Sunday, 7 August 2011

Building The Perfect Beast - The Genius by David Harris & The Catch by Gary Myers

It all started for me at what's generally considered the nadir of American Football coverage in the UK, in 1987. Back then we were fed a mere half hour per week of highlights during the regular season (I remember it as a half hour, if it was an hour I apologise), and one dreary Tuesday night I came across a strange looking sport played on a field that looked like a knitting pattern. And the teams I saw in the main highlights played in some seriously good looking uniforms, one in gold and black, the other in white, red and gold. I didn't understand a second of it, but big athletes hitting the crap out of each other looked like fun. Unfortunately this was halfway through a season and Channel 4 were using the comedy duo The Vicious Boys to present, neither of whom offered any insight as to what the hell I was watching. I had to figure it out myself. But it intrigued me enough so that I was back the next week, and every week until I couldn't watch the Superbowl as it was a school night and we didn't actually own a video recorder. But with the help of the estimable Ken Thomas' Touchdown magazine I educated myself. Unlike The Vicious Boys I was back for the start of the 1988 season and the beginning of Channel 4 expanding its coverage with British former NFL player Mick Luckhurst and Gary Imlach, who enlivened the live reporting from the US with an unfailingly dry wit.

And thanks to that first game I'd found my team, chosen simply on the basis that they'd won that first game. I was insanely lucky, thanks to Channel 4's choice of game I'd lucked into supporting one of the all time great teams, in the middle of an NFL record number of winning seasons. It was the Team that Walsh Built, a side that ended up redefining how NFL offences played, a team rich in talent and (unknown to me at the time) rich enough to pay for the best. Montana, Rice, Craig, Lott... they were thrilling to watch and never knew when they were beaten. I'd love to claim discernment, but no, sneaking a two point win in Louisiana was my entire criteria for unconditional support.

With the lack of information available to me, I knew very little about my chosen team, except that they'd won a couple of Super Bowls, and were one of the powers of the conference along with the teams who'd succeeded them in winning the big game, the Bears and Giants, with their fearsome defences, and the Redskins. Midway through the season I'd found a short book in the school bookshop which detailed the Super Bowls themselves, so I acquainted myself with the great names like Lombardi, Namath and the fabled Steel Curtain. Being young, and thousands of miles away they had mythlike status, heroes performing great deeds in the name of sport. It's always good to have heroes at that age, before awareness of the complexities of real life creep in. And I found out how Walsh had built his team, toppling the Cowboys, the NFC's then dominant team and then going 15-1 and beating the favoured Dolphins and their big armed QB Dan Marino in the Super Bowl. But at that point they weren't the dynasty, only one of that host of NFC teams, any one of whom was capable of forging a reputation as the team of the decade. They hadn't become the Team of the Eighties yet.

The first book here is the story of the game in January 1982 that went such a long way to establishing Walsh's team as contenders. It's really an insane story. Walsh had taken over a team rock bottom of the conference, handicapped in the draft by a duff deal for the by then knackered out OJ Simpson, had two losing seasons and gone into the season with three rookies in his secondary.

Yeah. Sometimes fairy tale endings happen.

But no-one believed in the 49ers until they played the Cowboys in the Championship game in 1982. They turned the ball over to the opposition six times, and yet were good enough to keep themselves in the game with one last drive left. And with two plays left before the Cowboys got the ball b Joe Montana, yet to acquire the aura of the finest quarterback every to throw a pass, threw it so high only his receiver, at the limits of his jumping and stretching ability cold catch it. The 49ers defence barely held the Cowboys and they went on to beat the Bengals in the Super Bowl. The Catch isn't specifically about the 49ers, instead it's a fascinating portrait of how one spectacular play meant one team was on the rise and one team went into a tailspin that lasted a decade. Author Gary Myers was a reporter for the Dallas Evening News at the time of the game, so you'd expect the Cowboys to receive their fair share of coverage. It's beautifully structured, each chapter detailing a play, or sequence of plays before focusing on the key men involved in those plays and what happened to them since. Naturally it tends towards a melancholic streak for the Cowboys entries - how effectively it sent the careers of quarterback Danny White and coach Tom Landry on a downward slope from which they never recovered. And then there are genuine heartbreakers, Drew Pearson's involvement in a fatal car accident which killed his brother and Everson Walls' noble but ultimately doomed donation of a kidney to ex-teammate Ron Springs. And in two chapters at the end it covers the career of head coach Bill Walsh and how the 49ers dynasty rose thanks to The Catch.

The Genius covers Bill Walsh's life in more detail, specifically the time he was in charge of the 49ers. It covers his background, including his time in Cincinnatti which came to a bitter end and in college football at Stanford. David Harris isn't afraid to explore his subject's flaws and the often fiery relationship he had with owner Eddie DeBartolo Jnr. Harris does his subject the credit of not trying to simplify him, instead presenting him as a complex, insecure character initially capable of fooling around to attempt to relax his players before their first Super Bowl but who became tighter and more nervous as they attempted to repeat their successes, again in part due to their impatient owner. And how he was capable of misjudgement and indecision, mainly seen in the QB controversy of his last season when he had two Hall of Fame QBs in Young and Montana. It essentially shows how he burned himself out over ten years trying to prove himself the best, but even regretting his decision to leave the 49ers once he'd retired. Walsh comes across as less and less likable the longer he's in the 49ers job, but what Harris effectively conveyed is the intolerable pressure that comes with having to maintain a successful sporting team. carrying the dreams of millions. It's easy to say it doesn't matter in the light of wars, diseases or other life or death situations, but then carrying the dreams of passionate millions brings its own pressure. Whilst Walsh might have been a genius to the point of revolutionising the way the game was played, he was only human. I don't tend to enjoy too many books dedicated to specific sporting personalities these days, but this is an exception, a sympathetic but clear eyed portrait of probably the most influential coach of the modern NFL era. And I got to witness that Walsh team, and the legacy he left from a distance - that dull Tuesday night in October 1987 I got very lucky indeed.

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