Welcome to the first of what I aim to be many more football book reviews throughout the season. This feature will aim to present to you the best upcoming and already released nuggets of literary football goodness. I'm not limiting this feature to books on the Falcons, either. If you know of a football book you'd like reviewed, send me an email.
The long and short of it: Rising Tide reads like an ESPN Documentary but packs ten times the information and entertainment value. Its accessible but intelligent prose and deep-probing insights keep interest high throughout its chapters. Football, its impact, events, and mannerisms are flawlessly interwoven with the tumultuous recounts of a politically, socially, and racially evolving South. Alabama fans may find the facts laid bare here a bit old hat but I still had a hard time putting this one down. Highly recommended for fans of the game of football. Tommy Nobis makes a cameo.
A convertible Lincoln Continental, brand new and bedecked in a few layers of New York Jets Green paint, arrived in the parking lot of a Miami hotel. The date was New Years Day. The weather was rainy. The car's owner was one Joe Namath, who stared at what had long been his dream car from his hotel room. A gift from the AFL's Jets, he couldn't touch it just yet as he was still technically a player for the University of Alabama's Crimson Tide. He had just one football game left to play: the 1965 Orange Bowl against a tough Texas Longhorn defense led by a red-haired behemoth named Tommy Nobis.
Thus is recounted one of the many insights you'll receive when journeying back into time with Rising Tide: Bear Bryant, Joe Namath and Dixie's Last Quarter. The moment is hardly significant and pales in comparison to many of the other events recounted within the book's pages; it is, however, a human moment. Just a boy staring at the dream car that his immense gridiron talent has afforded him. There are many of these sorts of insights awaiting the reader in Rising Tide.
As an Alabama fan born and raised in Alabama, I have long since been indoctrinated into the cult of the Crimson Tide. I know most of the legends, myths, historical records, National Championship years. I've read most of the books on Bear, the coaches that came before him, after him, the boys and men that we call legend (Wade, Denny, Bryant, Starr, Namath, Stabler, Jordan, Alexander, etc). Many of my fellow Tide fans are as well read or even better read than I. Most of those fans would likely say to me "Not another Bryant book!" This is not a Bryant book, despite the title.
What's so refreshing about Rising Tide is that its authors are not former Bama players, coaches, or even fans. Randy Roberts is a Purdue History Professor who has written about John Wayne and Mike Tyson. Ed Krzemienski is mainly known for being the guy that helped make HBO's Namath documentary worthy of the Emmy it won. He's written for ESPN's Big Ten Encyclopedia. Not exactly a pedigree worthy of a book about Alabama football.
That, however, is the hinge on which swings this book's ultimate success to a jaded reader like myself. The book only licks at the edges of the mythos surrounding Bryant and humanizes Joe Namath to a point where I'm left scratching my head. Newsflash: Joe Willie was actually shy and kept a tight circle of friends. News to someone like me, who'd been stepped in the culture of Namath as the ultimate GQ cover man. The authors' distance from the state and team about which they write is their greatest asset. We are not subjected to an Alabama love or hate fest. The impartiality of the prose is a shot in the arm for Alabama literature.
Among all of this humanizing, the book also starts to frame the biographical and sportological content with the social and political. Its characterization of Namath being a fish out of water is spot on. Here was an athlete plucked from the smoggy wastes of steel-mill laden Pennsylvania whose best friend in high school was African American and plopped in the thick of the most tenuous time of the South's Civil Rights nightmare.
A good portion of the book is spent mixing and weaving the events of Bryant and Namath's story arcs with the social and political revolution that was beginning to take hold. Joe Namath was a witness to George Wallace's infamous "Stand in the Schoolhouse Door." Both Bryant and Namath witness history happening around them throughout the book and how each reacts and deals with that history is characterized here, to chilling effect.
Rising Tide is at its best when it parallels the historical with the thrilling recollections of Alabama's trials and triumphs on the field. The dichotomy between Bryant and Namath mirrors that of the Segregationist White South that fights tooth and nail to preserve what's left of the world they've always known and Desegregationist North (which includes JFK and the entire government behind him) pressuring the South for racial reform. As the Desegregationists eventually win, so does the era of sports Joe Namath brings to the nation.
Rising Tide is a fabulous football book that can be enjoyed by all fans of the wonderful game of football. Some of its passages so completely characterize the atmosphere of the time in which the events are taking place, I had to put the book down to make sure I had not warped back in time.