Top five: NFL history books

The centenary of the founding of the NFL comes in 2020, though the league will begin celebrating in 2019 to mark the 100th season. That’s a lot of history to look back on and there are plenty of books to choose from. The first history of the pro game was probably Harry March’s “Pro Football, its ‘ups’ and ‘downs'”, published in 1934 with the NFL was barely in its teens. March’s book is now considered very inaccurate but the standard has improved.

Choosing just five books on NFL history, then, is virtually impossible. There are incredible books, such as David Maraniss’s biography of Vince Lombardi, “When Pride Still Mattered” (1999), or Brad Schultz’s story of the 1970 season, “The NFL, Year One” (2013), that are just too narrow to make it into a list of five.

The NFL – never shy of self-mythologising – has published some pretty good histories too – including “The Super Bowl” (1990) and “The NFL Century” (1999) – and has more lined-up for the centenary. This list could probably be composed from official NFL titles alone.

Ultimately, I’ve decided to go with a collection of five books that will give you a great overview of league history, from a variety of perspectives. Read this lot and you’ll know everything you need to know.

1Football Nation (2013) by Susan Reyburn

The subtitle of this book is “Four hundred years of America’s game”, which is a stretch, by anybody’s estimation. No matter when you date its precise origins, American football is a 19th Century creation. Nevertheless, this book, which draws on the impressive archives of the Library of Congress, begins with the arrival of the earliest European settlers, who played something like soccer. It very quickly reaches the 19th Century and, from there, traces the history of the game at all levels and its impact on American society. Plenty of rare illustrations make it a thoroughly enjoyable grounding.

2America’s Game (2004) by Michael MacCambridge

Justifiably considered the definitive work on NFL history, Michael MacCambridge’s book traces the rise of pro football to its place as America’s most popular sport. Largely skipping over the early years of the league, America’s Game really gets going in the 1940s, when the NFL’s foundations were stable and growth truly began. It’s an epic, very readable and constantly illuminating.
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3The League (2018) by John Eisenberg

Eisenberg’s book works nicely as a prequel to America’s Game, dealing primarily with the early years of the NFL, when success was far from guaranteed. The League focuses on a key group of early owners who consistently skirted disaster. The Depression, the Second World War and a society split by racism all affected the NFL and Eisenberg does a good job of showing how.
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4The First 50 Years (1969) by NFL Properties

Published to make the NFL’s 50th season, this is a surprisingly good coffee-table book. The essays on why football has become so successful and how the strategy developed are clear, insightful and essential reading. Alongside those are some excellent photos and great artwork, including a section that shows the evolution of NFL uniforms and equipment. It’s out-of-print but easy to pick up secondhand.

5Football (2014), Edited by John Schulian

I’ve cheated a little by including an anthology as the fifth and final entry. How else can we do justice to the many aspects of the game and the string of brilliant voices who have contributed to the story? This book includes great names like Grantland Rice, Myron Cope, Dan Jenkins, Charles P Pierce, and many more. There are magazine articles and book extracts and, taken together, they provide a wonderfully rounded view of the game. This is a great companion-read to Football Nation.
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Photo: Matt McGee

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