January 2019 will mark the half-centennial of one of the most famous games in sports history: the New York Jets’ upset of the heavily favored Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III, played Jan. 12, 1969. The game is best remembered for flamboyant Jets quarterback Joe Namath’s audacious pre-game “guarantee” of victory, but as Bob Lederer writes in “Beyond Broadway Joe: The Super Bowl Team That Changed Football” (Dey Street, 416 pp., $27.99), the Jets’ win was attributable to stout defense and a bruising running game as much as to Namath’s arm. In providing “a reminder and an insight about the other half of the story of Super Bowl III,” Lederer gives an exhaustive account of the Jets roster, right down to assistant coaches and special teams players.
Despite often clumsy writing, the book offers substantial insight; Lederer’s central revelation is that Namath’s apparent overconfidence was widely shared by the rank-and-file Jets. After studying film of the Colts, said guard Bob Talamini, “we walked away believing they weren’t as tough as the Oakland Raiders,” whom the Jets had defeated in a close, brutal AFL championship game at Shea Stadium two weeks earlier. Safety Jim Richards recalled teammates saying “we can stop these guys; they aren’t as good as teams we’ve played.” Such statements proved, over the course of 60 now-famous minutes, absolutely prophetic.
The memory of Namath and the American Football League hung like a shadow over the freewheeling but short-lived United States Football League, whose executives, Jeff Pearlman writes, applied the label “the USFL’s Namath” to practically every other potential league-making star to come down the pike. “Football for a Buck: The Crazy Rise and Even Crazier Demise of the USFL” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 384 pp., $28) is a knockout: an affectionate, often funny, sometimes horrifying history of the madcap league whose brief three seasons (1983-1985) provided a showcase for the budding superstar and the anonymous journeyman alike.
A gifted if sometimes coarse raconteur, Pearlman spins tales of outrageous has-beens like Anthony Davis, who “pulled up to camp in a Rolls-Royce, and entered the locker room wearing a full-length mink coat, with no clothes beneath it.” USFL players smoked cigarettes on the sidelines, did cocaine in the locker room and got into fistfights with coaches, all symptomatic of “an era of blissful, colorful, dynamic excess.”
And what of Donald Trump, who owned one of the USFL’s flagship franchises, the New Jersey Generals? Pearlman’s portrait of the future president is withering: The “endless lies,” the deviousness, the grandiosity and the egomania were all in full bloom 30-odd years ago. More telling yet, in Pearlman’s account, is Trump’s disastrous effect on the fledgling league. “Football for a Buck” is in one sense the story of a surprisingly promising idea (spring football) senselessly torpedoed by the greed and incompetence of one man (Trump).
Standing in sharp contrast to the ragtag shenanigans of the USFL is the Manning clan, who are as close to NFL royalty as it gets. Mark Ribowsky, the author of a well-received biography of Dallas Cowboys coach Tom Landry, provides an engaging profile of Archie, Peyton and Eli with “In the Name of the Father: Family, Football, and the Manning Dynasty” (Liveright, 378 pp., $29.95). The most crisply written of the three tomes under consideration, Ribowsky’s book traces father Archie’s career as a Pro Bowl quarterback for the hapless New Orleans Saints, Peyton’s ascent to future Hall of Famer and ubiquitous television pitchman, and Eli’s unlikely rise to two-time Super Bowl MVP.
The pros of Ribowsky’s account are plentiful, and the cons — the inclusion of eye-glazing financial details for every contract a Manning ever signed, a certain repetitiveness in narrating game details — are minor. Ribowsky is perceptive and articulate on the darker facets of the Mannings’ ties to the University of Mississippi and its long history as a bastion of retrograde Southern pride, and he is unblinking on the ugly and protracted Jamie Naughright affair, in which Peyton Manning repeatedly sought to silence and discredit the woman who accused him of sexual assault while at the University of Tennessee.
Peyton, in fact, comes across as a pill in these pages: often churlish and unfunny, a killjoy and a goody two-shoes, weirdly obsessed with milking every last advertising dollar out of his celebrity — much to our collective irritation. As for Eli, Ribowsky sees him as “still an evolving, unfinished work,” even though he is clearly on the downside of his career. The ending of Eli’s chapter may still be unwritten, but his place in the Giants' pantheon is secure.