Matthew Sherry is the founder and editor of Gridiron, the UK’s only NFL magazine. His first book, Any Given Sunday, relates the history of the NFL by focusing on 20 of the most important games.
Well done on the book. How did it come together?
It evolved as I wrote it. Simon Clancy, a writer at Gridiron, bought me a book on the history of college football called A Season of Saturdays [by Michael Weinreb]. I loved that concept of taking a game and expanding it into a wider story. It’s a fantastic book but he sometimes doesn’t talk about the game enough. So, I decided the starting point of every chapter had to be the game and, ideally, I would bring it round to the game at the end as well. As I went along it went from me wanting to tell a snapshot of history to covering the whole history of the league. Obviously, there are some things that you’re not going to get in there, but the top line stuff is all there.
Full review: Any Given Sunday
Were you thinking about a spread of eras as well as the overarching story?
One frustration is that the last three games are all Patriots games – and people know I’m a Patriots fan. Though to be fair, one is probably their worst-ever defeat so that balances it out a bit. I am very conscious of the Patriots thing but if someone could tell me how I could leave any of those games out then I’d be interested in hearing it! The game with the Rams [Super Bowl XXXVI] was originally going to be the Jets game in week two of that season, because it was after 9-11, but I changed it to the Rams game because the Greatest Show on Turf story needed to be told. That also allowed me to link in the  Ravens and that incredible post-season where the Rams won the Super Bowl. And obviously you’re not leaving out the Tyree catch game. Then you’ve got the biggest comeback in Super Bowl history. That chapter is really two games – it goes back and forth between the Seahawks and Falcons games. Had the Seahawks won that one, I think they would have won more championships. The entire latter part of the book would have changed based on the Malcolm Butler play.
There are so many moments where, if one tiny thing is different then everything might have been different. If The Catch in the 49ers-Cowboys championship game doesn’t happen, and the Cowboys win, does the 49ers dynasty happen?
It’s a fascinating question. I think Bill Walsh means that it does happen but it’s tough. And look how many times Green Bay got fortunate at points in the 60s. If Starr doesn’t sneak over, if the kick in ‘65 against the Colts that definitely missed is not given, there’s the million-dollar fumble game in the regular season as well. That’s huge really. There are so many critical junctures where things went a certain way and shaped the whole game. I think back to the early chapters of the book. A massive snowstorm in Chicago forces them to play indoors and that completely changes the rules and opens up an altogether much more entertaining era. That is ultimately the reason [the league] sustained itself through the war. Otherwise, that’s the end of the NFL, probably.
Part of the reason the NFL has been so successful is the ability to take advantage of those moments and make generally good decisions.
There are two fundamental traits in the NFL’s success. One is that they are willing to try things, the other is the striving for parity. For me, the biggest thing the league did was in the 60s, when they followed the AFL model in divvying-up the TV revenue. That’s almost a socialist element, which is an astonishing thing to say about an organisation that is as capitalist as they come. The starting point is really Bert Bell. Pete Rozelle gets most of the credit as the greatest commissioner of all time, but I think Bell’s right there with him.
Obviously, the Draft comes from him and there’s also great story about him doing the schedules himself on his kitchen table…
I interviewed his son, Upton Bell. He said Bert would come in from the office at seven o’clock, go upstairs and put his sweatpants on and it was like a boxer getting ready to go in the ring. He went into the drawing room, shut the doors and started to manoeuvre these pieces around the board. The other element is the way he was able to unite owners who were incredibly fractious. He always said the league is like a chain that is only as strong as its weakest link and that’s the guiding principle. Ultimately, Rozelle pushed through Bert Bell’s vision for TV revenue sharing. Bell always wanted to do that, but the owners were reticent in the bigger markets. Rozelle didn’t get that through because he was better at dealing with the owners than Bert Bell, he got it through because the AFL forced them into it.
Tell me about some of the other interviews you did for the book. What were the most memorable?
The best one, just because of how surreal it was, was talking to Jerry Rice for an hour and a half on FaceTime, from my couch. That was a lot of fun. He’s a wonderful talker. As a Patriots fan, I didn’t love the Colts when I grew up, but I have to say that Bill Polian and Tony Dungy were superb. And Polian I’ve stayed in contact with. I guess the most entertaining one, to a degree, was Joe Greene, who lived up to his ‘Mean’ nickname. He said: “You’ve got 10 minutes. That’s all I can do.” We spoke for 35 minutes and he was absolutely delightful. I’ve heard since from a lot of people that he’s like that – he gets you on your toes – but what a warm and lovely man he was. And the final one I’ll point to is Terry Bradshaw, who spoke to me for an hour and 20 minutes and at the end he said, “If you ever need me again, you’ve got my number. I’ll answer any question you want and if I can’t remember the answer, I’ll just make up something good.”
In terms of pulling it together, what was your approach? How long did it take to write?
I’m a very fast writer. I think if I’m writing slowly it means it’s not very good. I prefer to get everything down, then read it three or four times to clean it up. It probably only took six months but that’s obviously not working on it full-time. I think I submitted the manuscript three months early, which is maybe why the publishers were lenient and allowed me to have an extra 100 pages! It became an obsession really. I learned a lot more about the history of the NFL than I needed for the book. I dipped in and out of author mode and pure fan mode, thinking ‘I’m probably not going to put it in the book, but I need to know more about this’. I think I’ve watched every NFL Films documentary. Probably the best part of doing the book was spending two days at NFL Films. I spent some time in the archives of the Hall of Fame as well. The thing now is, I can think of 100 books I’d love to write, but they might have to come in retirement! I’ve got a proposal together for another. I think I’d like to do one every year or two. We’ll see how that goes because my day job is getting busier.
“AMERICA’S GAME’S GREATEST INFLUENCE ON ME WAS TO WRITE ALMOST LIKE A NOVEL”
You mentioned reading sports books when you were younger. What was the first football book you remember reading?
The first football book I read is War Room by Michael Holley. That’s a brilliant book with insight that I’m sure won’t come about for the second half of the dynasty because he was there right at the start and that just unfolded in front of him.
Tell me your favourite football books.
I’m biased because the guy who wrote it has become a good friend, but America’s Game is the best NFL book. It was also the best research for the early stage of this book, and I’ve told Michael MacCambridge that many times. He was one of the first people I phoned when I got the publishing deal and he’s been really good in terms of advice and a couple of contacts that he helped me out with at the start. I just think it’s spectacular. There are books that are brilliant but aren’t necessarily amazingly written. Michael’s is a combination of the two. It’s fascinating, it’s brilliantly researched but he’s an absolutely fantastic writer. That book’s greatest influence on me was to write almost like a novel. He tells the story by taking you into the room and that’s something I’ve tried to do as much as possible.
What would you pick as an overlooked gem as a football book?
I’m reading one at the moment, I don’t know whether it’s overlooked but it’s a lot of fun. It’s called The Lost Super Bowls [by Tom Danyluk]. I’m really enjoying it. It was recommended to me by a friend who was on the Gridiron tour, an Australian man who probably knows more about pro football than anyone I’ve ever met – and has read my book to tell me all the things that I’ve said that are wrong!
If you were taking five books to a desert island, what would they be?
I’ve tried to mix it up. The two football books are America’s Game, for reasons I’ve mentioned, and The Education of a Coach by David Halberstam on Belichick. As much as he is a legendary writer, I don’t think the writing is out of this world, but the way he’s able to tell a story and dive into the psychology of it is fascinating. I really love boxing books [and] The Dark Trade by Donald McCrae is a great book. Unforgivable Blackness [by Geoffrey Ward], which is about the first ever black World Heavyweight Boxing champion is an astonishing book, and Four Kings is a great boxing book by George Kimball, about the middleweight era in the 80s. So that’s five sports books. If I was to choose a non-sports book it would be The Feather Men, by Ranulph Fiennes. I think there are rumours that it isn’t fiction. It’s about a branch of ex-SAS men, who go around taking care of “issues”. You can get it on Kindle, but for a while it was out of circulation, which is what makes people think there is more truth to it than was let on.