The first requirement for any coffee table book is that it has to look good. We might call that table stakes if we were doing bad puns but we aren’t, so forget I mentioned it. But a great coffee table book does more than just look good. The images must be high quality but also well-chosen. The text can’t be there just to fill space: it should illuminate the subject and engage the reader. It’s not as easy as it looks.
The best football coffee table books, then, are the ones that are as enjoyable to read as they are to flick through. They can grab the attention of the casual fan, while still managing to pack an occasional surprise for students of the game. Finally, they should reward re-reading.
Oddly, for a genre of hefty, important-looking books designed to be read many times, coffee table books aren’t always in print for long. They are published to mark anniversaries or as an easy Christmas gift and once they’ve filled that purpose, they disappear from the shelves. That means many of the books on this list are only available secondhand. However, they are all worth seeking out.
1Football (1986) by Walter Iooss Jr and Dan Jenkins
Walter Iooss Jr took one of the most famous photographs in football history: the 1982 picture of Dwight Clark making ‘The Catch’ that would send the 49ers to their first Super Bowl. That, and many other great photos, are included in this book that collects the work of Iooss, who spent much of his career with Sports Illustrated. Throughout, he doesn’t just capture great sporting moments, he continually finds original ways to look at familiar scenes. With witty and insightful commentary from Dan Jenkins, Iooss’s longtime colleague, this is well worth tracking down.
2The First 50 Years (1969) by David Boss (editor)
At the end of the 1960s, the NFL had grasped how it could market itself, both through NFL Films and its own books. This book, produced to mark 50 years of the NFL, is an example of just how quickly the league found its feet as a publisher. It’s visually striking, full of well-chosen photos and eye-catching layouts, and the text is genuinely informative. There are some well-executed ideas too, such as colour drawings that show the evolution of football uniforms and equipment.
3The Other League (1970) by Jack Horrigan and Mike Rathet
Just a year after The First 50 Years, the NFL put out this book to commemorate the 10-year run of the American Football League, which had then merged with the NFL. It’s obviously influenced by its predecessor, with a similar knack for unusual layouts and striking imagery. The text, once again, is excellent, written by Jack Horrigan, who formerly worked in publicity for the Buffalo Bills, and Associated Press journalist Mike Rathet. It’s full of great anecdotes and, since the league it covers was then defunct, it also contains the complete stats.
4The Pro Style (1976) by Tom Bennett
The NFL dominates this list – so much so that I might need to do another ‘top five’ coffee table books at some point – but it’s deserved. This book was an attempt to educate fans on the strategy behind football. By 1976, it was America’s favourite sport and fans were keen to know more about its intricacies. Tom Bennett, then managing editor of NFL Properties’ Creative Services Division, did an excellent job in detailing the evolution of NFL strategy, complete with photos and images that look good and aid understanding. The ‘Diagram History of Football’ in the appendix is a nine-page masterclass that should be read by every fan.
5The Pro Football Hall of Fame 50th Anniversary Book (2012) by Joe Horrigan and John Thorn
This is the first time a father and son have appeared on the same list. Jack Horrigan’s son, Joe, spent 42 years working at the Pro Football Hall of Fame, becoming one of its most knowledgeable figures. This book is the next-best thing to a trip to the Hall of Fame. Each decade of pro football is covered in an essay from a top sportswriter and illustrated with excellent photos, including many pictures of items that are in the Hall’s collection. You can spend hours poring over this one.
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