The ‘writer embedded with the team’ genre is now well established but in 1973 Roy Blount Jr was on relatively new ground when he spent a season with the Pittsburgh Steelers.
The resulting book, About Three Bricks Shy of a Load, chronicled a team that was 40 years only but which had won its first playoff game only the year before. The 1972 team beat the Raiders before losing the AFC Championship game to the eventual Super Bowl winners, the Dolphins. The Steelers were widely expected to achieve great things – and they did, but not in the year that Blount spent with them.
The book’s original subtitle sums things up: “A highly irregular lowdown on the year the Pittsburgh Steelers were Super but missed the Bowl.” The team Blount followed was one-and-done in the playoffs, defeated by the Raiders. However, they won the next two Super Bowls (IX and X) and then added two more (XIII and XIV) in 1978 and 1979, with largely the same group of players.
A lot has changed since 1973, particularly the relationship a journalist can have with players and a team. A decade earlier, in 1963, George Plimpton spent training camp with the Detroit Lions as a player – for what would become Paper Lion (1966). Blount doesn’t play, though he does get on the field to toss balls around in pre-game and spends nights drinking with the players and going to their house parties.
Fast-forward 40 years to Nicholas Dawidoff’s Collision Low Crossers (2013), and you find a journalist who gets plenty of access to the team, including his own locker, but the relationships are different. Dawidoff gets inside the team and its personalities admirably but his subjects are much more media savvy.
Blount’s subjects are more candid. The author adopts the ‘gonzo journalism’ style that was revolutionising non-fiction writing in the early 1970s. Gonzo was about the reporter taking an active part in the story, filtering it through their own emotions and personality. It built on the ‘new journalism’ movement of the 1960s, in which Plimpton was a key figure.
That means, for example, that rather than document the history of the city of Pittsburgh and relate what others have said about it, Blount tells us how the city feels to him, the emotions it provokes, the idiosyncrasies he likes and those he doesn’t. Blount is funny, incisive and observant and clearly fascinated by characters. There’s little about the strategy of football and Blount’s observations on each game rarely extend beyond a handful of big plays, but he paints vivid portraits of the likes of Art Rooney Sr, Chuck Noll and Mean Joe Greene.
There are enjoyable diversions on the meaning of football and some of Blount’s all-time favourite football player names, and some truly brilliant anecdotes:
“One afternoon the offensive coach sent a player to the defensive room to get some film. When he switched on the light, everyone on the defense, including the coaches, was asleep. The film had run through the projector and was going thwap… thwap… thwap.”
It’s a book of its time, though, particularly in its attitude to race and gender. The NFL certainly has its challenges on both fronts today, but I doubt that a modern book would quote the n-word as frequently as Blount does, for example.
The style, too, has dated. I’m going to dissent from majority opinion here and admit that I find gonzo journalism to be quite wearing, like being in the company of someone who will not shut up about themselves. Blount is a good writer but parts of this were a slog.
I’m in the minority here, so your experience might differ. About Three Bricks Shy… has come to be considered a classic, and many would describe it as the best book ever written about football. In 2004, a 30th anniversary edition – About Three Bricks Shy… and the Load Filled Up – added almost 100 pages of material that Blount wrote about the Steelers between 1975 and 1983.
Early editions are easily found secondhand, but the extra material makes the 30th anniversary edition the one to get if you don’t already have a copy. It’s sloppily edited and full of typos but the 1975 piece on Joe Greene is essential reading and the 1983 article about Mel Blount at home with his family in Georgia is an extraordinary piece of writing.
This is an essential addition to any collection of football books.
Photo: Steel City Hobbies