Rob Fleder is the former Executive Editor of Sports Illustrated and Editor of SI Books. Among numerous sports books that he has edited are two excellent football titles, Sports Illustrated: Great Football Writing and Sports Illustrated: The Football Book. His most recent title is the NFL’s official centenary book, NFL 100: A Century of Pro Football.
I noted in my review that a few books have done the decade-by-decade look at the history of the NFL but yours is unusual in that you’ve used quotes from books, contemporary articles and so on. How did that idea came about and how did you select the extracts?
I edited a two football books when I worked at Sports Illustrated – a heavily illustrated coffee-table book and an anthology of football writing – so I had some sense of the vast body of photography and writing that I’d have to draw from from this book. Neither of those SI books was organized chronologically, but I realized early in this project that chronology was a natural organizing principle for a book marking pro football’s centennial. Breaking it down into decades helped ensure that no period in the sport’s history was overlooked but allowed me to adjust the proportions, so as the game grew (and coverage grew with it), I’d have more pages to devote to the expanding body of great words and images.
As a practical matter, to help guide my reading and research, I took what I’d picked up from covering football as a magazine editor and did what I’d always done, which was talk to people who knew a lot more about it than I did, and, with their suggestions, tried to read as widely and deeply as possible. With the aid of modern technology, I binged on pro football writing. I also managed to accumulate a respectable collection of good, old-fashioned football books, and paid close attention to bibliographies and footnotes and acknowledgments in the ones I admired. I enlisted a couple trusted old colleagues in my search for the nuggets of terrific writing, historical and contemporaneous, that, along with great photos, would tell the story.
With so much to choose from, what were the things you really wanted to include in the book but had to leave out?
There were a lot of amazing photographs and stories that, for one reason or another, didn’t make it into the book. The real heart-breaker for me was a long piece by Roy Blount Jr., reflecting on his 40-some years as an astute observer of the game. It was vintage Blount: brilliant and funny. Thankfully, Blount’s voice is very much present in the book, which includes, I think, four excerpts from his books and magazine stories.
As an experienced sportswriter, I imagine you know the history of the NFL pretty well but were there things you learned that you didn’t already know about? If so, what were they?
Although I’d been a football fan since I was a little kid, in the ’50s, and spent about 30 years as a magazine editor with a particular interest in sports, I had a lot to learn. I came to this project knowing the names of the important figures in football from the first half of the 20th century and with a sort of a Hall-of-Fame sense of the history from those years before I starting following the game directly; then I tried to take my broad knowledge and go deeper with it. Here’s an example of the process, though, unfortunately, this one came too late to use in the NFL 100 book: Sitting right here on my desk is a terrific new book about Sid Luckman by an old pal, Richard (a/k/a R.D.) Rosen. Of course I knew a bit about Luckman before I started reading Rosen’s book, but his work adds enormous depth and perspective to the Luckman story as I knew it.
In going back to review so much historical writing did you rediscover any writers or books you’d forgotten about? Was there anyone whose work, for example, has stood the test of time particularly well.
Most fans probably knew Myron Cope by his broadcasting voice, but I was always a big fan of his writing, which I first ran across in the pages of SI, long before I ever dreamed of working there. And re-reading The Game That Was, his great book about the early days of pro football, published around 1970, I believe, reminded me why.
What did you most enjoy about putting the book together?
Looking at thousands upon thousands of old photos is always fun, but I’d have to say that the best part of this project was reconnecting with many old friends and colleagues, either to work on the construction and editing of the book directly or just to clear permission to use quotes or photographs from their previous books and articles. Over the years, I was lucky enough to work with a bunch of the finest writers and editors and photographers in the business, and it was great to be back in touch with many of them again.
And what did you enjoy least?
There were a lot of moving parts in this book, so the administrative aspects of the project – rights clearance, bookkeeping, credits – were even more cumbersome than usual.
Do you have a writing hero or a mentor? If so, who is it?
Well, I’m an editor, so while I hold writers in the highest regard, the people were most directly influential in my professional life were mostly magazine editors I worked for and with, or admired from afar. The Esquire of the ’60s and early ’70s was what drew me to the magazine world; Harold Hayes was the editor at the helm, and though I never met him, his magazine was an inspiration. In grad school I met up with a guy named Penn Kimball, an esteemed editor and veteran of the magazine wars, who taught magazine writing and gave me my first close look at what a magazine editor could really do, both in the conception and execution of stories and in working with words on the page. I also admired two editors I worked for, both of whom greatly exceeded what, in lesser hands, would’ve been the inherent literary and journalistic limitations of their magazines: Arthur Kretchmer at Playboy, and Mark Mulvoy at SI.
Is there a football story that hasn’t been written, that you would like to read?
I’m not sure at this point, but sadly, we are unlikely to be reading it in the new, diminished Sports Illustrated.
What are your favourite football books and why?
That’s a tough one. Where to start? A couple classic football novels: Semi-Tough by Dan Jenkins and North Dallas Forty by Peter Gent, both funny and true and, in their way, groundbreaking.
The great and stylish football non-fiction, superbly reported and written: About Three Bricks Shy of a Load by Roy Blount Jr.; The Blind Side by Michael Lewis; America’s Game, by Michael MacCambridge.
I have no doubt that I’m omitting old favorites and will regret it later, when they randomly pop into my mind.
What’s the first football book you remember reading?
Knute Rockne: All-American, by Harry A. Stuhldreher (at least I think this is the Rockne biography that I read as a young kid; that was definitely the title, but I don’t recall the author – hey, I was a little kid – and this Rockne bio bears that name and was published in 1940, so it might’ve still been calling out to me from the shelves of a school library in the 1950s.
What football book would you consider to be an overlooked or forgotten gem?
I Dream in Blue by Roger Director, a hilarious, brilliant Fan’s Notes.
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).
Off the top of my head, assuming I’d had to make a quick getaway, here’s what I’d grab from my bookshelves before heading for that island:
Spooner by Pete Dexter
The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien
Underworld by Don DeLillo
American Pastoral by Philip Roth
All the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren