As a genre, the ‘journalist goes inside the team’ book has an impressive history. It’s been tackled in various ways. George Plimpton joined the Lions’ training camp as a player in 1963 for Paper Lion; Paul Zimmerman used his weekly columns as the spine of his inside-view of the 1973 New York Jets in The Last Season of Weeb Ewbank; and, in No Medals For Trying, Jerry Izenberg was a fly-on-the-wall of the Giants’ facility for just one week between big games in 1989.
Nicholas Dawidoff knows his genre; in his introduction to the 2016 edition of Paper Lion, Dawidoff says that he first read Plimpton’s book as a boy and still has his childhood copy. Unlike Plimpton, however, Dawidoff, opts for the more traditional route of spending a year with the team – the 2011 New York Jets – and writing up his findings.
What’s remarkable is how much access he gets. The team gives him a security code, locker and a desk and pretty much leaves him to get on with it. He follows the players on both sides of the ball and spends plenty of time with the coaches. He even calls a play during a pre-season game.
Dawidoff might have expected an inside view of a team on its way to Super Bowl triumph but that isn’t how it turned out. The Jets had lost the AFC Championship game in the past two seasons but the 2011 team had a frustrating 8-8 year and missed the playoffs entirely.
Nevertheless, Dawidoff finds plenty of fascinating material and has compelling insights to offer on most of his subjects. Early on he notes that Rex Ryan, then head coach of the Jets, is commonly viewed from outside as a “buffoon” but the picture he paints of the man is far more complex and – perhaps surprisingly – sympathetic.
“Part of the problem this season, as I saw it, was that Ryan wanted what he wanted – which was fair; he was the boss. But he didn’t like forcing what he wanted on reluctant people, didn’t even like cajoling them, and so he created friction, and then, with his aversion to professional confrontation, he fled from it instead of reaffirming his demands.”
Dawidoff is similarly insightful on the key players, particularly how some of them have been profoundly shaped by the deprived backgrounds from which they escaped. He also comes to understand the value of team sport and laments the fact that he wasn’t more involved in sport when he was younger.
As the season goes on, and the losses mount, the tension rises within Jets HQ. Offense and defense begin to resent one another, coaches argue, and Ryan tries to hold everything together. It would get even worse the following year, as Dawidoff details in a brief epilogue.
For Jets fans, of course, this is essential reading – and makes an interesting companion to The Last Season of Weeb Ewbank. But I’d say this is essential reading for any fan, whether you are interested in the Jets or not. It’s become one of my favourite football books.
Photo: Marianne O’Leary