Saturday, May 19, 2012

On the Coffee Table: A Civil War

Title: A Civil War: Army Vs. Navy
Author: John Feinstein

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Feinstein is a master at finding sports stories about unheralded, yet thoroughly deserving athletes.  This 1996 publication chronicles a year in what he convincingly argues is the greatest rivalry in American sports: Army-Navy football.  Feinstein provides intimate portraits of coaches and players alike, exhibiting them as real people, not larger-than-life heroes.  He isn't too heavy-handed in detailing the brutalities of academy life but he makes it very clear that the players at both schools are of a different caliber than their counterparts in other big-time college football programs.  Lesser athletes?  Almost always.  More admirable human beings?  Most certainly.  The book inspires me to go out and root like crazy for all academy athletes, even the ones at Air Force - portrayed in this tale as the ultimate villains.

As a Maryland native, I am partial to Navy in this rivalry.  Annapolis is one of my favorite cities in the world.  Paris?  Kamakura?  Burlington?  They're all lovely.  But there's nothing quite like the Annapolis harbor at sunset on an early summer evening.  I can almost smell the crab shacks from here.  I also had a good friend who went to the Academy so I know something of the life, if only through vicarious experience. 

I have posted about the Army-Navy game before.  On TV, I have to admit, it's hard to see it as more than just a football game.  The broadcasters do make an effort, including many of the surrounding ceremonies and providing human-interest glimpses of the players.  But between whistles, it's just a game.  Feinstein writes in the introduction that one has to see the game live to really get it.  Having read the book, I feel I understand better. 

In The Last Amateurs, I felt a bit overwhelmed by the cast of characters in following a whole league.  A Civil War, with only two teams, is more manageable.  One of the dangers of sports writing in long form is avoiding a monotonous one-game-after-another feel.  Personally, I'd rather read the human stories than watch them but I'd rather watch a game than read about it.  In this book, Feinstein manages a nice balance between the two.  I suppose it's one advantage to writing about football rather than baseball or basketball: there are far fewer games in a season.

I'll definitely put more Feinstein books on the to-read list.  His style is both engaging and personable.  Most importantly, he manages to delve into stories easily overlooked by even die-hard sports fans.


  1. It's been a long time since I've read a sports novel. This one sounds good and unusual. I like the spin of focusing on a Navy football team.

    1. Not a novel, actually - non-fiction. I guess I forgot that detail. It is the account of the 1995 football season at both West Point and Annapolis, culminating in the season-ending showdown between the two.