British NFL journalist’s debut book is an accessible history of a century of NFL football.
The NFL focused most of its centenary celebrations on its 100th season, in 2019, but the actual 100th anniversary of the formation of the league is September 17, 2020, which is the day this book was published. Matthew Sherry, editor of the UK’s Gridiron magazine, recounts the league’s history from the first meetings through to the Black Lives Matter protests earlier this year.
The premise is to tell the history of the league through 20 landmark games. This gives Sherry the freedom to go back and set the context for the game, then move forward to discuss what happened to key figures afterwards. So the chapter on Super Bowl III covers the AFL and the merger with the NFL, for example, while the chapter on the 1985 regular season meeting between the Bears and the 49ers introduces 1970s players like Gale Sayers and Dick Butkus as well as Jerry Rice.
Inevitably, given the history of the last two decades, that means the final three chapters – some 80 pages – are devoted to the New England Patriots but because of the way the book works that section also finds room to cover recent stars like Peyton Manning and significant events such as how the suspension of Ray Rice raised questions about the league’s handling of domestic violence issues.
The book is published in the UK, with a US edition to follow, and has clearly been written with a European audience in mind, particularly those who might be less knowledgeable about the game. There’s a glossary at the back – ‘bunch formation’, ‘three-and-out’, etc – and an asterisk in the text indicates terms for which further explanation is provided.
An extensive epilogue covers the NFL’s centenary season and brings the book up to date.
Matthew Sherry is the founder and editor of Gridiron, the UK’s only American football magazine. Any Given Sunday is his first book.
“[Bert] Bell was helping to shut down a different chess game among owners, whose suspicions of one another had turned scheduled creation into an arduous game of politicking. Bell, operating by the doctrine of his chain analogy that the league is only as strong as its weakest link, was a leader in whom there existed implicit trust. ‘He would schedule the weak against the weak and strong against the strong early in the season so everybody had things to play for by mid-season,’ reveals Upton Bell.
“And so it came to pass that, with the 82nd pick of the 1979 draft, the 49ers selected a Notre Dame quarterback they stumbled upon accidentally, then, with their 10th-round selection and 249th overall, a Clemson wide receiver also discovered by chance. Together, Montana and Clark would help transform the 49ers’ fortunes and link up for one of the most significant moments in league history.”
“‘Coach Shula was the leader, the boss, the screamer, while Coach Arnsparger was very calm,’ says Anderson. ‘I always remember one day when Shula yelled at Arnsparger, and Bill just walked over, handed him the clipboard and said: ‘Here you are. You coach the defense.’’”
Given that Matthew Sherry was bold enough to quit his job and start an NFL magazine here in the UK, perhaps it’s not surprising that for his first book he decided to tackle a century of history. It’s a massive undertaking, both in terms of research and in turning a wealth of material into a coherent and readable narrative. And yet, as with Gridiron magazine, Sherry has proved equal to the task.
The first three chapters struggle under the weight of history – there is so much to tell to set the context for the game that there’s little time to describe the games themselves. After that, things begin to shift a little, though the games never really make up more than a few pages in each chapter. They are really just a peg on which to hang the history of the era in which they were played.
It’s a similar approach to that taken by Joe Horrigan for 2019’s NFL Century. Horrigan, who spent more than 40 years working at the Pro Football Hall of Fame, also opted to pick out key moments as a way to condense a century of history. Sherry’s book stands alongside Horrigan’s very well, which is no mean feat for a first book.
With so much to cover, it’s easy to make a book like this feel like a rush, as facts pile on top of each other. But Sherry handles the pace excellently, sometimes gliding over a few years in a paragraph and other times digging into a really meaty story, such as how the 49ers stumbled across Joe Montana or the absolute confusion that descended on Pittsburgh’s Three Rivers Stadium after the Immaculate Reception in 1972.
Over 450 pages, there are points where more alert editing and fact-checking would have been welcome. Shirley Povich was a man, for example, and not a woman as described here. The description of a young Jerry Rice with “sweat pouring from every orifice” is striking but biologically questionable. And any sentence that includes the words “cross the i’s and dot the t’s, ensuring no stone was left unturned ahead of their first opportunity to enact meaningful change” should raise an alarm for too many cliches, particularly since one of them is the wrong way round.
I mention these quibbles because there are enough that they become distracting at times. However, that shouldn’t diminish an enjoyable and comprehensive single-volume history of the league. It’s particularly recommended for those British fans who have come to the sport over the last 15 years or so, since the NFL began playing International Series games in London. It offers them an accessible way to dig into the league’s history.