Top five: high school football books

As a non-American, the significance of high school football is often surprising to me. The fact that there are high school stadiums that hold thousands of spectators is mind-boggling. Yet sometimes it is possible to understand what creates such fervour. Love of the game plays a part, as does the potential on display on the field. For many, the amateurism seems to appeal; they like the fact that the players aren’t being paid beyond their wildest dreams.

However, as these five books demonstrate, the appeal of high school football is often about local identity and small communities trying to hold onto their place in a world that seems to be leaving them behind. All five do an excellent job of explaining the significance of high school football to the communities in question and uncover some remarkable stories about just how meaningful school sport can be.

1Friday Night Lights (1990) by HG Bissinger

The ultimate high school football book is also a landmark work of non-fiction on any subject. Bissinger spent a year in Odessa, Texas, following the 1988 Permian High School Panthers and their bid to win the state championship. He profiled the players and coaches of the team as well as familes and locals in an attempt to explain Odessa’s football obsession. The success of the book led to a movie and a long-running TV series.
Buy the book: Amazon US | Amazon UK

2City of Champions (2018) by Hank Gola

In 1939, a high school team from Garfield, New Jersey, stunned the football world by winning the national championship. Gola, a Garfield native, tells the story of the Garfield Boilermakers while also shedding light on America in the 1930s – a country on the brink of war and still emerging from the depression, where immigrants are establishing themselves and racism casts a dark shadow. It’s an incredibly detailed, meticulously researched book that brings alive more than just a high school team.
Full review: City of Champions
More: Hank Gola interview
Buy the book: Amazon US | Amazon UK

3Striking Gridiron (2014) by Greg Nichols

Forward to the 1950s now, and this story of high school football in Pennsylvania, set against the background of a national steel strike – the longest strike in American history. With the work situation bleak, the town of Braddock puts its hopes on the Tigers, a high school team coming off five seasons without defeat. Nichols relates that sixth season and examines the racial, class and labour tensions the accompanied it.
Buy the book: Amazon US

4Playing Through the Whistle (2017) by SL Price

Still in Pennsylvania, but this time in the 1980s, Playing Through the Whistle looks at a community struggling with the collapse of the steel industry. Price traces the decline of Aliquippa, as crime rises and drugs began to wreak havoc. The town tries to find solace in its high school football team.
Buy the book: Amazon US | Amazon UK

5Never Ran, Never Will (2018) by Albert Samaha

This isn’t about a high school team but it is about kids football. Samaha follows the Mo Better Jaguars, a boys football team in Brownsville, Brooklyn, where the sport is a sanctuary from violence and poverty. This is about kids growing up in a tough environment, with few options, and turning to team sport as a way to find structure, discipline and perhaps even a way out.
Buy the book: Amazon US | Amazon UK

Photo: Will Leverett

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