There aren’t many football books that can boast a recommendation by Ernest Hemingway. In fact, George Plimpton’s classic Paper Lion is surely the only one.
Paper Lion is George 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. The book works because Plimpton is likeable enough for the players to take to him and for the reader to enjoy his journey.
It takes a long time for Plimpton to find a team that will let him join them at training camp. Eventually, the Lions agree and Plimpton shows up with a cover story about being a former Canadian football player 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.
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.
“By some prearranged sign he indicated to the rest of the team that the “club rush” was to be executed. The club rush was a punitive tactic in which the offensive linemen by design allowed the defense to storm through unopposed, and the blockers stepped aside so that the ballcarrier was unprotected, and it was simply a question of which lineman, ripping at full speed, got to him first, and how many piled on afterward. The coaches turned away when the club rush was called, and they looked off at the line of trees, or at the spectators, hoping that the internal strife was not too evident, and that what the spectators thought they were seeing, eyes slightly popped and mouths ajar at the violence, was just another blown play, with one or two of the players missing their assignments.“
- Best Football Books of 1963 — Dan Daly & Bob O’Donnell, The Pro Football Chronicle
- Pro Football Journal’s Top 100 Pro Football Books, #28
- Sports Illustrated’s Top 100 Sports Books of All Time #8
- New York Times Bestseller, 1967
- ALA Best Books for Young Adults, 1966
- Excerpted in Football: Great Writing About the National Sport, John Schulian (editor), Library of America, 2014
- Excerpted in The Armchair Quarterback by John Thorn (editor), Scribners, 1982
“Having been refused by the Giants, I tried the other New York team—the Titans of the American Football League, then in their second year of operations. The team had not done well, either at the gate or in the league standings. 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.‘”
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. The game has changed a lot since 1965, and the book 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 real humour to his themes. 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.
Shane Richmond, Pigskin Books
It was brilliant because also you realise how an average one of us would look if we stepped into a huddle. Not only would we not be able to make the throws, we wouldn’t even be able to turn quick enough to hand the football to the running back. That’s what happened to George Plimpton.
One of the first books I read as a kid and I thought it was great. There are still lines that I remember vividly. Plimpton’s description of the coaches showing him how to put his hands under centre, and saying that the centre, Bob Whitlow was looking at him ‘like a cow about to be milked’.
One of the great things about that book is that you really got an idea about how hard football is. And how complex it is. And so I love that book. That’s the first football book I ever read. I read it when I was about 12 years old, I think.”
Such a no-brainer of an idea, and George Plimpton pulled it off brilliantly.
In the climactic moments when Plimpton gets called into the action for a few minutes to perform – in pre-season warm-up games, but in full intent – his vividly drawn teammates appear to be rooting for him just as much as any reader will undoubtedly be doing.
Vignettes and cameos of famous Lions players, their pranks and foibles, flesh out the text of the year’s most literate sportsbook.
Paper Lion was also a great read for football fans. It not only captured what it might feel like for the average fan to try out for a professional football team, it also had inside information and a locker-room perspective.
Pop History Dig
A more unlikely football player you couldn’t wish for. Despite this, thanks to untold amounts of enthusiasm and the good natured support of the players he produced a fantastic and at times very funny book.
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