I'm not a giant fan of the NFL Draft, which wrapped up its three-day long dog and pony show on April 24. For those not familiar, the draft consists solely of pro football teams choosing the college players they want based on a pre-determined order or landing players through trades. To me it's about as interesting as watching Fortune 500 companies pick the best MBA graduates.
Aside from turning the work of human resources into television programming, the draft is depressing. The average career in the NFL can be measured with an egg timer, so a lot of these well dressed, smiling picks will face a world of hurt well before their thirtieth birthdays. Imagine devoting years and years to a skill, putting blinders on everything else, only to be deemed permanently irrelevant before most of us enter our working prime. What happens if you don't have a back-up plan? Oh, and there's an awfully good chance that these athletes will become permanently disabled.
Now, shake the Commissioner’s hand and look at the camera!
The NFL is not the only place where dreams go to die. If you pay attention, a wave of sadness runs in professional sports. Athletes, those same folks who get paid to live out the dreams of many, may hate what they do. Sometimes the chance to live your dream becomes sheer torture. Playing any sport for a living is work.
There is one useful literary byproduct: Great books about the reality of professional sports. Here are several options if you grow tire of the pageantry.
A Few Seconds of Panic: A 5-Foot-8, 170-Pound, 43-Year-Old Sportswriter Plays in the NFL by Stephen Fatsis: I bought it at my town’s annual library sale for two dollars, because I thought it’d be a quick, breezy read on a journalistic lark—author participates in the pros; in this case, as a placekicker at the Denver Broncos training camp. However, Fatsis' book is an astounding read. Not only is his quest to kick field goals heartfelt and devoid of gimmick, he connects with his teammates, getting their honest reactions to how they make their living in a sport where it’s too easy to become an afterthought. George Plimpton may have been the first to masquerade as an athlete, but Fatsis’ reporting makes this an equal to Paper Lion.
A False Spring by Pat Jordan: Required reading for any kid who thinks they’re destined to make a living at pro sports. Before becoming an acclaimed journalist, Jordan was a heralded pitching prospect for the Milwaukee Braves. He was signed out of high school, entered the minor leagues, and then lost his accuracy. Alone, far from home, and way too young to deal with failure, Jordan was ill prepared to handle the adult world. Beautifully observed and uncomfortably honest, this might be the best coming-of-age memoir ever written.
The Yankee Years by Joe Torre and Tom Verducci: Torre got paid millions of dollars and became a national celebrity during his tenure as the New York Yankees' manager to deal with a lot of frustration—incompetent and inattentive bosses; bickering employees; the loss of key people who made his job enjoyable. A lot of people got caught up in how Torre slammed some of his former players. What got lost in the hand wringing—and why the book matters—was how Torre and Verducci showed that being the boss of a baseball team is like being the boss anywhere else.
Big Bill Tilden: The Triumphs and the Tragedy by Frank Deford; Love Me, Hate Me: Barry Bonds and the Making of an Antihero by Jeff Pearlman; Joe DiMaggio: The Hero's Life by Richard Ben Cramer: Essential reading for anyone who wants to learn how the mighty can fall . . . hard.
Many already know about the egomanical Bonds’ doping adventures and DiMaggio’s surly, miserly ways, thanks to Pearlman and Cramer’s terrific books. However, tennis legend Tilden might be the saddest of the bunch. One of the world's most beloved athletes in the 1920s, Tilden’s homosexuality and preference for the company of young boys destroyed the latter part of his life. He was so shunned by the sport that once embraced him that he would drop by the Beverly Wilshire Hotel to see if anyone needed a fourth for doubles. “No money, no playing lesson, just a game, a chance to play. Did anybody want to play tennis with Big Bill Tilden?” Deford writes.
The saddest part? Sometimes, the teaching pro there would only allow Tilden to use the court until he got cleaned up. “Sometimes his clothes were so rank that he had to give Tilden a clean shirt or pair of shorts,” Deford explains. “His attention to hygiene was deteriorating all the time.”
Confessions of a Hero Worshipper by Stephen J. Dubner: Growing up without a father in the 1970s, Dubner idolized Franco Harris, the famed running back for the Pittsburgh Steelers. As an adult, Dubner tracks down Harris and gets to actually know him, a process that is by turns exciting, frustrating, and enlightening for the author. The book is a tender reminder of how our idols don’t measure up to reality, which holds its own glorious possibilities.
Books mentioned in this column:
Pete Croatto’s essays, criticism, and humor writing have appeared in MAD, Publishers Weekly, BookPage, and the (Newark) Star-Ledger. He also reviews movies for ICON and FilmCritic.com, and maintains a movie blog. Pete currently lives in central New Jersey with three bookshelves made by his dad and an overused library card. Contact Pete.