focuses on the decade in which modern football made huge advancements toward its current level of technical sophistication and cultural significance.
Cook accomplishes several things in this homage to a sport he obviously loves. First, he paints a vivid picture of the earlier days of football, when players hitchhiked to practice and maintained jobs in the off season to make ends meet. He depicts the football of the 1970s as testosterone-laden, punctuated by condoned violence and notable changes in the ways coaches used passing and running the ball to gain yardage.
Second, he observes how the game has changed over time, both culturally and strategically. He describes the development of Monday Night Football into a ratings and revenue juggernaut, and shares trivia even the most casual fan (or me) would enjoy. For example, “Super Bowl” was originally intended to be a placeholder name until someone came up with something better. He also describes how the game became more research-based, increasingly incorporating analysis of both statistics and video footage, and, eventually, ear pieces for players to communicate with coaches while on the field.
Third, he highlights some of the unique personalities that characterized the game, from players like troubled Terry Bradshaw and gifted Joe Montana to egomaniacal commentator Howard Cosell and iconic coaches Vince Lombardi and Bill Walsh. Based on Cook’s description of these figures, it’s easy to see how they became larger than life and why their impact is still felt many years later.
And finally, he sheds light on the plight of aging and retired players, some of whom are wheelchair bound, in constant pain, and financially insecure, as they finished their tenure years before the multi-million-dollar contracts today’s players negotiate. For instance, “Like others of his football generation, the great Johnny U(nitas) was broken down at forty, barely able to reach up and drag a pocket comb through his crew cut, much less skip out of the pocket to dodge a blitz” (pp. 108).
This part of the story hit particularly close to home. My father’s time on the field resulted in his sustaining numerous injuries, including a hit to the knee that required surgery and gives him constant pain nowadays, and this was from high school and college play only. I don’t think he’d do anything differently given a chance, which speaks volumes about his love of the game. Regardless, it has taken a toll. Apparently the game has taken such a toll – arguably a worse toll – on multiple players highlighted in the book. Players have suffered both physically and psychologically, and many of them retired before the days of the multi-million dollar deal, which means they are also in precarious financial positions. But like my father, these guys loved football.
The Last Headbangers has something for everyone: the most avid fan, the cultural historian, and even the disinterested daughter trying to learn more about someone she loves. Cook’s book has succeeded in piquing my interest in watching football, albeit football from the ‘70s. I’m sure I can find some archival footage, and I’m sure my dad will watch with me.
“The Last Headbangers: NFL Football in the Rowdy, Reckless ’70s – The Era that Created Modern Sports” is available for $16.63 at Amazon.com.