Hell-Bent: Two New Books Expose the World of Football
The Dark Side of the Game: My Life in the NFL by Tim Green, Warner Books, 272 pagesHell-Bent: The Crazy Truth About the 'Win or Else' Dallas Cowboys by Skip Bayless, HarperCollins, 290 pagesFull-speed collisions with 300-pound opponents dictate that most NFL careers last no more than a few seasons. Even after retiring, these aches and pains remain a constant companion. But not for too long-the average pro football player lives only to his mid-50s. You'd think that common sense would eventually prevail and the pool of available gladiators would decline. On the contrary, every male (or female) who has ever played a down of Pop Warner ball would gladly ditch his or her nonfootball career for a fleeting shot of gridiron glory.Or so goes the thinking of Tim Green, author of The Dark Side of the Game: My Life in the NFL. A novelist and frequent commentator on National Public Radio, Green played defensive end for the Atlanta Falcons for eight years. His newest book, featured recently on 60 Minutes, is one of two newly released "exposes" that profess to tell the truth about life in the trenches."Fame and fortune, satisfaction and thrills, that's why people dream about playing in the NFL and they're right," Green writes. "Hell, I still dream that dream, even though I already did it. I work for Fox now, broadcasting games, and the truth is, I can't go onto the field before a game, to talk with players and coaches as they're making their last-minute preparations, without daydreaming about being back there again."Alas, at some point, you've got to step back into reality. Having introduced this fantasy in the first chapter, Green spends most of the rest of his book deflating the notion that life in the NFL is in any way glamorous. Don't football stars get all the girls? No, says the author, "NFL players are as likely to strike out on a Friday night as the computer nerd from your Physics 40 class in college." Making it to post-season play is the highlight of a players career, right? Try again. "You roll into those playoffs on fumes, and when it's finally over, well, win or lose, you're happy to shuffle off into the off-season and curl up in a corner somewhere to lick your wounds."The author sees pro football as pretty much like any other job, save the weekly national television audience that produces abnormal, attention-getting behavior in the NFL's handful of extroverts. While sheer hate for the enemy drives some players, most take a much more business-like approach to the game. The author recalls sacking Green Bay quarterback Brent Favre, who had been his friend and roommate the previous year when he played in Atlanta. As Favre lay on the ground underneath his former teammate, they exchanged pleasantries, engaging in a brief conversation about their respective families.It's a miracle they have kids at all. Dark Side of the Game reveals that the majority of NFLers aren't particularly concerned about their reproductive health. Despite the prevalence of injuries to all unprotected limbs, ligaments and tendons, most pro football players leave the family jewels relatively bare: "The hard facts are that protective cups, as they're known, are as uncommon in the NFL as painted toenails. Guys just don't wear them." Why? Because foot-speed is the top priority in this game, and anything that hinders this quickness is judged as unnecessary. Smart thinking.This kind of twisted logic persists throughout the book. Teammates like Bret Clark retire from the game barely able to walk, thanks to a bum knee that never received adequate treatment. Still, Green describes playing in the NFL as the most thrilling and important experience of his life. Kind of like the way old war veterans sound when describing the thrill of combat.Others paint a less cheery picture of this game and the camaraderie it supposedly generates. Imagine a team so divided by internal conflict that the quarterback and the head coach rarely even acknowledge each other's presence. Did we mention that this squad won last year's Super Bowl? Was America's Team unified in its quest toward this championship? Not according to Skip Bayless' current book Hell-Bent: The Crazy Truth About the 'Win or Else' Dallas Cowboys.It might not be the truth, but at least it's juicy soap-opera fare. The author spends a whopping 19 pages refuting gossip that Troy Aikman is gay, thereby ensuring that most of America is now aware of this rumor. As for Emmitt Smith's reputation for playing in pain, Bayless dismisses this as hype. In his opinion, the All-Pro running back tends to exaggerate the seriousness of his various bumps and bruises. So call Emmitt a wimp from now on.Egomaniac owner Jerry Jones and his slow-thinking coach Barry Switzer are the real villains in this one. But at least Switzer has a semi-valid excuse for his shortcomings (such as the disastrous fourth-and-one decision that cost Dallas a loss against Philadelphia last December). Bayless reports that, like "10 million" American adults, the former University of Oklahoma mentor suffers from so-called Attention Deficit Disorder. How trendy! Good thing it's not Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, or the Cowboys would really be in trouble.If there's a point to be taken from Hell-Bent, it's that the relationship between team unity and winning is fairly indirect. Players lobby to have assistant coaches fired. Assistant coaches conspire to take the job of the head coach. The head coach rallies his too-willing friends in the media against various All-Pros who defy his authority. And the owner takes credit for everything, except when the Cowboys end up on the short end of the score. What a bunch of losers.Still, the biggest jerk turns out to be the author. Early in the book, Bayless explains that he gave NFL super-agent Leigh Steinberg his first big break. Later he describes being mobbed by autograph-hungry Dallas fans in Pittsburgh ("this happens to me in nearly every lobby of every Cowboy hotel"). By mid-season, Bayless has become one of the team's most trusted advisors, meeting with owner Jones and various assistant coaches to help solve the team's widespread dissension. This sportswriter, it turns out, was the pivotal force behind last year's championship drive.Yes, some guys just can't get enough of this game. As Green points out, everybody wants to be an NFL star, no matter the physical cost. Bayless' self-important, cliche-ridden tome becomes the perfect validation for this pathetic claim. For those of us who have progressed beyond these silly dreams of pro-football immortality, only a few weeks remain until the start of the NBA exhibition season. Of course, that's a league I could surely be playing in, if I hadn't decided to apply my talents elsewhere. Really.