Friday, October 26, 2018

The Return of the NAFL, Part 1: Football For A Buck

When I was in junior high, I created and ran my own football league. Seriously. Games, box scores, stats, poorly drawn logos, team colors and uniforms, everything. This was the pre-Internet days where I chose my teams by using an atlas I got for Christmas (I'm going to write about my map fetish someday, seriously, what kid asks for an atlas for Christmas?) My library register in the mid to late 80s would be little more than an endless list of Dungeons and Dragons guides, The Lord of the Rings books, a professional football register (think of it as a print version of Pro Football Reference) and The Sporting News Guide and Registers for the NFL and USFL. The USFL was the most frequently checked out. I was obsessed with it. I was new to football and became obsessed with it.

My dad isn't a sports guy. I'm convinced part of my teenage rebellion was my obsession with sports. My connections to sports came geographically not passed down from generation to generation. I was born in Queens, which meant I was a Mets fan. My mom says she's a Mets fan, so I guess maybe that's the generational fandom. Being raised on Long Island in the early 80s meant that I was all about the Islanders. Football wasn't on my radar. (And forget basketball!) When I moved to Syracuse, football became my thing. And why wouldn't it? I was a 6'1" and 220 pound 6th grader. Unfortunately most of that 220 pounds came in the shape of a bag of pizza dough shaped like a person. I was (still am mostly) slow, clumsy and weak. And lazy. But I loved box scores.

I was a baseball guy and box scores told a story. I've opined in other places, maybe even this blog. One thing I sorely miss about daily newpapers is the box scores, whether the full page of baseball scores during the summer, the tiny, incomplete college football boxes on Sunday mornings, the rigidly structured NFL scores or complex NHL boxes with their plus/minus and penalty minutes, I would absorb them all. Don't ask me the quadratic formula, but dammit I could break down a box score. It was this obsession that led to me creating my own football league. But it was also my obsession with alternative football leagues. It was such an obsession that I created my own league based on box scores.

 I would spend hours working on my fictional league, named the North American Football League, crafting it into something, though I couldn't say what. These were hours I should've been writing or doing school work. Instead I was creating accounts of fictional games with fictional players. My friends knew about it. Mocked me for it. But they did that with most of my creative endeavors. (Lesson of my blog lately: teenagers are shitheads.) I was recently reminded of all of this reading Jeff Pearlman's outstanding Football for a Buck.

From the moment I first heard about the book, I was excited. I was a fan of the USFL from the moment I heard about it. A spring football league meant as an alternative to the stodgy NFL. I only vaguely knew about football then, but this alternative league was exciting to me. I love alternative football to the NFL and will always watch when I can. I loved the ESPN 30 for 30 about the USFL and couldn't wait to read this book. And it doesn't disappoint. 

Born of a high school English project (thanks Jeff for inspiring me as a teacher with this since now my students are going to do a similar project as Mr, Height, maybe in 20 years they'll be an anecdote about Mr. Zeleznik in someone's book) and a genuine obsession with the USFL, Pearlman's passion was pretty parallel to my own. The uniforms, the nicknames, the stories, the personalities...these were the things pro sports should be about. Pearlman's book perfectly and fairly accounts for the rise and fall of the spring football league from it's earliest gestation to birth, stumbling start, early successes and, ultimately, its hastened failure at the hands of a egomaniacal huckster desperate to get his own NFL team. Honestly, if you want to know what the anthem controversy is all about, this is it. 

Pearlman's book is terrifically written, light, entertaining and incredibly informative. It feels like you're just shooting the shit and sharing stories about this crazy league. A lazy writer would've really ratcheted up the parallels between what happened in the USFL to what is happening in our country at present, but Pearlman deftly integrates it. It's an important part of the story and you can see the skill in the presentation of facts in the book about a good idea that went bad mostly because of a snake oil salesman. 

It's the stories about the USFL, the owners, players and fans, that really makes the book so fun. It was insane. The 80s were insane and a "rebel" football league looking to buck tradition was even more insane. Never mind that this book is a harbinger of what we are experiencing now, it's a fun, amazing read. Jeff Pearlman's other books have moved up my queue and maybe they'll inspire me to write something thought I don't exactly know what it will be. I know that I'm inspired to do something with my old league. The North American Football league lives again and I'll talk about that in my next blog post.

Football for a Buck is the clubhouse leader for best book of the year for me. I loved it that much.

In the meantime, go buy Football for a Buck, check out Jeff''s terrific podcast Two Writers Slinging Yang and keep your eyes on this space for more on whatever the North American Football League is going to be. I don't know if I can create a character as vivid and incredible as Paper Fields for my league. But let's see what happens.

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