3 books of football worship and worry

Florida A&M's football coach, Jake Gaither, leads his Florida A&M's football coach, Jake Gaither, leads his team in prayer during a pregame ritual in 1967. From the book "Breaking the Line: The Season in Black College Football That Transformed the Course of Civil Rights" by Samuel G. Freedman (S&S, August 2013). Photo Credit: Courtesy Costina Kittles

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The title of Dave Sheinin's new book screams volumes. It's simply "RG3: The Promise" (Blue Rider Press, $27.95), and in those two letters and single digit lie the message that Washington Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III is famous enough to be identified by only three strokes on a keyboard (like a few players of that other Washington contact sport, politics).

Sheinin spent a year with the now 23-year-old rookie phenomenon and plainly hoped he was onto a pro-football analogue of John McPhee's classic portrait of the young Bill Bradley, "A Sense of Where You Are." RG3 isn't as introspective as BB and Sheinin isn't quite McPhee, but the result is worth a read. It's a book of football worship and football worries, with the worries by far the more interesting.

Both of Griffin's parents are retired Army sergeants. His childhood may have been modest, but there's nothing modest about his potential (enormous), his challenge (resuscitate the Redskins) or this book (which describes its subject as "potentially an icon for the ages").

Sheinin characterizes Griffin as newly wealthy but frugal, confident in the limelight but not addicted to it, overexposed but still dedicated to his family. This is a good thing because they are grounded while the world he occupies is not. Says his father: "It doesn't matter if he was a janitor of a tall building or the president of a tall building. He's still our son."


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Now look back almost 46 years to one of history's forgotten but fateful crossroads. It was reached on Dec. 2, 1967, when the players at two black colleges, Florida A & M and Louisiana's Grambling College, clashed in Miami's Orange Bowl at the black college championship known as the Orange Blossom Classic.

The teams were led by coaches Jake Gaither and Eddie Robinson, both later to be inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame. Their quarterbacks were Ken Riley, who went on to play 15 NFL seasons as a defensive back, and James Harris, who became the first black player to start an NFL season at quarterback.

In "Breaking the Line: The Season in Black College Football That Transformed the Sport and Changed the Course of Civil Rights" (Simon & Schuster, $28), Samuel G. Freedman takes these raw materials and mills them into a compelling narrative. Centered on that game, the book examines the effort to integrate the resistant sports world in the South.

"The titans of black college football resembled Duke Ellington and Count Basie and their bands," Freedman writes. "Gaither and his Rattlers were Ellington -- urban, sophisticated, innovative. Robinson and his Tigers were Basie -- from somewhere out in 'the territory,' swinging the hell out of the basic riffs."

Grambling won the game, but Florida A & M won another distinction: Two years later, they played the first football game in the South pitting a black college against a white one, prevailing over the University of Tampa in what Gaither called "the most important game of my life." It was also one of the most important games of ours.


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"Rising Tide: Bear Bryant, Joe Namath and Dixie's Last Quarter" (Twelve, $28) is one more excursion into sports and sociology, produced by two history professors, one from Purdue (Randy Roberts) and another from Ball State (Ed Krzemienski). It's presented in an unusually approachable academic style.

The coach and the quarterback were transformational figures in a transitional era. When Namath moved from his home state of Pennsylvania to Tuscaloosa to play football for the University of Alabama, he encountered separate bus-station bathrooms, one for whites and one for "coloreds," for the first time. Roberts and Krzemienski relate this affectingly and effectively.

"I ain't never been nothin' but a winner," the Bear once said, and, of course, that was the Namath creed as well. Together, they personified the rise of the South in college football and the ascension of Alabama in the football firmament.

But this volume is another reminder that neither the South nor Alabama could reach their potential, on the field or in the broader society, as long as they clung to segregation.

"For Bear Bryant," the authors write, "history was fast becoming an inescapable burden." In Alabama, in this time, football was more than a game. It was a metaphor.

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