Saturday, January 21, 2017

The Greatest Football Writers Of All Time

Appeared on in January 2015

By Ronald N. Guy Jr.

This is equal parts impossible task and fabulous challenge. The best football writers ever? How can this possibly be confined to one column? That’s insane. A book could be written about the greatest purveyors of gridiron prose. In fact, the late great writer and historian David Halberstam did just that – sort of - in his 1999 book “The Best American Sports Writing of the Century”, a sport non-specific bible of narrative geniuses.

Where to start? Where to stop? This monumental undertaking required structure. Parameters. It needed to be condensed into an executable formula, an E = mc² for football writers. The magic equation started with an obvious element: credentials. Did the writer have a reasonably decorated resume? No hacks here, not even close (although this was far from just a beauty pageant).

The next component was passion. Could you consistently feel the scribe’s passion in their work? Did the words jump off the page, grab you by the throat and not let go, even if you attempted to tap out, until the last word had been read? Vanilla is not an available flavor. It’s similar to identifying good music; you don’t just hear it, you feel it in your bones. When the sound or words are authentic, it is unmistakable.

Lastly, homage needed to be paid to writers past and present. Considering how much football and coverage of the game has changed over the years, it seemed completely necessary to include past greats and provide a crumb trail to modern times. So a couple entrants are vintage; others are still active. There are no-brainers and a couple that provided considerable inspiration for this writer.

Okay, the launch cycle has started. Just three more administrative points and the succulent main course of narrative mastery will be served. First, most of the writers have covered various sports. When you talk all-time greats, it is rare to find a writer whose career was dedicated solely to one particular sports genre. Second, I didn’t even try to rank them. They are just there…placed on a spectacular, roughly chronological continuum. Great is just great. It is a fraternity of brothers with equal standing. And lastly, an admission: dubious selections and obvious omissions are inevitable. The candidate list is too long and the variables are too great. I have my own experiences and biases, as do you, the reader. If this list inspires an equal number of affirmative nods and expressions of outrage, it’s a success. My sincere hope is that you will be left doing the same thing I did at the beginning of this assignment: pondering the great writers whose pieces established sports’ place in pop culture and helped create the deep connection we have with the game of football. 

The Godfather: Grantland Rice

If the sports writing crime family had a godfather, it would be Grantland Rice. He kind of started it all, you know? Who can compete with a World War I veteran and the guy credited with naming the 1924 Notre Dame backfield “The Four Horsemen”? 1924! Rice’s name appears on literary awards and scholarships and a now defunct college bowl game. Not bad, eh?

The one chink in Rice’s armor was his majestic phraseology, a style Deadspin took to task. A test of good product – be it a song, art or a work of literature – is how it ages. Rice’s profound metaphors and decorated analogies (for example his usage of scripture to coin his famous Four Horsemen nickname) would likely fall flat today. The great Grantland Rice wrote largely in time before television, when the reader often lacked a visual of the event or the players involved. The unknown created a void that allowed Rice to paint extravagant pictures, ones perhaps more grand than the reality itself. If Shakespeare had a brother that went into sports writing, Grantland Rice could have played the part.

But that’s a nit. Rice’s work was superb in its time and contains a complexity and elegance rarely seen today. He enhanced the games he covered and his influence on the field of sports writing is virtually unrivaled. Perhaps the most obvious testament to the extent of Rice’s reach was ESPN’s decision to use his name for, a website started in 2011, 67 years after the legendary writer’s death.

The Capital’s Institution: Shirley Povich

Shirley Povich is best known for his coverage of baseball, but during his 75-year career at The Washington Post, his gridiron musings were significant. Povich was over a decade into his remarkable run in the nation’s capital when the ‘Skins moved south from Boston and established roots in Washington in 1937. He covered Sammy Baugh, Sonny Jurgensen, John Riggins, Art Monk, Darrell Green, the arrival of Vince Lombardi in 1969 and his death a year later. Povich sat in the press boxes for ‘Skins game at Griffith Stadium, RFK Stadium and Jack Kent Cooke Stadium (now FedEx Field) and he saw all five of Washington’s pro football championships (’37, ’42, ’82, ’87 and ’91).

Povich was also persistent in his criticism of Washington’s failure to integrate its roster (the ‘Skins were the last NFL to do so) and of then owner George Preston Marshall. In a piece published in The Washington Post on October 31, 1960, Povich took a not-so-subtle shot at the ‘Skins’ when he described a Jim Brown touchdown. Wrote Povich, “From 25 yards out, Brown was served the ball by Milt Plum on a pitch-out and he integrated the Redskins’ goal line with more than deliberate speed, perhaps exceeding the famous Supreme Court decree. Brown fled the 25 yards like a man in an uncommon hurry and the Redskins’ goal line, at least, became interracial.” In a 2011 piece, Washingtonian magazine credited Povich with writing this upon learning of the ‘Skins’ integration in 1962: “It could be the beginning of better football for Washington fans and is certainly the beginning of a more dignified football situation here.”

During his career Povich won the Grantland Rice Award (1964), the Red Smith Award (1983) and was elected to the National Sportswriters Hall of Fame (1984). Impressive, but what I remember most about the Washington icon - and human institution – is a single word often used to describe him: gentleman. Povich conducted himself with a level of class that is sometimes lacking in writer-athlete interactions these days. And did he ever have the look? When I close my eyes and think of Povich, three images appear: a fedora, a perfectly tailored suit and a typewriter. As for exits, no one did it better than Povich. He “retired” from The Washington Post in 1973, but never stopped writing. His last piece was published on June 5, 1998…the day after he died. Shirley Povich, the consummate sports writer…to the end. 

The Outlaw: Hunter S. Thompson

Hunter S. Thompson once said, “Journalism, to me, is just another drug – a free ride to scenes I’d probably miss if I stayed straight. But I’m neither a chemist nor an editor; all I do is take the pill or the assignment and see what happens.”

Truth is, Thompson didn’t take too many sports assignments. He earned his journalistic chops with novels such as “Hell’s Angels” and “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” and through his unique political works during the late 60s and early 70s. Compared to the volume and significance of the football pieces produced by the other writers on this list, Thompson doesn’t seem to belong. He’s the overweight 5’3” kid on the basketball team or the super-skinny guy trying to play on the offensive line.

Despite a deep love of professional football – one that created an odd chemistry during a car ride with Richard Nixon, a guy he otherwise considered the antichrist – Thompson only dabbled in sports writing as time permitted or as bills necessitated it. In his February 15, 1973 piece for Rolling Stone titled “Fear and Loathing from the Super Bowl”, Thompson wrote, “There was a time, about ten years ago, when I could write like Grantland Rice. Not necessarily because I believed all that sporty bulls—t, but because sports writing was the only thing I could do that anybody was willing to pay for.” Perhaps Thompson’s most acclaimed sports work, his June 1970 piece for Scanlan’s titled “The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved” was about a horse race, not football.

So what in the world is Thompson doing in the middle of these football-writing icons?

Every list needs an outlaw whose presence proves artful expression can’t be constrained by any success formula, known or unknown. Thompson drank, did copious amounts of mind-bending substances, loved to shoot guns and rip down the highway on a motorcycle…sometimes all at the same time. He kept vampire hours, called the president and political leaders names that would now have the NSA and CIA in a stir and is credited with creating “Gonzo journalism”, a style not for the prim and proper. He didn’t write about situations from the periphery, he immersed himself into his work to the point where he became a character in the story itself.

The extent of Thompson’s debauchery was reveled in a letter he wrote to Greg Jackson of ABC News on Christmas Day, 1973. Concerning a recently nixed NFL assignment, Thompson wrote, “My only gig for the past 3 months has been a long and psychically complicated “pro football” story – which unexpectedly terminated last week when the Oakland Raiders management suddenly informed me that I was barred – because of my “personal involvement in the drug scene” – form any contact with the team in public or private.” Expelled the Raiders of the 1970s! Is there any better street cred?

Thompson would likely scoff at his inclusion among the best sports writers. I can almost hear him declaring it “an insane, drug-infused conclusion reached by a try-hard little pr-ck writer hell bent on siphoning off a piece of my well-earned infamy and as of yet unrealized fortune.” Despite his assumed posthumous protest, Thompson’s genius is unavoidable and his place among these other writers is entirely appropriate. He started his career as a sports writer in the 1950s and ended it as a Page 2 columnist for ESPN in the early 2000s. In a 1968 letter to U.S. Senator Abraham Ribicoff, Thompson offered this tender compliment (a rarity for Thompson): “…I feel a little better for knowing you’re around.” Likewise, this list is better with HST around.

The Blue Blood: Frank Deford

I blame my parents for this one – specifically, my mother. My folks ensured that I maintained a subscription to Sports Illustrated throughout the 1980s and early 1990s. Early on, it was a cheap babysitter and a better option than Atari. As a teenager, it was safer than a girlfriend or a mysteriously happened-upon case of beer. Well played, mom and dad.

The weekly issues acquainted my then young and highly absorbent brain with the fabulous works of Frank Deford, an SI writer since 1962. I learned sometime later that my mother decided it was time for my earthly existence to begin on the same calendar day as Deford’s mom did: December 16. He arrived a few years before me but we are birthday brothers nonetheless. I have one last parent-drive connection with Deford: Towson University. My folks sent me to the Baltimore school with the hope that I would emerge with a diploma and a clear path off their financial books and out from under their roof. I did and the experience revealed that Deford was a native of Baltimore and attended high school just a short drive from my alma mater. 

That’s pretty much where the similarities (and my apparent stalking of Deford) end. Deford graduated from and has taught at Princeton University. He has written over a dozen books, received the Red Smith Award (2012), is a six-time sports writer of the year, owns an Emmy Award and, not to be confined to print, has appeared on television and radio throughout his career.

If you’ve ever been a fan of any sort, ever rooted with a child’s zeal for a particular NFL team or player wearing your team’s colors, you simply must read Deford’s SI piece “The Greatest That Ever Was” on legendary Baltimore Colts QB Johnny Unitas – his boyhood hero. In this excerpt, Deford captured the feeling of his native city, one still processing the loss of starting QB George Shaw and adjusting to the idea of some obscure backup leading a team littered with talents such as Gino Marchetti, Lenny Moore, Raymond Berry and Art Donovan: “Of course, no matter who John Constantine Unitas had played football for, it would’ve been Katie-bar-the-door. But perhaps never has greatness found such a fitting address. It wasn’t only that Baltimore had such an inferiority complex, an awareness that all that the stuck-up outlanders knew of our fair city was that we had crabs and white marbled steps in profusion and a dandy red-light district, the Block.” Give it a read in its entirety, please.   

Prolific. Decorated. Influential. Relentless. As Hunter S. Thompson might say, that’s Deford’s career “in a nut.” Somewhere in my parents’ attic is a dusty SI from the early 1980s that introduced me to greatness. Thanks mom and dad. Thanks Frank Deford.

The Pigskin Purest: Peter King

Peter King is the purest selection in that he is virtually all football, all the time. King started at Sports Illustrated in 1989 and regularly appears on television and radio. In 2013, he started his own website, an information superhighway spin-off of his SI column Monday Morning Quarterback.

King is not one to wow you with his mastery of the English language like Grantland Rice. His career is but a fraction of the length of Shirley Povich’s. His writing is nothing like the establishment-challenging epic’s of Hunter S. Thompson and his resume lacks the accolades of Frank Deford’s. King’s prose doesn’t immediately grab you, but he’s always there to provide sound, thoughtful points written in an understandable, entertaining manner. His knowledge of football cannot be questioned and his connections in pro football are substantial. To call him football’s E.F. Hutton – the brokerage firm with the dated “When E.F. Hutton talks…” ad campaign – is so corny that it could be mistaken for a slight. It’s not; it is a compliment of the highest order. When Peter King expresses an opinion on pro football, I listen.

Honorable Mentions

Red Smith: Smith began writing for the New York Herald Tribune in 1945 and later moved to the New York Times. This excerpt from Smith’s November 1947 piece, “The Most Important Thing”, on that season’s Yale-Harvard football game brilliantly captured the spirit of competition and the thrill of the victors: “As the last whistle blew, a great passel of Yales swarmed onto the field to hug the combatants to their bosoms and even from the press box you could see grins as broad as Kate Smith upon the soiled faces of the belligerents.”  Smith went on to win the Pulitzer Prize in 1976 and, in what is perhaps an even greater acknowledgement of his talent, had his work referenced in Ernest Hemingway’s novel Across the River and into the Trees. I’m impressed.

Paul Zimmerman: Zimmerman is best know for his work at Sports Illustrated, where he was a long-time colleague of Deford and King, and for authoring “The Thinking Man’s Guide To Pro Football” in 1971 and “The New Thinking Man’s Guide To Pro Football” in 1987, bibles of sorts for any self-respecting football enthusiast. His weekly NFL prognostications, written under his “Dr. Z” handle, were must-reads. A recent NFL Films piece on Zimmerman’s career and his recent health challenges urges us to seize every moment, for time slips quickly through our hourglasses. Consider us all under doctor’s orders…Dr. Z’s orders.   

Christine Brennan: There have been two occasions in my career where Christine Brennan and I have written pieces on the same topic at virtually the same time (albeit for very different outlets). After reading her versions, I was sent scrambling back to the keys, tail between my legs, pondering what had gone wrong. The humble pie was bitter but there is no shame in finishing behind Brennan. Her career spans three decades and includes stops at Miami Herald, The Washington Post and USA Today (her current gig). In a field dominated by male writers, Brennan has made gender – often the elephant in the sports journalism room - a moot point. Her talent carries the column.

George Plimpton: Plimpton once said, “I have never been convinced there’s anything inherently wrong in having fun.” His life is a testament to his belief in those words. Plimpton pitched against major league stars in an exhibition game in the 1950s, played golf against Arnold Palmer in the 1960s, boxed Archie Moore and Sugar Ray Robinson, competed as an “amateur” piano player at the Apollo Theater, played goalie for Boston Bruins in a preseason NHL game and attended the 1961 Detroit Lions’ preseason camp as a backup quarterback…and he wrote extensively about all his unbelievable submersions. That last stint – his brief foray into NFL football with the Lions – produced the book “Paper Lion”, perhaps his most significant sports-related work during his incredible life. 

Dick Schaap: Despite his death over 13 years ago, I still wake up on Sunday’s mornings expecting to see Dick Schaap skillfully moderating ESPN’s show “The Sports Reporters” while still finding room amidst the powerful personalities to offer his own sage wisdom. Schaap, while known more as a sports media personality and author than a football writer, co-authored “Instant Replay” with Jerry Kramer in the late sixties and wrote “Bo Knows Bo” – one of my personal favorites - in 1990 with Bo Jackson. 

Michael Wilbon: I grew up not far from Washington D.C. As a teenager in the late 1980s and early 1990s, I couldn’t wait for my dad to come home from work and flip the day’s worn, folded sports page from The Washington Post in my direction. It was a period that saw Michael Wilbon rise to prominence, first at my ‘hometown” paper and eventually on a national level. A native Chicagoan, Wilbon was the long-time unbiased and brutally honest conscience at The Washington Post for a blind homer (me). I loved his biting prose and passionate criticisms. He didn’t tell me what I, the hometown fan, wanted to hear; he preached what he thought I needed to hear. As Drew Magary expressed in a Deadspin piece, it’s not a universally acclaimed style, but I’m a long-time fan of Wilbon’s tough love.

Howard Balzer: In his nearly four decades of covering pro football, Howard Balzer has written for The Sporting News, Pro Football Weekly, USA Today and The Sports Xchange. He owns an Emmy Award and has received multiple honors from the Pro Football Writers Of America. Balzer covered the NFL Draft for ESPN before Mel Kiper Jr. and his prodigious locks became synonymous with the event and decades before Todd McShay nudged his way into the Draft fraternity. Balzer, whose early work was very much ahead of its time, is still getting it done today for FOX Sports. His latest piece for FOX Sports Midwest, a status check on the perilous state of the St. Louis Rams, opens with this ominous lede: “Disaster is around the corner. The sky is falling. Panic is in the air.” Here’s a teaser: he’s not talking about the team’s quarterback depth chart. Give it a read

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