Books


Jack Tatum passed away on July 27, 2010 at the age of 61. His reputation as the hardest hitting player of his era was well deserved as several of his hits on opposing receivers and running backs are still talked about today. About what other player, with the possible exception of Lawrence Taylor, can this be said?

The hit on Sammy White in the Superbowl sent White’s helmet flying upfield in such a manner that a woman sitting next to Al Davis exclaimed, “He’s lost his head!” The oft-rerun hit on Earl Campbell at the goal line when both players were basically knocked out on the play. The hit on Riley Odom in which witnesses swore Odom’s eyes rolled back into his head. And finally, the infamous Darryl Stingley hit that broke two of Stingley’s vertebrae and paralyzed him for life.

Tatum wrote one of the first football memoirs I ever read, They Call Me Assassin.
I was fascinated by the inside look at pro football and, even today, Tatum’s no-holds-barred evaluations of his fellow NFL players stands alone for his willingness to be blunt and honest. He reserves a great deal of scorn for the Raiders’ bitter rival, the Pittsburgh Steelers. Franco Harris is characterized as a big wimp, Jack Lambert overrated, and Lynn Swann a faker of head injuries. You won’t see any recent football books making these kinds of observations as players today are far too afraid of offending others in the “fraternity”.

Stingley never forgave Tatum for not coming to see him in the hospital and wrote about his bitterness at length in his book Happy To Be Alive. Tatum expresses regret over what happened to Stingley, but attributes much of the blame to the rules of the game that encourage the kinds of hits that caused Stingley’s injury. Tatum goes over many of the rules of the time (1978) and suggests changes such as outlawing pump faking and the quick slant. Much has been done since that fateful play to protect NFL players, so much that some people complain that the game is no longer violent enough. Due to these changes and the changes in the attitude of today’s players, we will never again see the like of Jack “The Assassin” Tatum.

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“The Smart Money” is a fascinating voyage through the world of big time sports betting. This is not the average fan betting $10 or even a $100 or a $1000 dollars on a football game, but a little-known subculture where $10,000, $20,000 and even $100,000 is wagered on the outcome of a sporting event and where gains and losses of half a million dollars over a weekend is commonplace. The author was drawn in to an exclusive club, the “Brain Trust”, who used inside knowledge of the teams, highly paid handicappers, and computers to determine what contests to bet on and how to beat the bookies at their own game.

Though it does not go into too much technical detail of the wagering process (i.e. the actual algorithms that the Brain Trust used to beat the system), this is a well written account of the author’s years working as an agent for a large betting cabal. His main responsibility was to find a way to place enough bets of high enough value to make it worthwhile which involved weekly trips to Las Vegas, hidden identities, and large bags containing bricks of cash. Once someone starts winning in Las Vegas, however, the casinos are no longer interested in taking your business. Yet, the Brain Trust was not to be denied, moving their action to offshore organizations where the seediness factor increases significantly.

Truly an inside look at a level of sports betting that the average fan never sees, “The Smart Money” weaves its way through the largely hidden labyrinth of how point spreads for football games are set and, more importantly, the mysterious forces that change these critical values during the week before the game and sometimes only minutes before kickoff.

After reading the first third of this book, which covered his first foray to Vegas to make bets, I doubted that the author could fill the rest of book with similar stories and keep the reader riveted. While the following seasons of betting and the move to using offshore accounts pretty much mirrors the action early in the book, it is told in such a style that it kept my interest right to the end. The author manages to realistically convey the tension and anxiety of large sums of money riding on a meaningless touchdown by a team that is hopelessly behind or the shock of watching an interception being returned for a score knowing that $50,000 was lost in that instant. I highly recommend this book to those who are interested in learning more about how sports betting actually works.

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Having followed the NBA fairly closely and having read many sports books, I found “Seven Seconds or Less” to one of the best sports books I have ever read. A true insider’s view of the Phoenix Suns 2005-2006 season that covers the entire campaign but focuses on their playoff run to the Western Conference Finals. This book contains so many candid stories and analysis, I am surprised it was written in this day and age of sensitive superstars and cautious-to-a-fault coaches and management. Entertainingly penned and a thoroughly engaging read, McCallum shows he can do a long form book as well as he can handle articles for Sports Illustrated.

As a Laker fan, it was fascinating to read the inside story of the Suns comeback from being down 3-1 in their first round playoff series against Los Angeles. Many of my opinions regarding NBA players (Shawn Marion, especially) were confirmed. Even if you are not a fan of the Suns, if you enjoy the NBA, you must read this book.

In this autobiography, Dan Rooney, the president of the Pittsburgh Steelers (and son of the founder), reflects on his 75 years in the National Football League. A lot of ground is covered and the stories about the “olden” days, the days of Earl “Greasy” Neal, Walt Kiesling, and Johnny “Blood” McNally are particularly vivid. There is a detailed passage dealing with the high school, college, and early pro career of Johnny Unitas, who was spurned by the Steelers in training camp but went on to become one of the best quarterbacks in the history of the game.

Perhaps due to the scope, however, there is not a lot of detail about any particular era after this. Even the Superbowl teams of the seventies get a bit of a short shrift (less than a third of the book is devoted to this great team). Most of the stories, though, are less about the history of the team and more about personal anecdotes dealing with particular players and coaches. While this is mainly what I am interested in as a reader, I found that Mr. Rooney was fairly reluctant to say anything negative or controversial about his dear acquaintances. The book might have been better if there had been some more frank discussion about, say, the contentious relationship between Chuck Noll and Terry Bradshaw, for instance.

The book ends with several bland interviews with people associated with the Steelers and then a brief analysis of each NFL franchise by Rooney, punctuated by his (once again non-controversial) opinion of the current owner.

Nonetheless, this is a thoroughly enjoyable read, written in an engaging style with a good natural flow. The account provides a certain unique insight into the early days of the NFL. If you are a hard core Steeler or NFL fan, you will enjoy this retrospective.

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