There is a sense of embarrassment that pervades Frank’s book, one that could perhaps be explained by the fact that David Halberstam was planning on writing a book about the 1958 NFL championship game. But it seems deeper than that. He talks about the salaries the pros made in the 1950s, the failures on the field, the sense of embarrassment that he couldn’t win for his dad, his peripatetic childhood. As a focused study of the game, well, it isn’t. It’s an older man’s book, broad in scope, a little rambling and talkative.
And in that is the strength of the story, which captures a snapshot in time that doesn’t exist anymore. No, I haven’t read extensively about 1950s football, and for someone who hasn’t, it can be a fascinating glimpse at their lives, the character of 1950s New York City. Further, Frank talks candidly about the failures in leadership of the period, strips away common myths about the way the champion Giants worked, and in doing so, exposes the growing character of two towering football figures, Vince Lombardi and Tom Landry.
Cowboys fans might find this bit of text fascinating:
For my first two years , I played defense more than offense, which meant I was playing with Landry, who was even then a player-coach. So I knew how rigid, strict, and unyielding he was as a coach.
Actually, in one game against the Redskins, I made an interception and lateraled the ball to Tom, who ran it in for a touchdown. On the following Tuesday, we watched the film.
“Gifford, was that the coverage?”
“I know, Tom, but they were in a Brown right, L-split,” I started to explain, “and-”
“There are no ‘buts'”
“But what if –”
“There are no what-ifs”
If you didn’t play the defense Tom’s way, end of conversation.
“He had a computer mind”, is how Huff remembers Landry. “He studied the opposition’s offensive frequencies in various situations, and he taught them, and you studied them. He’d always say, ‘You have to believe, You gotta believe. I’ll put you in position to make the play, trust me.’ If you weren’t in position, and making the moves he’d given you, he’d give you ‘The Look’. He didn’t have to say anything: you could read his mind, and what he was saying was ‘You dumb-ass.'”
Vince Lombardi? Gifford expresses a great deal of skepticism about Lombardi’s portrayal in Maraniss’s book, because Frank never saw Lombardi as dictator. Lombardi was, Gifford claimed, a much more approachable man when Vince was their offensive coach.
And so it goes. The book is peppered with those kinds of details. As an example, Lenny Moore always kept a miniature bible in his thigh pad. Perhaps the most evocative writing is a description of the 1950s New York City night life, dominated by saloons, and the search for places where someone could pick up some or all of the player’s tab. After such a fine bit of work on the times, the setting, the game itself tends to fade into the background. Perhaps, this game has been so intensely covered that most of us in the hard core fan category could recite the ebb and flow of the game by heart.
Please note there is a coauthor, Peter Richmond. It’s a tribute to Peter that the book sounds as if Frank is narrating the text.