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On Sports

Heroes, unsung and unstrung

By Bill Littlefield
November 16, 2008
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BOYS WILL BE BOYS: The Glory Days and Party Nights of the Dallas Cowboys Dynasty
By Jeff Pearlman
Harper, 416 pp., illustrated,$25.95

GOING DEEP: 20 Classic Sports Stories
By Gary Smith
Sports Illustrated, 416 pp., $26.95

BLOODY CONFUSED!: A Clueless American Sportswriter Seeks Solace in English Soccer
By Chuck Culpepper
Broadway, 272 pp., paperback,$13.95

OK, pop quiz.

Emmitt Smith, formerly a running back for the Dallas Cowboys, left a game on Jan. 2, 1994, when he "literally felt his right arm detach from his shoulder." Two plays later, Smith returned to the game. At halftime, he took some Vicodin and "in one of the most courageous displays in NFL history, Smith dominated the overtime" Dallas required to beat the New York Giants.

So now the quiz: On Jan. 2, 1994, Smith behaved: a) like a hero; b) like an idiot; c) precisely the way their coaches and fans expect NFL players to behave; d) b and c.

This is one of the less twisted stories in "Boys Will Be Boys." The more twisted involve a player who enjoyed exposing himself to his teammates when he was off his meds, and a head coach who paid one of the members of his staff to keep quiet about the fact that the head coach was sleeping with the staff member's wife.

No wonder the Dallas Cowboys were known as "America's Team."

One of the jacket blurbs on "Boys Will Be Boys" calls the author, Jeff Pearlman, "an insider's insider." But even if you're a serious pro football fan, how "inside" do you want to get?

Gary Smith is an extraordinary writer. People who enjoy reading about sports should consider themselves fortunate that Smith has done much of his best work for Sports Illustrated, and doubly fortunate that 20 of his stories have now been collected in "Going Deep."

Whereas most writing about sports is as ephemeral as the stats of last night's game, Smith's stories endure. This is only in part because many of the people about whom he writes are intriguing in ways that transcend their talents as tennis players, soccer players, basketball coaches, or golfers. Smith's stories are still compelling because he brings to them more curiosity and energy than lots of other writers possess. He is also open-minded, which is not a common quality in sportswriters, many of whom seem to think their job is to tell people not only what happened during the game, but what to think about it.

Consider, for example, Smith's 2003 story about Mia Hamm. Hamm didn't want to consider it. When she met with Smith, she kept urging him to keep the story short and make most of it about somebody or something other than her. He persevered and told the story of a woman driven by competition but suspicious of all the trappings that come with her own competitive success and uncomfortable with celebrity. "She takes a long, hard look at stardom," Smith writes. "It has never seemed more foolish."

But he doesn't ask you to take his word for all this. He includes in the story an exchange between himself and the subject. " 'How much do they pay you to write a story?' she asks. 'Maybe I could pay you that much not to write it.' She's joking. Sort of. Maybe.' "

Or consider the challenge of writing about Richie Parker, as Smith did 12 years ago. Parker was an extraordinary high school basketball player whose future in the game seemed assured until he committed a sexual assault. Having paid for that crime, which was, according to everyone who knew Parker, an inexplicable departure from his character and history, Parker tried to resume his life. But every college that expressed interest in him was convinced to back off by a journalist who called to ask if they were really going to give a scholarship to a convicted felon. The victim, the victim's family, and Parker's teachers all agreed that he should be given the chance to succeed. "Are you saying you can never redeem yourself?" one asked. And Smith asks, "Is it a college's job to mete out more punishment than the legal system does?"

These are difficult questions. They are not the questions that occupy most people who write about sports. They are more concerned with which quarterback should start on Sunday, or whether Emmitt Smith "literally" felt his arm come loose. But Smith finds in the story of Parker's circumstances more profound and challenging concerns, concerns that are universal, and that is part of what makes reading the story a powerful experience. (In an afterword, Smith tells us Parker is now a 32-year-old assistant director of student activities at Long Island University. Parker says his "ultimate goal" is to give back to his alma mater.)

"Bloody Confused!" arose from the fact that Chuck Culpepper, a sportswriter in the United States, realized one day that he had "spent a fourteen-year career immersed in a vat of drivel, banality, and corruption, but especially drivel." Culpepper endeavored to cure his malaise by moving to the United Kingdom, finding a soccer team to follow, and chronicling the adventures of that team (which turns out to be Portsmouth) and its fans. The result is a spectacularly entertaining book. At his best, Culpepper writes about a soccer game's most inspirational moments as well as Roger Angell writes about baseball. Soccer fans will love this book, but so will anybody who enjoys laughing out loud while reading.

Bill Littlefield hosts National Public Radio's "Only a Game" for WBUR. His most recent book is also titled "Only a Game."

BOYS WILL BE BOYS: The Glory Days and Party Nights of the Dallas Cowboys Dynasty By Jeff Pearlman

Harper, 416 pp., illustrated, $25.95

GOING DEEP: 20 Classic Sports Stories By Gary Smith

Sports Illustrated, 416 pp., $26.95

BLOODY CONFUSED!: A Clueless American Sportswriter Seeks Solace in English Soccer By Chuck Culpepper

Broadway, 272 pp., paperback, $13.95

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