Roy Blount Jr’s story of a season inside the Pittsburgh Steelers is rightly regarded as a classic among football books.
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. About Three Bricks Shy of a Load chronicled a team that was 40 years old but had won its first playoff game only the year before, beating the Raiders then 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 Blount spent with them. They faced the Raiders in the playoffs again but lost this time.
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 pre-game to toss balls around and spends nights drinking with the players and attending their 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 his subjects are more media savvy.
Blount 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.
In 1989, a revised 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. The Load Filled Up has been reprinted a few times and is presently easy to find in a 30th anniversary edition from the University of Pittsburgh Press. 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.
Title: About Three Bricks Shy of a Load // About Three Bricks Shy… and the Load Filled Up
Author: Roy Blount Jr
First published: Little, Brown, 1974 // Updated edition, Random House, 1989
Buy the Book: Amazon US | Amazon UK
- Best Football Book of 1974, Dan Daly & Bob O’Donnell, The Pro Football Chronicle
- Excerpted in NFL 100, by Rob Fleder (editor), Abrams, 2019
- Pro Football Journal’s Top 100 Pro Football Books, #62
- Sports Illustrated’s Top 100 Sports Books #29
Top five: Inside the Team
Review: The Last Headbangers
Review: Paper Lion
Roy Blount Jr was a staff writer for Sports Illustrated from 1968 to 1975 and continued to write for them after he left. About Three Bricks Shy… was his first book and remains his only book about football. Since then he has become known as a humorist, delivering witty takes on everything from politics to pets. He has written plays and movies and served as president of the Authors Guild.
“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.”
“Rooney is the only NFL owner who has lived his whole life within easy walking distance of where his team plays its home games, and who once nearly drowned on the stadium’s site. In those days Exposition Park stood there, and whenever the waters rose—which could happen, he says, ‘if you spit in the Allegheny’—it was flooded. Rooney, his brother Dan and Squawker Mullen were navigating left field in a canoe when Squawker stood up, capsizing the boat, and Art, being dressed in boots and an overcoat, had to swim hard for his life. Just as he was going under he grabbed the bleachers.”
“A more comforting subject was The Miraculous Reception. ‘That catch wasn’t good scouting,’ said Artie. ‘It wasn’t good coaching, it wasn’t good playing. It was seventy-two years of good Christian life on the part of my father.'”
“His predecessor had been Les Banos, still the Pirates’ photographer. During World War II Banos had been a Hungarian secret agent, and Adolf Eichmann’s chauffeur. Banos was disgruntled with the Steelers, but I was more interested in the espionage. I asked him, when I met him later in the year, whether the Nazis ever came close to finding him out.
“‘Well, I was hung,’ he said. He was branded a spy and strung up in a barracks, he said, but a compassionate German soldier cut him down. He escaped and hid flat on his back in a sewer for three weeks. When the building the sewer was under was bombed, it settled and cut his breathing space down to a few inches. He said it wasn’t just Eichmann he drove around, it was Hitler too.
“‘What was Hitler like?’ I asked him.
“He was temperamental and had to have his way, Banos said. ‘He was like some of these football coaches.'”
“Greene has a firm sense, then, of how the game ought to be played. One time in Philadelphia during the Steelers’ dark years, they were getting beat, and Greene was being held, and the referees weren’t calling it, and finally, before the Eagle center could snap the ball for another play, Greene reached over, grabbed the ball and threw it into the second tier of the stands. Then he stomped off the field.”
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.
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. Nevertheless, About Three Bricks Shy… has come to be considered a classic, and many would describe it as the best book ever written about football. This is an essential addition to any collection of football books.
Shane Richmond, Pigskin Books
“Still the best season-in-the-life meditation on the game from the inside, all the better for the contrast between Chuck Noll’s straight arrow mindset and Blount’s skewed, ruminative perspective.”
Michael MacCambridge in America’s Game (2004)
“Nobody should write a book about any football team without first reading About Three Bricks Shy of a Load.”
Charles P Pierce in Moving the Chains (2006)
“The great and stylish football non-fiction, superbly reported and written.”
“It’s my long-held contention that this book isn’t just a classic of American football writing but the classic of American football writing, and a book that deserves a place on the short shelf of the cracked masterpieces of New Journalism.”
Dwight Garner, New York Times
Not merely is “Three Bricks” funny, smart, perceptive and winning, there’s also a lovely quality about it that, for all the ferocity of the gridiron and the profanity of some of its language, I’d call gentleness. It’s a book about men in groups, this particular group being one that plays a very rough game, and it’s actually far less about football than about people.
Jonathan Yardley, Washington Post
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