Once in awhile, I'll read a book, and it will seem utterly absurd. The premise doesn't work, the writing is bad, the characters are fake, or the frame of reference is just off.
Backseat Quarterback, at first look, seemed to be an absurd book. The archaic language, the outdated name-dropping, and most specifically, the reference to the lifestyle of a professional football player. All these things seemed to me to be completely out of place. This was even knowing that the book was written in the 1960s. Granted, the NFL, pre-merger, did not have the high salaries that are commanded by today's players, but it was hard for me to believe in professional football players, living in the same hotel during the season, playing bridge together. I'm not saying that Perian Conerly is a liar. I truly believe that the events she wrote of in her book took place. It's just hard to see. I couldn't see, for instance, Drew Bledsoe getting together with Jason Witten on Monday nights to play bridge. It just doesn't work for me.
Another thing that struck me was the fact that professional football players, in those days, did not make enough money to retire on. Some of them didn't make enough money to keep from working another job in the offseason. One of the things that has always mystified me about the NFL is how commentators would say, “It's becoming a year-round job for these guys.” All I can think is, 'What else are they going to do? It's not like they have to sell TVs or anything.' When I think of the way the players have it now, compared to the way they're outlined in Backseat Quarterback, it makes me wonder what kind of perspective Bryant Gumbel, Warren Sapp and other mouthpieces have on the history of the league when they spew their venom, Gumbel characterizing Gene Upshaw as a lapdog and Sapp likening the lot of NFL players to slaves. I'm not saying they don't deserve the money they make. Football draws a lot of revenue and the people who generate the revenue should share in it. I'm just saying that because the NFL got a favourable collective bargaining, and because these people have to work for their money, people feel the need to spout off.
This book alludes to some players who ended up sticking around the game after they retired from playing, as broadcasters – Pat Summerall and Frank Gifford to name a notable few. It is my belief now that they didn't step into the broadcast booth because they wanted to stay connected to the game. Or not only that. They did so because they couldn't afford to retire. How crazy is it that former players are having to fight for their pensions when the dollars floating around professional football nowadays are bordering on obscene?
Perian Conerly does an excellent job of chronicling the life of a football player, organizing it into meaningful and digestible chunks and, in the end, she has told a story that culminates with Charlie Conerly's decision to retire. I have read a fair number of books about football players (usually by football players) and this is easily the best one. It makes me sad, a little bit, to realize that those days are gone and the innocence and purity of the game is now so polluted and diluted with the “me me me” attitude and the crime and chemical dependency that any wrongdoings in those days seem almost comedic.
Charlie Conerly died about ten years ago, but given what he went through, his tacit exterior and the ass-kissiness of some of his contemporaries, I would be very interested in hearing what he would have to say about the state of the game nowadays.