Mark Bowden is best known today for his second book, Black Hawk Down, about a 1993 US armed forces raid in Mogadishu, Somalia. The book was later turned into a Hollywood movie but was originally written while Bowden was working for the Philadelphia Inquirer and was first published as a series of 29 articles for that newspaper. In that respect, it’s similar to Bowden’s first book, Bringing the Heat.
In Bringing the Heat, Bowden wrote about the 1992 Philadelphia Eagles, a team much favoured as a Super Bowl contender. Parachuted-in to the sports desk of the Inquirer because the editor liked his writing, Bowden was as fascinated by the sportswriters as he was by the sport. As intrigued by the sheer size and capabilities of the athletes as he was by the results. In fact, as he writes in the afterword to the paperback edition:
“I couldn’t have cared less about the Eagles’ prospects. I was more interested in the players, coaches, front office people, and owner. I wanted to understand what motivated them, learn where they came from and how they made it to the NFL. What happened in the life of a twenty-one-year-old kid who grew up dirt poor in southern Georgia when he signed a contract for millions of dollars? […] The truth about pro football is that it is mostly about falling short. Every year, every team except one either falls short of the playoffs or ends its season with a loss. The best way to capture the reality of life in the NFL was to write about one of the twenty-seven teams that didn’t win the Super Bowl.”
The season was overshadowed from the very beginning by the death of defensive tackle, Jerome Brown, who was killed in a car crash. The team dedicated their season to him. Also missing from the team were tight end Keith Jackson, who left for the Miami Dolphins as an early beneficiary of free agency, and Buddy Ryan, the former head coach, replaced in the offseason by Rich Kotite.
Even with a new coach and without some key talent, the Eagles were expected to have a good year and Bowden chronicles their efforts, week-by-week. As part of his reporting for the Inquirer, Bowden wrote a weekly piece in which he followed one player in detail as he prepared for, played and reacted to that week’s game. Those pieces form a strong thread throughout the book, serving to establish the character of some of the players and also illustrate how thin the margins are in pro football. Some games turn on a play or two that just doesn’t turn out the way it did in training.
That approach does make the book feel somewhat episodic, with a new player effectively becoming a main character with each week but while that affects the flow, it doesn’t make the book any less enjoyable to read. It’s a hefty book – almost 500 pages – which gives plenty of opportunity to go into detail about every aspect of the season.
Fans of the Eagles, or of American football in the 1980s and 1990s, will find Bringing the Heat especially interesting. Key figures of 80s football, from Buddy Ryan to Jim McMahon and Randall Cunningham to Reggie White, figure prominently and in many ways, this is a book about the end of an era. It takes place on the brink of free agency, with the NFL a few years away from expansion and greater moves to ensure parity.
This is a really enjoyable book and one I’d recommend to any football fan.
Photo: Lee Lilly