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Behind the new pigskin primacy

America's Game: The Epic Story of How Pro Football Captured a Nation
By Michael MacCambridge
Random House, 552 pp., illustrated, $27.95

One would hardly know it living in New England -- where the Red Sox, a team that put 86 years between championships, is at least as widely celebrated (and probably more so) as the Patriots, just crowned National Football League champion for the third time in four seasons -- but Americans name pro football their favorite sport by a ratio of no less than two to one.

That's astounding, and not only by the standards of the baseball-loving Northeast. It's also fairly surprising historically, given that the first professional baseball games were played in 1869, a decade before American football would take shape as a sport. And it is particularly surprising considering that football didn't really begin its ascent to widespread popularity until 1958, when the NFL Championship game between the New York Giants and Baltimore Colts stopped the nation's sports fans in their tracks. With the explosion in the popularity of television, that thrilling contest settled in overtime and known to football history as ''the Greatest Game Ever Played" was seen by more Americans than any other football game before it. Yet two years later, when the owners of the NFL's 12 teams elected Pete Rozelle to succeed Bert Bell as commissioner, baseball fans still outnumbered football fans by a wide margin.

Michael MacCambridge, journalist and author of ''The Franchise: A History of Sports Illustrated Magazine," tracks the rapid rise of professional football from second-tier sport to America's defining distraction in his latest work, ''America's Game." Through examination of the lives and careers of such figures as Rozelle, Cleveland/Los Angeles (now St. Louis) Rams owner Daniel Reeves, American Football League founder/Dallas Texans/Kansas City Chiefs owner Lamar Hunt, and legendary coaches Paul Brown and Vince Lombardi, MacCambridge presents a compelling account of how foresight and fortune (good and bad) conspired to make the NFL the nation's most successful sports enterprise.

Although ''America's Game" covers the period from just before World War II, when the young NFL began to find its way as a bona fide enterprise, straight through the Patriots' second trip to the Super Bowl, in 2004, the better part of the story it tells takes place during Rozelle's commissionership, from his election to the post in 1960 through his retirement in 1989. That was when football supplanted baseball as the primary focus of American sports fans. And as MacCambridge tells it, the change is largely attributable to Rozelle.

MacCambridge presents Rozelle as a fan whose love of the game remained a prime motivator throughout his time at the top of the league; a peacekeeper who was able not only to quell regular differences among team owners but to set aside his own animus toward Hunt's upstart AFL when it became clear in the late '60s that a merger was the only way to save the warring leagues from destruction; and a visionary who facilitated the creation of the legend-building NFL Films and the highly profitable NFL Properties, and who recognized the value of league-wide profit sharing and, most important, all-encompassing, league-wide TV contracts.

MacCambridge, who clearly cares deeply about his subject, avoids giving in to what must have been a powerful temptation to try to do too much. He limits himself to looking at a select few teams, coaches, owners, and players, and concentrates on how each influenced the league's development.

Oakland Raiders owner Al Davis, as complex a character as pro football is ever likely to produce, is offered mainly as the AFL commissioner whose hatred for the older league both threatened and sealed the merger, then as the team owner whose headstrong, self-centered ways paved the way for teams like the Baltimore Colts and Los Angeles Rams to switch cities in the '80s and '90s. Jim Brown, a stunning athlete and competitor, is shown largely as a catalyst for change in the ways in which black players approached their role in the '60s and '70s. MacCambridge makes these and other limited portrayals work by focusing on the ascendancy of the league and the sport.

MacCambridge's story only brushes up against the start of the 2004 season, and thus misses out on the chance to address the question of what the Patriots' emergence as the first dynasty of the salary-cap era (which was supposed to eliminate the possibility of dynastic teams) might mean to the league. But the book makes it clear that the NFL's story has hardly come to a close, and that in American pro football, what's expected and what's possible are always subject to change.

Sean Glennon is the author of ''This Pats Year: A Trek Through a Season As a Football Fan."

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