New year, new sports books - Issue 1
Watch My Smoke and Wright Thompson's Greatest Hits
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After watching the ridiculously entertaining NFL playoff games over the weekend, it’s fitting that the first review is of a book by a legendary LA Rams running back.
New Book Review - 🏈 Watch My Smoke: The Eric Dickerson story by Eric Dickerson and Greg Hanlon (published 18 January 2022)
I prefer biographies, or books about teams, eras or leagues, to autobiographies. The average sports autobiography understandably has a bad rep - the player usually doesn’t want to say anything too controversial, to damage friendships, to admit to their own flaws or cost them future team or media work. The best, most-hard hitting ones, usually involve deep personal insight and reflection like Andre Agassi’s Open.
Watch My Smoke by Hall of Fame running back Eric Dickerson is a different kind of open - it’s more about how he feels about everybody else. He holds nothing back giving brutally honest takes on former teammates, coaches, the NCAA, the NFL and life in the United States for a black man in general. Instead of the usual platitudes of ‘I didn’t see eye to eye with the coach but I respected him’ Dickerson gives us gems like ‘The Falcon’s coach, Jerry Glanville was an idiot, a clown, who had no business being an NFL coach’. It’s entertaining, refreshing and down right enjoyable.
From a small town in East Texas, Dickerson made his name in high school and then as a leading college running back as part of SMU’s famed ‘Pony Express’. He became synonymous with the pay-to-play violations which eventually led to the NCAA shutting down the SMU football team (he had already been investigated by the NCAA while in high school after getting a free car from Texas A&M). Dickerson is savage (and right!) in his critique of the NCAA and the college football system of schools and teams getting rich on the backs of young black athletes. (For more on the SMU scandal, check out the excellent ESPN 30 for 30 ‘Pony Excess’). Dickerson writes candidly about the pain caused by vicious media coverage when he was a freshman in college and the absurdity of middle class, middle age, white reporters calling for a poor black kid to be stripped of his college scholarship because he wasn’t immediately a star.
After being selected 2nd in the NFL draft - the famous 1983 Draft that also has it’s own 30 for 30 called Elway to Marino - his first two years as a pro set a standard for running backs that has never been beaten. Dickerson’s 2nd year total of 2105 yards remains the best season a running back has ever had.
Dickerson’s Rams would be perennial playoff contenders but never made it to a Superbowl, lacking a quarterback operating at the very highest level. Stints at the Colts, Raiders and (briefly) Falcons would follow but it’s as a Ram that Dickerson remains best known (and for wearing sports goggles of course). At various points Dickerson would hold out at the start of the season seeking a better contract as he was badly underpaid and suffered significant criticism from the media and fans as a result. He makes a persuasive case that a man can be paid vast sums of money but when he is earning much less than the value he creates for others he shouldn’t just suck it up and be happy with what he has got.
The book zooms in repeatedly on the ways in which Dickerson’s race influenced how he was treated by owners, the media, and fans. The book is powerful in it’s forthrightness on the real emotional impact of racism, unconscious bias and the rigged rules of the game for young athletes. Indeed becoming rich and famous exposed Dickerson to more shocking incidents of racism than he experienced growing up in the segregated South.
Dickerson also writes movingly about his childhood and his post career life - being raised by a relative who became his mom and the damage the game has caused him and his peers, the private conversations about brain injuries, anger issues and other CTE side effects that the majority of ex players experience.
The book isn’t just about settling scores or complaining - it’s also a love letter to his adoptive parents, the game itself and the camaraderie found within a team.
Watch My Smoke is a really enjoyable read. Honest, refreshing and angry, the book is packed with anecdotes, stories and some needed home-truths about life in America and the brutal business of sport.
Dickerson clips on YouTube are endlessly entertaining (but NFL don’t led you embedded them in blogs/newsletters!)
New Sports Books - What’s coming out soon?
Each week I plan to highlight some sports books coming out over the next week or two. Keep an eye out for:
⚽ Europe's Next Powerhouse?: The Evolution of Chelsea Under Emma Hayes by Abdullah Abdullah. Author of a previous book on the dominant Lyon team looks at their potential successor at the top of women’s football. Out on 24 January.
🎓🏈 Top Dawgs: the Georgia Bulldogs remarkable Rise to the National Championship by the Atlanta Journal Constitution staff. One of the things I love in US sports is the local newspaper putting out a book each time a local team wins a Championship. Out on 25 January.
🏒 Jack Parker`s Wiseguys - The National Champion BU Terriers, the Blizzard of '78, and the Road to the Miracle on Ice by Tim Rappleye. I really don’t know much about ice hockey! Out on 26 January.
⚽ The O'Leary Years: Football's Greatest Boom and Bust by Rocco Dean. Really looking forward to this one on the exciting young Leeds team that let dreams override business sense and flew too close to the sun. Out on 31 January.
⚽ Radical Football: Jurgen Griesbeck and the Story of Football for Good by Steve Fleming. A look at social entrepreneur Griesbeck and his Football for Good initiative. Out on 31 January.
Some recent releases you might missed.
Some interesting looking sports books have been published over the last few weeks. Here’s a selection of those that caught my eye.
🏀 Blood in the Garden: The Flagrant History of the 1990s New York Knicks by Chris Herring. I’m half-way through this excellent look at the great Kicks teams of Ewing & co. Hugely detailed research and reporting went into to recreating the warts all story of one the best, and most interesting teams that failed to win the big one. Great writing, great stories, great players!
⚽ Fit and Proper People: The Lies and Fall of OWNAFC by Martin Calladine and James Cave. I loved this book - a brilliant, important book on the value of clubs to their fans + community and the dangers posed by the variety of people seeking to exploit fans.
🏥 A Delicate Game: Brain Injury, Sport, and Sacrifice by Hana Walker-Brown. A look at sport, brain injury and CTE by the creator of The Beautiful Brain, an award-winning podcast.
🏈 Through the Banks of the Red Cedar: My Father and the Team that Changed the Game by Maya Washington. A memoir of Gene Washington’s football career by his daughter. This story was first a documentary and has now been published as a book.
🏀 The Rise: Kobe Bryant and the Pursuit of Immortality by Mike Sielski. A new biography of the late basketball star which benefits from access to a series of recorded interviews from his senior high school season and the start of his NBA career.
🏏 Different Class: The Untold Story of English Cricket by Duncan Stone. Promises a radically new perspective on English cricket and society.
🎓🏈 The Road to the Horseshoe and Beyond: How a Small-Town Athlete Benefited from Ohio State Football to Build a Life by Rex Kern. A memoir of the former Ohio State football star who has been inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame and spent 4 years in the NFL.
🎿 Rise: My Story by Lyndsey Vonn. A memoir from the most decorated female skier of all time.
A not so recent sports book review - ‘The Cost of These Dreams: Sports Stories and Other Serious Business’ by Wright Thompson (2019)
Wright Thompson is a long time senior writer for ESPN covering multiple sports. His profile is relatively low in Europe given ESPN’s American focus but his excellent 2016 article on Tiger Woods was shared widely. It gave the best insight into how Woods’ life and career unraveled until the excellent ‘Tiger Woods’ by Jeff Benedict and Armen Keteyian was published.
The Cost of These Dreams collects many of Thompson’s best articles but with a central theme running through them – the motivation behind seeking success and the price and struggles that come with seeking and achieving it. It includes some of the greatest figures in their sports (including Michael Jordan, Pat Riley and Bear Bryant) and some relatively unknown characters, most notably Tony Harris, a college basketball star who had a mental breakdown that led him to an untimely demise in the jungles of Brazil. The highlight for me is a moving piece about the Ole Miss (University of Mississippi) football program during the time of de-segregation in US education.
Unlike many anthologies, the preface for this book goes beyond the usual platitudes about how lucky he has been to write for X or Y over the years. Instead it is a very reflective and emotional piece about the costs to Thompson’s own personal life of his method of reporting, his constant travel and the resultant time missed with family.
The articles collected here are superbly well written. The book reveals two of Thompson’s great strengths – as a determined researcher/investigator and as a remarkable interviewer. Thompson’s commitment to research is shown most clearly by his dogged pursuit of one of Muhammad Ali’s early opponents who has gone off the grid. He becomes obsessed with finding him and the resulting article is beautifully written. As an interviewer, he achieves remarkable insight into the inner world of his subjects who often just happen to be among the greatest sports stars in history.
Many of Thompson’s best articles are also available online and well worth checking out. I’ve linked below to a few, most of which aren’t included in this excellent book:
Thanks for reading. Let me know your thoughts, opinions, any improvements I can make etc. Catch me on Twitter.