The NFL celebrates its 100th birthday on August 20, 2020, but 2019 is the league’s 100th season, which is sufficient excuse for a year-long celebration. There are special themed games, lots of TV shows and countdowns and, of course, plenty of books. First out of the gates is Joe Horrigan, with the appropriately-named NFL Century.
There aren’t too many people better qualified for the task than Horrigan, the former executive director and historian at the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He retired in June 2019, after 42 years at the Hall of Fame, and has written several books, including The Pro Football Hall of Fame 50th Anniversary Book, with John Thorn. And Horrigan has another connection to football books: his father, Jack, co-wrote The Other League, the 1970 history of the AFL.
However strong your pedigree, it’s difficult to condense 100 years of history into 350 or so pages. Michael MacCambridge’s definitive America’s Game runs to more than 500 pages and covers just over 50 years in depth. Wisely, Horrigan doesn’t attempt a complete history. Instead, his 33 chapters each focus on a particular story or theme that broadly sketches the history of the league.
The first three chapters cover the league’s foundations and its early struggle for stability. Then there are chapters on landmarks such as the NFL’s survival through the Second World War, the 1958 NFL Championship Game, the merger with the AFL, the introduction of franchise tags, and so on.
Horrigan is a very capable writer and adeptly handles the vast amounts of information available – from existing sources and his own interviews – to create a straightforward and engaging narrative.
As befits the author’s status as the Hall of Fame’s historian, this book takes the opportunity to correct the record on a number of points. For example, Red Grange’s final 1925 games with the Bears have been “misconstrued as a hastily scheduled exhibition ‘barnstorming tour’,” Horrigan writes. However, he adds, “the final five league games were scheduled by the Bears before Grange joined the team”.
Later Horrigan addresses the often-repeated mistake that Johnny Unitas’s first pass for the Baltimore Colts was intercepted and returned for a touchdown. Unitas himself appeared to believe that in his later years, but his memory was faulty. He had actually made his debut in a game two weeks before the pick-six game.
Towards the end of the book Horrigan is positive about Paul Tagliabue’s spell as commissioner, praising his ability to achieve peace with the players after the strikes of the 1980s, and his stand for racial equality in 1990, when he moved the Super Bowl out of Arizona after that state refused to honour Martin Luther King day as a paid holiday. However, Horrigan overlooks Tagliabue’s handling of the concussion crisis. In fact, concussion is not mentioned as an issue at all.
That the book is a celebration of the league’s success perhaps explains the absence of concussions, plus Horrigan’s tight word count. But it’s been a dominant issue over the last decade – and one that will play a significant role in its future. Even if you’re determined to portray the NFL as the good guys, it is possible to make the argument that the league eventually found its way to something resembling the right thing.
Still, it’s probably unavoidable that a book of this nature would be uneven. The first 25 years of the league get 10 chapters, while the last 25 are covered in just four.
For anyone who has read America’s Game and John Eisenberg’s The League, there isn’t much here that you won’t already know. But those people are probably not the audience for this book. NFL Century is a kind of ‘greatest hits’ history that will give interested fans a solid grounding in the history of the NFL.