This is the definitive history of the NFL, insofar as such a vast subject can be captured in one volume. By the time MacCambridge began the five years of writing and research that this book required, the NFL was already 80 years old, which is a lot to cover. MacCambridge cuts things down a little by focusing on “The epic story of how pro football captured a nation”. That means skipping the early days of football and the foundation of the NFL and picking up the story in the 1940s.
The NFL’s ‘capturing’ of the nation is typically dated to the 1958 NFL Championship Game between the Baltimore Colts and the New York Giants. Indeed, it’s central enough to the story that a photo from that game is on the cover of both the hardback and paperback editions. By spooling back 20 years, MacCambridge is able to examine how the NFL laid the groundwork, so that game – an epic overtime battle, played before a large TV audience, could have the effect it did.
The book covers the backroom deals that made it possible for the league to flourish as well as the action on the field that made the game so compelling to spectators. Often the two are linked – whenever the popularity of their sport waned or the popularity of baseball grew, the NFL owners would tweak the rules to increase the excitement of the game.
The NFL also proved adept at absorbing the rival leagues that it could not defeat, first the AAFC and, at the end of the 1960s, the AFL. From the AFL, the league took an important feature: clubs would share equally the TV money from lucrative network deals, in an attempt to give each team an equal chance to be competitive. It’s a key part of the NFL’s belief that football is the product and its competition is other sports – rather than have teams compete with each other.
The league started to publicise the game in ways that built the mythology of the game. They made coffee table books and funded a film division – the aim was not short-term profits but instead to grow the popularity of the sport over the long term. It was a visionary approach.
The book also examines some of the social effects of the sport, particularly its influence on racial integration. From the days when racially-mixed teams were not allowed to stay in the same hotel while playing in the South, to the later years when rich black players found themselves barred from white communities, MacCambridge shows that the NFL often had an important role to play in breaking down barriers.
The game attracted the attention of politicians too. The Kennedy administration forced the Washington team to employ black players – it had been the last segregated team by some distance – and Richard Nixon was so taken with the game that he would even suggest plays for the SuperBowl.
The extraordinary amount of research required for a book like this is obvious. MacCambridge offers remarkably well-rounded views of some of the game’s key characters – Pete Rozelle, Vince Lombardi and Jim Brown, for example. The story is well balanced between character portraits, action-packed descriptions of classic games and the tense negotiations in boardrooms and the League office.
MacCambridge’s writing is simple and clear. He seems to spend longer on the earlier parts of the history, speeding up once he gets to the 70s. By the time the 90s roll around, MacCambridge is essentially just offering an overview. That makes sense because, first, fans will be most familiar with the League’s recent history and, second, the sport by then had well and truly ‘captured’ the nation.
If this isn’t the best football book ever written, then there are few better.