You know who liked this book? Ernest Hemingway. He described it as “beautifully observed and incredibly conceived”, which should be all the recommendation anyway needs, to be honest. Even if you aren’t a Hemingway fan, there aren’t many football books that come with a recommendation by a real literary heavyweight.
George Plimpton was born into a wealthy Manhattan family and went to Harvard and later Cambridge University. He became the founding editor of the literary journal The Paris Review in 1953, a position he held until his death 50 years later. He didn’t have a sporting background but that didn’t stop him writing a series of books in which he tried his hand at various sporting roles, including baseball, boxing, golf, ice hockey and, in this case, football.
Paper Lion is Plimpton’s account of his time as “last-string quarterback” for the 1963 Detroit Lions. He spends three weeks at training camp as one of the rookies, learning what life is like for the players, understanding the challenges of pro football and participating in the pranks and parties. It works because Plimpton is likeable enough for the players to take to him and for the reader to enjoy his journey.
The book opens with Plimpton trying to find a team that will let him carry out his plan. He gets some interest from some teams but it winds up going nowhere. He tries the New York Titans – later the Jets and then in the AFL – but he’s warned that it’s a team with little talent:
“Knowledgeable friends warned me that if my performance at their training camp had any flair, if I completed two or three passes, the coaches would not be likely to let me go. ‘Right off,’ I was told, ‘you throw some passes straight into the ground just so they won’t get any ideas. You wouldn’t want to hang around too long with those people.'”
Eventually, the Lions agree and Plimpton shows up with a cover story about being a former player in Canadian football with the “Newfoundland Newfs”. He’s rumbled pretty quickly because of his lack of familiarity with the kit – “From the beginning I had trouble getting into the helmet,” he writes – his uncertainty about where to put his hands while under center and the fact that at least one player read his previous book, about baseball.
It doesn’t matter because the players like him. In fact, it probably helps, because he’s no longer seen as competing for someone’s job, so they are prepared to take him into their confidence more than they would a true rival.
The game has changed a lot since Plimpton wrote his book and it’s interesting because it sheds light on the pre-Super Bowl era NFL. However, in many ways, the game hasn’t changed at all, and the camaraderie between the players and their observations on playing are still relevant. Among those Plimpton spends time with are Hall of Famers Dick ‘Night Train’ Lane and Dick LeBeau, as well as players like Earl Morrall – already a seven-year veteran but who will go on to win three Super Bowls.
As you would expect, Plimpton’s writing is exceptional, drawing the characters vividly and adding to his themes a real humour. Most of all though, he truly conveys the speed of the game. Each of his snaps seems to be over in a flash, with the author still trying to process what just happened. Paper Lion is as much of an eye-opener as it was when it was first published.
Photo: A Healthier Michigan