While watching a recent bone crunching pro-football game on TV, I saw a player dive into a fracas and come up with the fumbled football. He took off for his goal, running for the sidelines to avoid being pummeled by a pile of opposing players. When the TV camera zoomed in close, I could see his grin as his teammates gave him congratulatory fists to his helmet. However, it looked like that punch jarred his head as much as a tackle.
“Doesn’t that hurt him?” I asked.
“Players frequently do things to their own players that would result in a penalty if they did it to an opponent,” responded a wiser sports aficionado.
Based on that incident, I decided to look at classic sports novels to trace the development of this kind of reputation, only to find few sports novels written before the second half of the twentieth century. So, I examined some well-known non-fiction books on this subject as well. Many of the current books reveal a darker side to sports than the painful celebratory punches by team members.
There are a few light-hearted views of athletes such in George Plimpton’s Paper Lion, a real account of how he gained access into the Detroit Lions’ training camp practices. Plimpton wanted to find out how an average guy would fare competing against professional athletes. Although the coaches were aware that he was not a true recruit, the players were not, at least until his obvious ineptitude was revealed. Plimpton’s book deals mainly with the personalities of the players as he was never allowed to play in a real game.
Friday Night Lights: A Town, a Team and a Dream is a candid coverage of one dramatic season for the Permian High School Panthers as they aim at the Texas State Championship. H.G. Bissinger describes how the town gathers ritualistically every Friday during the autumn season to cheer on its team who obtain a kind of instant celebrity. But, a surprising number of the football players suffer from their attempts at athletic fame. There are painful revelations about injured players, forgotten as soon as they are no longer useful. In an ironic twist, the championship title becomes dependent on disproving a charge of grade tampering.
Many of the current “true stories” in sports describe a litany of gambling, dirty dealing and drugs that make opponents seem like the least of the athlete’s worries. Those are the themes that run through famous fictional sports novels, too. Fat City by Leonard Gardner is an acclaimed novel about the life of small circuit boxers set in California. Tully, a major character in the novel, decides to return to the boxing ring. But, his experience is nothing like Rocky Balboa’s comeback. In this gritty novel aspiring boxers have a few wins before descending down a path of desperation.
One of the most well-known and beloved sports novels is The Natural by Bernard Malamud. This fictional work is loosely based on the life of Eddie Waitkus. Readers may want to cheer on this talented athlete in his second attempt at glory in baseball. However, this novel has an edgier and more realistic ending than fireworks-filled home run in the popular movie. The baseball prodigy, who loses his best years, is a reckless character that struggles in an attempted comeback. There is no assurance that he can win the big game for the pennant. But, the novel doesn’t end with the game.
All of these books have been made into movies. However, it is worth the time to read them for their further insights. In the twentieth century, the heroes of the playing field have replaced the old heroes of battle. There is still a darker side of competition that remains to be told.