Tuesday, December 18, 2012

On the Coffee Table: George Plimpton

Title: Paper Lion
Author: George Plimpton
Photo via The Scores Report

George Plimpton's account of his experience with the NFL's Detroit Lions is a seminal work, not only in sports journalism but for embedded non-fiction writing in general. In 1963, the Lions agreed to let Plimpton, a young but already well-regarded journalist, attend pre-season training camp as a quarterback prospect.  His efforts to keep up with the other players as athletes were absurd, of course, but the material he acquired by gaining their trust provided for a wonderfully engaging book.

Photo via Sports Illustrated
For the devoted football fan, Paper Lion is simply a must-read.  The book is a time capsule in print form.  The NFL has come a long way in 49 years.  There were only 14 teams in the league in 1963.  The Super Bowl didn't even exist yet.  Simply based on financial status, the gap between a professional athlete and the average joe was nowhere near as vast as it is now.  I have no doubt that the inner-workings of a pro football team have changed nearly beyond recognition in the past half-century. If you want a glimpse of a simpler time, look no further.

For the non-fan, Paper Lion is, on occasion, extremely funny.  I mean embarrassing-to-read-in-public funny.  My Wife, who hates football, has caught me giggling a couple of times while reading it.  "I'm definitely reading that book when you're done with it!" she claims.  We'll see.

This was a particularly good book to read in light of Alex Karras's recent passing.   Karras, now probably better known by most for his acting career, was a star defensive tackle for the Lions for 12 seasons.  He figures prominently in Plimpton's book, somewhat surprising in that he'd been suspended by the league for the '63 season for gambling.
Photo via Wikipedia

Despite his absence, Plimpton devoted an entire chapter to Karras's antics.  He was, to say the least, quite a character and loomed large in the team's clubhouse culture.  In addition to his considerable football talents (he was named to the All-Decade Team for the 1960s), Karras would amuse his teammates with character monologues and tales of past lives, providing glimpses of his future profession.  Plimpton's follow-up book, Mad Ducks and Bears, focused on Karras and teammate John Gordy.  Karras actually named one of his sons after Plimpton.
Photo via Zap2it

Later in life, Karras suffered from dementia and was one of many players to sue the NFL over football-related head injuries.  He passed away on October 10th of this year.  The cause of death was kidney failure.

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