Hank Gola has been a sportswriter for more than 40 years. He covered football and golf for the New York Daily News for 23 years, until 2015. He is the author of Hard Nose, the story of the 1986 Super Bowl-winning New York Giants, and a biography of Tiger Woods. His third book, City of Champions, was published in 2018 and tells the fascinating story of the Garfield Boilermakers, the high school team from a small New Jersey city that won the 1939 National Championship, and brings to life an era of change in America.
How did the book come about? Since this is a story that you grew up with, was it always a book that you wanted to write or did something else motivate it?
I was driving home from an NFL game I had covered in Foxboro and for some reason I realized that it was 75 years since the game was played. I wrote a 3,000-word story for the Daily News on the anniversary and had so much left over, I knew I had the potential for a book. The story was close to my heart and I wanted to write it as sort of a gift to my hometown. I just let the research take me to the end limits.
Further reading: City of Champions review
How long did it take, from start to finish? It seems as though the amount of research was extraordinary, and complicated by the fact that so many of those who played a significant role in events are no longer living.
Roughly three and a half years. There were two surviving members of the Garfield team and one from Miami. Garfield’s Walter Young and I became great friends until he was lost to cancer at age 95, I conducted over 80 interviews with family members, friends and those who had attended Miami and Garfield High Schools at the time but for the most part, the microfilm reader was my portal to the past. I was determined to find every word ever written on the game and probably succeeded. I lived those years day to day through the pages of the newspapers and was helped tremendously by the descriptive writing of the sports reporters of the time. I threw myself into the pre-World War II era and probably have the only three-year old grandson who is a big fan of Glenn Miller because I played big band music in the car. I supplanted it all with books, game films and recordings.
What did you learn in researching the book that surprised you? Did you discover anything that contradicted the story you had been told as a boy?
Most everything involved discovery so there were a lot of surprises, including the sinking of the Athenia on the first day of World War II and how it affected a Slovak family from Garfield. Nothing specifically contradicted my dad’s story although I was surprised to learn that the star of the Garfield team, Benny Babula, lived in the next town and that the family used the address of his father’s Garfield business so he could play for the Boilermakers. My dad never told me that. In general, I was surprised by the popularity of and huge crowds for hjgh school football and how the newspapers gave it as much coverage as the NFL or colleges. They did not hold back on criticism, either.
What’s your favourite anecdote from writing the book?
The story of Floyd Wright amazed me. Jim Crow laws prevented him from playing in Miami with his high school team from Toledo, Ohio, in 1932. Still, he accompanied his teammates on the trip and was smuggled into the stadium atop the team bus, where he watched the game from under a tarp, an experience that shaped the rest of his and his family’s lives. His son, Ernie Wright, was an All-AFL defensive end with the Chargers and his grandson, Howard Wright, played a few seasons in the NBA.
What’s the best, or most unexpected, response you’ve had to the book so far?
I love how the book has touched people who were alive at the time. For instance, I got a message from someone whose father was a water boy on the Garfield team. His mother was still alive and he told me that she felt as though she was a teenager again reliving the stories in the book. Similarly, at one of my book signings, someone introduced himself and I recognized that his father had played against Garfield for Passaic High. He said he was reading the book and couldn’t believe it when he came across his father’s name. I told him I could do better than that. I directed him to my web site where I have color footage of the 1939 Garfield-Passaic game. He was blown away watching his father play in a game 80 years later.
Do you have any writing heroes or mentors?
Dave Anderson of the New York Times, who passed away this past year. He was a gentleman reporter, eminently fair, who could get to the heart of a good story without shouting about it. The late Furman Bischer of the Atlanta Constitution could use wit as well as anyone. They both treated people well and didn’t mind helping up-and-coming writers.
What are your favourite football books and why?
Paul Zimmerman’s “Thinking Man’s Guide to Pro Football” is a must for anyone who wants to truly understand the game. “When Pride Still Mattered”, the Vince Lombardi biography by David Maraniss. It’s the consummate portrait of an American icon who helped shape the modern game while bridging the past. After all, the Packers’ power sweep was merely an adaptation of the single wing off-tackle smash.
Is there one particular football book that you would say is an overlooked or forgotten gem?
I’m not sure it’s overlooked but “Out of Their League” by Dave Meggyesy is a disturbing look at the dark side of the NFL in the ‘70s that needs to be re-read for its relevance today.
What’s the first football book that you remember reading?
“Paper Lion” by George Plimpton.
And thinking about books in general – what are the five books you’d want with you on a desert island (assume I’m throwing in Raft Building for Beginners.)
Thanks for that. Shelby Foote’s three-volume history of the Civil War (counting that as one), “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” by Mark Twain, “The Professional”, by W.C. Heinz, “The Grapes of Wrath” by John Steinbeck and “The Radium Girls” by Kate Moore.