Michael MacCambridge’s history of the NFL, America’s Game, is among the best football books every written and he’s followed it with a string of phenomenal books, including exhaustively-researched biographies of Lamar Hunt and Chuck Noll. He talks about his writing career and about his new book, on the ’69 Chiefs.
Your background, like many authors, is in journalism, but unlike a lot of football authors, you didn’t start as a sports writer. You wrote mostly about music and film before your first book, on the history of Sports Illustrated. Tell me a little about that journey to sports writing.
I was blessed to grow up at a time when the best sports magazine in the country was also one of the best-written magazines, full stop. In the pages of Sports Illustrated, the games were not treated as a triviality or a hobby, but something that had inherent value, evoked passion and merited scrutiny. It’s hard to overstate the importance of SI, not only in the history of sportswriting, but in the growing popularity of American spectator sports.
I knew early on I wanted to be a writer, and studied journalism in college. I was attending Creighton, in Omaha, Nebraska, and started working as a copyeditor at the local newspaper, the Omaha World-Herald. I remember the first day I showed up there, seeing the brightly-lit newsroom, hearing the the teletype machines clattering. It felt like I was in the nerve center of the universe. I learned a lot at the World-Herald, but while I was at the paper, I had an epiphany. A lot of people in the sports department were there because they loved sports, obviously. But some of those same people had grown disenchanted over time—they resented the athletes, or they groused about the starting times for the games, or the tight deadlines. I recognized at some point that I didn’t want to become bitter, and I also didn’t want to lose the visceral thrill of being a fan, of the gameday experience of sitting in the stands at Memorial Stadium in Lincoln, or Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City. And I realized I didn’t ever want to be off covering some random Carolina-Washington game when my beloved Chiefs were on. That sounds extraordinarily immature, I realize, but that was my reasoning.
That’s what originally sent me down a path of writing about music and movies for a living, which I did for eight years at the Austin American-Statesman. I didn’t want to give up being a fan. Even after I left the Statesman and started writing books about sports, I never considered myself a proper sportswriter. I don’t spend any time in press boxes or locker rooms. I have a great deal of respect for my friends who still excel at traditional sportswriting; and I appreciate that it’s much harder than it used to be. But I recognized that if I had something to offer, it would come from trying to write about sports from more of a cultural or historical perspective.
Further reading: America’s Game review
With the SI book under your belt and the publication of ESPN SportsCentury, your first football book was America’s Game. We know now that you pulled it off with style – giving us one of the definitive books about the sport – but it seems like a bold project to take on for your first book about the sport. How did it come about?
In my work editing the SportsCentury book, I came across a lot of writing about sports in the 20th Century, and much of it seemed to imply that the NFL’s rise was somehow predestined and inevitable—that as soon as someone pointed a camera at a football field, the game was going to become America’s favorite sport overnight. But I was convinced that the reasons were more complicated than that, and that the implications were more profound.
I wanted to tell the story of how a sport that was treated as a third-class sport—behind baseball and college football—at the end of World War II could, in the space of a generation, overtake baseball as the new national pastime.
The good people at Random House have pointed out that this is not a history of the Civil Rights movement and you’re not Robert Caro
And did you ever feel like you’d bitten off more than you could chew?
Oh, yes. Pretty much every day from the time I signed the deal, at the end of 1999, until the day the book was published, in the fall of 2004. Shortly after signing the book deal with Random House, I made a nearly-fatal mistake of reading David Maraniss’ superb Lombardi biography, When Pride Still Mattered. And by the end of reading that book, I was just crestfallen. I recognized that what Maraniss did was not something I could imagine myself doing. It was intimidating and demoralizing. But eventually, I had to put that out of my head, and just focus on following where my research led me.
What were the highs and lows of writing America’s Game?
Very early in my reporting, I went to Los Angeles, trying to find out more about the Rams’ move to LA. And on that trip, the whole story opened up, of how Kenny Washington and Woody Strode came to break the NFL’s color barrier in 1946. I can remember going to the Los Angeles County Coliseum Commission, and reading the minutes of those historic meetings, and seeing Halley Harding’s eloquent plea on behalf of integration. It was a phenomenal story that I hadn’t known anything about. I realized then that the Rams would have to be one of the teams I focused on. Talking to the Rams’ great Tank Younger, the first player from an historically black college or university to play in the NFL, was revelatory. Soon enough, I appreciated the stakes, the pressure on the men who’d integrated pro football.
The low points were many. The research took forever, and when I sent the first few chapters to my original editor, his response was that he didn’t feel Bert Bell merited his own chapter. But I knew that Bell was a central figure to the first part of the book, and I was fascinated by the way he ran the league out of his back pocket. Bell used to spend night after night in the offseason, sitting his dining-room table with a bowl of ice cream at his side, and make up the league schedules on this large cardboard grid, using dominoes with team names scotch-taped on them. That was how the league was run then. I needed to show how humble the NFL was in the ’50s to underscore how completely the league and its image were transformed under Pete Rozelle.
But the moment of clarity in the writing of the book came about two and a half years in. I had accumulated something like 90,000 pages of documents by that point, and I was swimming in interviews, and research, and had already blown well past the original deadline. I called my agent, Sloan Harris at ICM—one of the very best and wisest people in the business—and said, “This project is so sprawling, I can see it being two books: One from World War II to the merger in 1970, and another from 1970 to the present day.” Sloan, always empathic and supportive, said he’d be willing to make that pitch to Random House and we rang off. He called me back about 10 minutes later and said, “Yeah, the good people at Random House have pointed out that this is not a history of the Civil Rights movement or a presidential biography, and you’re not Robert Caro. It’s one volume.” That was the reality check I needed, and helped me tighten my focus. Another year on, I started making some headway.Embed from Getty Images
NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle
You followed that by editing another book, this time the College Football Encyclopedia. How does the role of editor differ from that of author? Are there parts of the editing role that you prefer?
Writing is lonely. Editing is collaborative. For much of the time, I was doing both. The last two years of work on America’s Game, and the first two years of work on the College Football Encyclopedia were concurrent. I would spend much of the day working with writers and editors and designers on the Encyclopedia. Then at night, after my two young children went to bed, I’d go down to my basement office, and go back to work on America’s Game.
By now, the link among your books seems to be that you are drawn to epic stories. Ones that, I can only imagine, involve a vast amount of source material and many interviews. Would you say that you’re drawn to those kinds of projects? And if so, why?
Guilty, yes. I think that at the heart of it, I am probably trying to justify all the time and energy I spend watching, following, and caring about sports. On one level, of course, they’re “only” games. But in both a personal and a cultural sense, sports are important. They bring people together. They’re a common ground in increasingly diverse societies. They provide participants and supporters alike with a structure, a way of seeing. That can be self-limiting, of course, but there are also far worse ways to live than viewing life as a sport that rewards dedication, focus, loyalty and teamwork.
Your next book felt like an unexpected one to me: with Brian Billick you wrote a sort of ‘state of the game’ title, More Than A Game. What was your role on that book and how did it come about?
I’d found Billick a really engaging, intelligent coach. We were both interested in the same larger issues—the threat of the business end of football starting to negatively affect the football end of football. And we were both unemployed at the same time. I was also interested, at that point, in doing a book that didn’t take five years to finish. There was less heavy lifting; the book wasn’t historical, but instead a snapshot of a very successful league on the verge of facing very big problems.
I’m tempted to assume that it would be like a lot of coaches’ books and that you’d be a ghostwriter – albeit with your name on the cover – but Coach Billick was the guy Bill Walsh called in to help with Finding The Winning Edge and his Developing an Offensive Gameplan is pretty readable. What was it like working with him?
Brian’s first job in the NFL was in media relations. He understood the job of the media as well as any coach I’d ever met. I remember early on discussing with him a study that showed that football coaches tended to be too conservative, and ought to go for it on fourth down far more often than they do. Brian said something like, “I recognize and appreciate the data, and the science of it. But the people who conducted the study never had to handle the press conference after the game.” It’s not a coincidence that Brian was the brave soul who was the first coach willing to do Hard Knocks.
I had to take out my favorite quote in the whole damn book because it wasn’t going to ever fit
So writing that book was a series of long interviews, less of me putting words in Brian’s mouth than just organizing his observations into a coherent narrative. He was an enjoyable collaborator.
Since then you’ve written two biographies of major figures in football history: Lamar Hunt and Chuck Noll. You’re a Chiefs fan, so I’m guessing that made Hunt an obvious choice. What drew you to write about Chuck Noll?
If at the beginning of 2012 you had asked me for 100 book ideas, I’m quite sure that a biography of Chuck Noll would not have been on my list. But I had interviewed Dan Rooney, the owner of the Steelers, for both America’s Game and later for the Lamar Hunt biography. Rooney, a lifelong Republican, made the decision to support Barack Obama in 2008 and, after the election, Obama named him ambassador to Ireland. So in the summer of 2012, Ambassador Rooney was back in Pittsburgh and summoned me for a meeting. He explained that someone needed to write a biography of Chuck Noll, and he thought I should be the one do it. “I’m flattered you thought of me,” I said, “and I’ll certainly look into it. But it has to be more than just he was a good football coach.” Mr. Rooney smiled and said, “You just look into it; you’ll see.” And, of course, he was right.
What do you wish you had known about writing books 20 years ago?
Start with the da Vinci quote, “Art is never finished, only abandoned.” I had to learn the difference between being finished and being done. I almost never felt finished, but I’ve learned in time to know when I’m done. It’s usually around the time of the final deadline. Sometimes after that time.
There was also the matter of learning that everything has to be in service of the larger story, and that means sometimes good anecdotes, characters and quotes have to come out. When I was writing my first book, I did about 300 interviews, and I had to take out my favorite quote in the whole damn book, because it wasn’t going to ever fit in the only place it could go. The writer Roy Blount, Jr., describing the drinking culture at Sports Illustrated in the ‘60s, pointed out that the bar where the editors and writers drank, The Ho-Ho, was not a very sophisticated place. “The thing you have to understand about the Ho-Ho,” Blount said, “was that every fourth drink was free. Which meant there wasn’t hardly any point in not having eight.”
I loved the quote; it still makes me smile. But the story flowed better without it.
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Raiders owner Al Davis
You’ve interviewed enough of football’s key figures to fill the Hall of Fame. Is there an anecdote from one of those interviews that particularly stands out?
I made, I’m sure, a hundred calls to Al Davis’s office in the time I was reporting America’s Game. His assistant, Kristi Bailey, was unfailingly polite over the years, but she couldn’t get Davis to commit to an interview. I kept persisting and finally, when I was weeks away from the final deadline, she called me and said, “Mr. Davis is considering letting you interview him. But he wants to interview you first about your project.” He called later that day, and started peppering me with questions about my thesis, who I’d spoken to, who the publisher was. And I realized, in the course of him interviewing me, and getting me off balance, that this was actually my one and only chance to interview him. So I eventually got my bearings, and we spoke for a couple of hours, and he was great. But Al liked knocking people off-balance.
My most memorable interview in person may have been with Jim Brown. We spent about three hours talking in his home high in the Hollywood hills. He told me I was “bringing up some heavy shit.” I’m hard-pressed to think of a response from an interview subject that meant more.
Who do you wish you had been able to interview for one of your books and why?
I interviewed Pete Rozelle for my first book, about the history of Sports Illustrated magazine. If I’d known then that my next book would be a modern history of the NFL, I would have asked Rozelle a lot more questions.
Can you say what your next book will be?
I just finished ’69 Chiefs: A Team, A Season, and the Birth of Modern Kansas City, chronicling the Super Bowl season of that largely forgotten team that now has an all-time record of six Pro Football Hall of Famers who played together on the same defense. It was an innovative, influential team—the first team in pro football history in which a majority of the starters were African-American. That Chiefs’ season was one of the most dramatic in history, but has not been somewhat overlooked because it was the only Super Bowl they won. That’ll be out in October.
Ozzie Newsome should write a book, or have a book written about him
I also wrote some short essays on each decade in the history of the National Football League, for the NFL’s 100th anniversary book, coming out around the same time.
Is there a football story that hasn’t been written, that you would like to read?
I think Ozzie Newsome should write a book, or have a book written about him. Maybe both. He’s seen it all and done it all. One of the first black players at Alabama, he lived through the saga of the Browns, all those heartbreaking playoff losses, then after his great playing career, he went into scouting and eventually became one of the most successful general managers in pro football.
There are a lot of stories in football, what does a story need to make you want to turn it into a book?
Resonance. Does it have meaning beyond the particular season? Does it have a cultural impact? Joe Montana was a much better quarterback than Joe Namath, but Joe Namath transcended sports in a way that Montana never did. Namath is the better book subject.
How long does it generally take you to write a book and what’s your writing process like? Also, what are the parts you most like and most dislike about the process?
I’m a slow writer. I do a lot of research, and it always takes me longer to get to a workable draft than I want it to. America’s Game took five years, all told; the Chuck Noll biography took three years. I wish I could do it more quickly, but when I’ve tried, the work has suffered.
Hall of Fame tight end Ozzie Newsome catches a TD in a 1984 game against the Saints
There’s an energy that comes for me when I finally figure out what the story is about. For America’s Game, I recognized early that the story of the league was also the story of Pete Rozelle; it was not only about what he did as commissioner, it was also about his love of sports, his fascination with football, the way his Jesuit education informed his sense of fairness and competitive balance. Rozelle was also a visionary. In 1969, he was asked what the NFL would look like in the future. He said that eventually it would have 32 teams, in two 16-team conferences, with each conference having four four-team divisions. Thirty-one years later, that exact structure came to pass.
In the Chuck Noll biography, I figured out fairly early on that his life was a love story. And that allowed me to know what to focus on, how to shape the chapters, what to leave in, what to leave out.
How do you define good writing?
Good writing enlightens, it shows rather than tells, and it makes the reader feel more human, more connected.
Do you have a writing hero or a mentor?
Several, and I’ve had the pleasure of getting to know a few of them. The first was Dan Jenkins, the raucously funny, insightful writer for Sports Illustrated. Jenkins’ best friend was Bud Shrake, who lived down in Austin when I moved here the first time, in the early ’90s. Bud was a model for me in a lot of ways – a master of the art of sitting around, but also someone who as he grew older remained vibrant and connected rather than narrow-minded and isolated. Shrake and Jenkins were polar opposites politically, but they said they’d never really had an argument; their friendship always took precedence. “If we disagreed over anything truly important,” Bud once told me, “we’d settle it with a game of ping-pong.”
Cotton Bowl Days and The Last Season of Weeb Ewbank are both absorbing, capturing a time and place exceedingly well
Thinking of football books in general, what was the first one you remember reading?
I had The First Fifty Years when I was seven. The first book I read without pictures was probably Tex Maule’s young-adult novel The Rookie.
What’s your favourite football book?
Roy Blount, Jr.’s About Three Bricks Shy of a Load is the most vivid, insightful, revealing, absorbing piece ever written about pro football. Dan Jenkins’ Saturday’s America is the best book ever written about college football.
When it comes to football books, is there one you would consider an overlooked or forgotten gem?
William Gildea’s When the Colts Belonged to Baltimore was terrific. John Eisenberg’s Cotton Bowl Days and Paul Zimmerman’s The Last Season of Weeb Ewbank are both absorbing, capturing a time and place exceedingly well. Neil Leifer’s book of photographs Guts and Glory: The Golden Age of American Football, 1958-1978, is a treasure.
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.)
Parting the Waters: America in the King Years 1954-1963, by Taylor Branch
The Lyrics: 1961-2012, by Bob Dylan
Fever Pitch, by Nick Hornby
Baja Oklahoma, by Dan Jenkins
Bel Canto, by Ann Patchett