Paper Lion by George Plimpton
|Paper Lion by George Plimpton|
|Reviewer: Chris Bradshaw|
|Summary: Despite being 36 years old and possessing precisely zero in footballing credentials, Plimpton was determined to find out what it would take to become a pro quarterback with one of America's premier clubs, the Detroit Lions. Paper Lion tells the story of his incredible adventure.|
|Buy? Yes||Borrow? Yes|
|Pages: 413||Date: September 2006|
|Publisher: The Lyons Press|
Many a sports fan has dreamt of taking five wickets at Lord's or scoring the winning goal at the FA Cup Final at Wembley. For writer and American football aficionado George Plimpton that implausible fantasy became a reality.
Despite being 36 years old and possessing precisely zero in footballing credentials, Plimpton was determined to find out what it would take to become a pro quarterback with one of America's premier clubs, the Detroit Lions. Paper Lion tells the story of his incredible adventure.
Plimpton spent four weeks with the Lions at their pre season training camp, four weeks in which he managed to lift the lid on the closed world of the NFL professional. His aim was to show the everyday fan what it was really like to be part of a pro football team. And by God did he succeed.
He tossed passes with the quarterbacks, got roasted as a defensive back and hammered by the defensive linemen. He took part in the complex practice drills, and experienced the excitement, stresses and nerves as game time approached. In fact everything a genuine NFL rookie would go through. And it all culminated in an unlikely appearance at quarterback in an exhibition game.
As entertaining as Plimpton's efforts at quarterback are, what really brings the book to life is the portrayal of the players. We see the larger than life members of the team like Dick 'Night Train' Lane and Alex Karras as real people rather than just 'cardboard cut-out' jocks.
For the first time we get to see what really goes on away from the cameras, the rivalry between the veterans and the rookies, the insecurities of being cut from the squad and the fear of injury, the tension between the offense and defense, the superstitions of game day, the practical jokes and the camaraderie of the players and the sacred locker room rituals.
Despite being written over 40 years ago, Paper Lion has aged remarkably well. You really get a feel for the tough, physical nature of the game and a flavour of what a unique and privileged experience it is, to be part of a professional sports organisation.
In many ways the game remains the same today as it was in the Sixties, you still get 4 downs to make 10 yards for a first down after all. Some facets of Pro Ball are unrecognisable now though. The intensity and physical pounding the players take has increased massively. 270 pound linemen described by Plimpton as 'Neanderthal' would be deemed lightweights in today's era of 320lb plus giants.
Players drank and smoked freely too, with no special attention paid to diet. And the training regimes appear primitive compared to the specialist fitness programmes of today.
The other massive difference of course is the wealth of the players. It's hard to picture an NFL star of today squabbling over the right to loan a rental car during the regular season or spending the off season filling jam doughnuts in an Iowa bakery for $2.75 an hour. Yet these were the realities of life for the pro footballer in the early sixties.
Plimpton was mistaken for an Episcopalian Bishop when he arrived at camp, (there was a convention taking place at the same school complex) which nicely sets the comic tone for the book. A more unlikely football player you couldn't wish for. Despite this, thanks to untold amounts of enthusiasm and the good natured support of the players he produced a fantastic and at times very funny book.
The Plimpton style of 'participatory journalism' has been much imitated but never surpassed. If nothing else, Plimpton showed us that football really is much more difficult than it looks. We can all still dream though of throwing that perfect touchdown pass.
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