August 17, 2017

Book Review: The Big Scrum

These days it’s pretty tough to get a job without an edge.

Back when Teddy Roosevelt recruited men for his Rough Riders, one word set you apart. Football.

In the midst of an escalating conflict with Spain in 1898, letters pledging support in arms poured in. Roosevelt could afford to be selective. Among the men he chose was Dudley Dean, “perhaps the best quarterback who ever played on a Harvard Eleven” as well as men who rivaled Dean in pigskin prowess. This week, take the handoff of “The Big Scrum: How Teddy Roosevelt Saved Football” by John J. Miller.

Read this book because:

1. Football and TR grew up together.

Roosevelt suffered from asthma and other ailments as a youth. That’s when he first read about a primal game some say was founded in 1823. The game was football. Tom Brown’s Schooldays reads “It’s no joke playing up in a match, I can tell you. Why, there’s been two collar-bones broken this half, and a dozen fellows lamed.” (28, Big)  Where’s the training table when you need it? Everyone, it seemed, played his own version of the game.

Harvard’s game was called “Bloody Monday.” The Crimson’s objective was to “kick the other and bark their shins as much as possible.” (58)  Roosevelt was a Harvard freshman in 1876 when he saw the first-ever contest with 11 players on each side.

2. Talk about blood sport! That was football before Roosevelt and his friends grabbed hold of the game.

Sometimes the rewards outweigh the risks. There is the potential for serious accidents with cars, but efficiency supersedes the minimal risk. Football offered spectators enjoyment and participants gained physical fitness, but without any sort of protective equipment in the middle of a free-for-all, public outcry continued to rise. Surely there had to be better entertainment options. Newspapers blared “They saw real fighting, savage blows that drew blood, and falls that seemed like they must crack all the bones and drive the life from those who sustained them.” (107)  Roosevelt again and again championed football as part of his “strenuous life,” but cries of greed and eligibility issues would not subside on college campuses.

At the White House, Roosevelt told a group of Ivy Leaguers that “Football is on trial. Because I believe in the game, I want to do all I can to save it.” (187-88)  The six guests left the two-hour meeting with the basis of what would ultimately become the NCAA.

3. At the height of politics, the pigskin was never far from the leader’s mind.

After the football committee meeting, The New York Times wrote, “Having ended the war in the Far East [and] grappled with the railroad rate question, President Roosevelt today took up another question of vital interest to the American people. He started a campaign for reform in football.” (191)

Following an ugly fight between Harvard and Penn players, Roosevelt invited Crimson coach Bill Reid to the White House for lunch. Nevermind that the luncheon also included German ambassador Baron Speck von Sternberg and others. When they were finished dining, Roosevelt said to the others, “Will you please go out on the porch for a few minutes? I want to have a talk with Mr. Reid.” (195)

Pick up “The Big Scrum” and you won’t stop short of the end zone.

 

Sam Miller is a graduate of the University of Illinois where he worked with various teams in sports information and received the Freedom Forum – NCAA Sports Journalism Scholarship for his achievements. At the University of Illinois, Miller regularly wrote feature stories about the football team. He has also served as communications intern for the Angels’ Triple-A affiliate. Prior to that, he worked as a communications intern for USA Basketball and as an associate reporter for MLB.com.

 

Book Review: Tales from the New York Jets Sideline

The Jets are 2-0 with a +32 differential heading into Week 3. Does that mean they are headed toward relatively foreign territory? Or does it set their fans up to be “tortured, teased and tantalized” like Mark Cannizzaro writes in Tales from the New York Jets Sideline?

Jets fans have seen it all, a sprinkling of success notwithstanding. This week, let’s look at the players, coaches and fans of New York Jets lore.

Read this book because:

1. While Bruce Coslet, Rich Kotite and Bill Belichick might leave you going “huh?” Bill Parcells and Rex Ryan remind you that there’s reason to hope.

It was 1990. The Jets had just suffered a 30-7 setback to Buffalo. Rather than say nothing at the postgame press conference, Coslet decided to say next to nothing via a postgame teleconference in his office. Coslet said that because the Buffalo game was a Monday night contest, he had to start gameplanning as soon as possible. Also that year, Coslet closed the press room doors and asked the media to turn off tape recorders. We’re still talking about it without the aid of recorders 20 years later.

Rich Kotite’s boys of ’95 remind one of President Andrew Jackson’s jolly and sometimes juvenile bunch. Kotite brought his buddies on board, and tales of suds are part of his staff’s legacy today.

Bill Belichick didn’t even get through his Jets introductory press conference before he bolted for the Pats. A handwritten note on crumpled paper said it all: Belichick was resigning “as h.c. of the n.y.j.” (97, Tales)

Bill Parcells didn’t stay long, but he did take a 1-15 team to the brink of the Super Bowl within two seasons.

Like Belichick, Rex Ryan also left his mark at his introductory press conference. Unlike Belichick, he stayed past it. “With all the cameras and all that, I was looking for our new President back there. You know, I think we’ll get to meet him in the next couple years anyway,” Ryan said. OK, then. (180)

2. Curtis Martin can’t help but hold your attention. The same can be said for Keyshawn and Chad Pennington for different reasons.

A young Martin had just come upon his grandmother’s murder. In the midst of the unthinkable, Martin asked his mom, “If you get sick, who is going to raise me?” Somehow the two would go on. Martin grew up as a “knucklehead” before he went on to become one of the greatest Jets. Perhaps his beginnings are the reason he put Parcells in a state of disbelief. Martin’s teammates had just voted him MVP in 1999, an award Martin owed all to his mentor. (84)

Who can forget Keyshawn Johnson’s “Give Me the Damn Ball?” Not the greatest Jet of all. “I’ve never approved of talk going outside the framework of the team…” Joe Namath said. (120)

After nine wins in his last 12 games, it was hard to shake the promise of Chad Pennington. But Jets fans were shaken after Pennington was lost for the 2003 campaign.

3. Wherever the team goes, fans are there with their feedback, Herm Edwards said. No matter if that’s at the scene of an accident.

Boomer Esiason tried to take the high road and stop his car after a horrible game in 1994. Esiason saw a rear-end collision on his way home and figured he would help the woman involved. The woman was groggy but soon recognized the QB. Boomer had barely confirmed that she was OK before she said, “You guys suck. How did you lose that game?” (31)

No doubt that would be the question on my mind too. If you can identify, or if you just want a chuckle, pick up Cannizzaro’s collection.

 

Sam Miller is a graduate of the University of Illinois where he worked with various teams in sports information and received the Freedom Forum – NCAA Sports Journalism Scholarship for his achievements. At the University of Illinois, Miller regularly wrote feature stories about the football team. He has also served as communications intern for the Angels’ Triple-A affiliate. Prior to that, he worked as a communications intern for USA Basketball and as an associate reporter for MLB.com.