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Take 2

A different spin on sports by The Seattle Times staff and readers.

December 20, 2012 at 2:00 PM

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Pro Football Hall of Fame book worth giving - to yourself

Y.A., O.J. and L.T. (both of them) are in it. So are Bronko, Thorpe and Moon.

There are pictures of tough-looking men wearing funny-looking leather helmets, or no helmets at all. Playing in the mud. Playing in the snow. And in one case, playing in high-top sneakers.

There are stories of champions and losers, of brotherhood and segregation, and page after page of colorful photos of memorabilia that would cost millions to buy. Plus a ton of other stuff.

Welcome to “The Pro Football Hall of Fame 50th Anniversary Book,” which weighs in at 5 pounds and 295 pages, making it the biggest football book I’ve ever lifted, and the only one I’ve ever weighed.

It’s as if they tried to stuff the entire Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, into one book. But that’s cool. This is no book review. “Pro Football” — which came out earlier this year — is way too big for something like that. It could take 50 years to read all of it.

You don’t want to rush through something like this anyway. Just open it up wherever, whenever. Good stuff on most every page, as it spans three centuries of pro football.

When someone recently gave me “Pro Football,” it quickly shot into first place in my rankings of football books that I’ll never finish, but enjoy looking at from time to time.

That list includes such hard-to-find gridiron gems as “Six-Man Football” from 1940 (during the glory days of tiny, rural high schools and badly posed football photos: guys are shown leaping to block a punt — 10 yards from the punter!) and “How to Watch Football on Television” from 1964 (by legendary sportscaster Chris Schenkel and Otto Graham, one of the NFL’s first superstars).

“Pro Football” tops all of them, by sheer virtue of its size and the scope of its material. The book, edited by Joe Horrigan and John Thorn and published by Grand Central Publishing, features essays from top football writers and is playfully broken into 11 chapters and the 11 “greatest moments.”

Like the sport itself, the book can be lighthearted and hard-hitting, often at the same time.

In the chapter on the 1940s, “Smashing The Color Barrier,” there is a photo of 5-foot-4 running back Buddy Young flying down the field. The diminutive Young was one of the first black ballplayers to play in the reintegrated NFL (African Americans were banned from 1934 to 1946) and according to the book, he “sometimes joked that he found more prejudice against his height than his color.”

And what passed as joking back then sure wouldn’t today. Below a photo of Bronko Nagurski is a quote from an opposing coach on how to stop the unstoppable running back of the 1930s: “Shoot him before he leaves the dressing room.”

Yes, there is a sense of pride surrounding the violence of the sport.

Under a photo of an ancient nose-and-mouth guard — a scary-looking piece of hard rubber that looks like something that you might find in a medieval torture chamber — was this: “The well-intended piece of equipment was relatively short-lived as it proved to cause more injuries than it prevented.”

And in the background of a photo from the 1950 championship game, when face masks were rare, you can see a player literally getting smashed in the mouth by an opponent’s hand, a tactic that gave rise to the term “smashmouth football.”

This is a book where sports and history collide, where you learn that during World War II, a shortage of NFL players forced some teams to merge. So you had such teams as the Phil-Pitt Steagles in 1943 and Card-Pitt in 1944.

And it’s true that playing football is a lot like going to war.

On the cover of a 1943 game program is an illustration showing two identical-looking men — one in a football helmet preparing to throw a pass and other in an Army helmet preparing to lob a grenade, the original “long bomb.”

Many of the pages are decorated with quotes from the Hall of Famers speaking reverently about the sport. As Alphonse “Tuffy “ Leemans, a former Oregon Duck and running back for the New York Giants from 1936 to 1943, put it:

“I just loved the game. I know a lot of players back then, and myself included, who would have played for nothing.”

That’s nice. But Len Dawson, the MVP of Super Bowl IV, probably spoke for more when he said:

“Why do I play pro football? I enjoy doing it. I enjoy the competitiveness of it. I enjoy the money we make.”

So if you're entering the two-minute drill of your holiday gift-shopping season, consider this heavy-duty celebration of sport.

But it could make a good gift in any season. Guess you could say that at the Pro Football Hall of Fame, every day is a holiday.

And guess I did write a book review after all. Now I'll go finish that book. It's not only really big, it's really good.

If you’d like to write a Take 2 post, email Sports Editor Don Shelton at dshelton@seattletimes.com or sports@seattletimes.com


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