COLLISION LOW CROSSERS by Nicholas Dawidoff is not your typical football expose. It does not purport to provide deep insight into the strategy of the game and if it has any particular angle it tries to bring a sense of humanity to the sport. Dawidoff was embedded for a year observing the 2011 New York Jets, a team at that time that was coming off losing two American Conference Championship finals that would have taken them to the Super Bowl had they been victorious. Bill Parcell’s, a former coach and general manager has noted in describing football that “this sport is not for the well adjusted.” (11) Having played and watched football for more than a half century myself I firmly agree. I remember driving for an hour and a half with my family to watch the 1958 NFL championship game between the Baltimore Colts and the New York Giants; attending a Giants-Cardinals game at Yankee Stadium two days after the assassination of John F. Kennedy; watching the Giants defeat the Broncos in the Super Bowl on a high school trip at NATO Support Headquarters in Brussels, and living each moment of each Giants game, as my wife complains as if “you owned the team.” It is obvious I am as a fan not very well adjusted which is why Dawidoff’s book was so intriguing.
The author takes the reader through the season focusing his lens on the coaches, players, front office personnel, and the player’s families. The personal stories are at times uplifting and at times very sad. Many players view the sport as a means of escaping poverty and dysfunctional families. Their stories bring out the best in human nature, and at times the worst. We meet a number of interesting characters such as Jets coach, Rex Ryan, a bombastic individual who has a very sensitive and soft side. We follow Ryan through his childhood and relationship with his twin brother Rob, also an NFL coach. We see Ryan live and die with each game, but more importantly we learn what kind of person he is as he relates in an emotional manner with everyone he interacts with on a daily basis, be it a player, coach, or fan. Football can be a nasty enterprise, after all it is a multi-billion dollar business, but Dawidoff is able to bring the reader into the locker room and we witness the character flaws, the uplifting moments of victory and as John McKay said years ago, “the agony of defeat” on a daily basis.
The structure of an NFL season through the creation and preparation of the roster is reviewed in detail. Player combines, draft preparation, signing of free agents and player competition are dissected and during the 2011 season it is made more difficult by a “lockout” perpetrated by the owners. The reader is exposed to the emotion of being “cut,” and making the final roster. However, just because a player makes the roster it is no guarantee he will be employed for the entire season. Injuries dominate game preparation, and it is rare that a player can get through an entire season without playing hurt or playing up to their potential through an entire sixteen game schedule.
Locker room relationships are paramount on any team. Some call it team chemistry and argue that you cannot win without it. In the case of the 2011 New York Jets “chemistry” slowly declined as the offense was challenged by the defense because of a weak quarterback, Mark Sanchez, and a number of selfish personalities embodied in wide receiver, Santonio Holmes. These issues could have been glossed over except for the poor decision making of Sanchez and the overall inability of the offense to score. The defense which was one of the most dominant in the National Football league grew to resent the offense and this bled over into the locker room and at times the playing field. Ryan and his coaches did their best to mitigate this problem but when fifty-three plus men spend what seems to be their entire waking hours together over a six month period the negativity of human nature usually holds forth.
As Dawidoff explores these human relationships there is one overriding theme for all involved, pain; physical and emotional discomfort that dominates the game. There have been a number of exposes that have been written delineating the “pain” issue and how medical personnel deal with it in getting football players ready to take the field. The author does not mince words and explores how players deal with their pain and how it is treated so they can play on a regular basis. Constant pain and injury also has a psychological cost and Dawidoff devotes significant coverage to this problem as one player describes “it could all go to shit so fast.” (284)
For those individuals who follow the game there is a great deal of meat in this book. We see how a professional coaching staff comes together in trying to meld fifty three men into a cohesive unit that strives to be the best it can be. We see the Darelle Revis story told in detail as is the failure of Mark Sanchez to grow as a player from the perspective of 2011 and how his situation remains somewhat the same today. But more importantly the book is not designed for the football fan but it provides a window for the general reader to engage with a sport that has become a national religion in our society. Football is a sport that in the end is very violent, hence the obsession finally with concussions, and is a sport where the average playing career lasts between three and four years, and results in financial and medical issues once a player’s career ends that are difficult to cope with. Football is a microcosm of our society and COLLISION LOW CROSSERS is an effort to humanize the sport and place it in the larger context of our culture. In the end this is a good read.