18 January 2007

Book review: Next Man Up

Finally finished slogging my way through John Feinstein's latest opus and man, what a grind. Anyone who's ever thought it might be fun to play in the NFL ought to read this in order to disabuse themselves of that woefully misguided notion. In addition, anyone who thinks sports books are are lightweight beach-reading should read this to see just how even a sports book can be made to seem like a dreadful, interminable reading assignment for some required course you can't stand. More accurately, no one should read this.

I always find books about life in the NFL fascinating because it seems like such an unfathomably foreign world, even more so than other sports. No matter how much I read about it, I know that there are things about it I'll never grasp, things that can only be experienced first hand. Feinstein attempts to paint a vivid and detailed landscape of that world, but it winds up coming off as an exhaustive catalogue of individual observations. It's as though he were unable to tease out a real story from his time spent with the team (a full season of unlimited access, apparently), so he just dumps all his notes onto the page and lets the reader sort it out. Every step of the season, from training camp to the start of the off-season, is carefully explained. Every game, from preparation to aftermath, is described, none given any greater importance or extensive coverage than another. By the end of its nearly 500-page length (making it easily the longest sports book I've ever read) I was glad it was over.

What does come across through pages and pages of aimless observation is that life in the NFL is tedious, painful, tenuous and just as brutally taxing mentally and emotionally as it is physically. Players can be cut in training camp or at any time throughout the season. Other than a few established stars, no one's future is secure. Money drives a lot of the misery; pro football is a business, and no one seems able to forget this for a minute. Young or marginal players yearn for a long-term contract; when one player is rewarded, it immediately creates tension and even resentment that poisons friendships with teammates nervously awaiting their own payday. Everything is about money. Imagine working in an environment in which your company has a clearly defined limit for employee compensation (the salary cap), and in which your and all all of your co-worker's salaries are published in the local paper.

Feinstien is an experienced and respected sports writer with a few established classics to his credit in the area of college hoops as well as countless tomes on other subjects. I've never read any of his prior work, but this book certainly won't steer me away from it. To his credit, he presents plenty of fascinating detail in perfectly readable prose, he just never seems to build a bigger picture throughout the book as a whole. Want a good picture of life in the NFL? Go back to when it was still fun. Go read Paper Lion. Nobody tells it like dear old George.

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