Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Christianity Today: The Galloping Ghost

Christianity Today reviewed The Galloping Ghost, and named it its "book of the week." Of all the reviews of TGG, I think this is one of the most intelligent takes on it; the piece is well worth a read. The author is Jason Byassee, the director of the Center for Theology, Writing & Media at Duke Divinity School. His review is entitled, "How We Got to Superbowl Sunday: The story behind pro football's first superstar and the rise of the NFL."

Here is an excerpt:

If you want to know what America is like, just flip on a game in the National Football League.

They start with an odd mash of pageantry. Nashville celebs like Hank Williams, Jr., or Faith Hill betray country music's real greatness—heartbreak—to grind out an impossibly chipper musical intro. Cheerleaders bounce in uniforms that show a genius for growing smaller each year. Players kneel for prayer at the 50-yardline while banners in the crowd offer evangelistic outreach. Fighter jets streak overhead. It's all a glimpse of the USA: celebrity, sex, religion, patriotism, violence. President Bush himself a few years ago found time amidst fighting terror and a tanking economy (and presumably a few other important things) to introduce a Monday Night game with an homage to the troops, the Almighty, and the violence to come, drawling where Hank usually croons, "Are you ready for some football?"

Obviously enough, it was not always thus. But how did it come to be?

Gary Andrew Poole provides an answer with The Galloping Ghost: Red Grange, An American Football Legend. He chronicles not only the career of the red-headed Illinoisian, but of a certain C. C. Pyle, a huckster who served as Red's promoter. The pair managed to transform the fledgling NFL's image from that of a disreputable (and worse, unprofitable) gang of thugs into a national pastime on par with boxing and baseball at the time and far beyond all competitors now.


Poole tells Grange's Horatio Alger story well. His father was the only policeman in Wheaton, Illinois. Red spent his high school summers as the town's iceman—delivering 75-pound blocks to farmsteads was the perfect pre-weightlifting way to burnish his muscular frame. He also played football in the town's orchard, once coming home with two vertebrae knocked out of place. And don't you know that every element of the backstory came into the legend? Red listed his profession as "iceman" on official forms even as he built his father a mansion and returned to town wearing raccoon-skin coats.

We think of football as a violent game now, though players can hardly come near one another's helmets today, and had better not blow a kiss to an opposing quarterback lest they be penalized. In Grange's day only leather helmets protected players' brains, and pads were just sponges sewn into clothes. Punching and kicking and biting would go unpenalized. Coaches ridiculed the injured. Poole estimates that during Grange's greatest season he had ten concussions. As a pro he played through a lacerated bladder in one game, and remade himself into a serviceable (if no longer dominant) defensive player after a catastrophic knee injury. Part of greatness then was simply having almost superhuman tolerance for pain.


Poole is blessedly non-preachy about the lessons of the Grange story. He could have said a great deal more. If agents are not as powerful on the field now as Pyle was—effectively coaching the team while Halas sat by during the barnstorming tour—they're far more prominent in other ways. There is not an NFL second stringer today who doesn't pull down seven figures. Poole could've waxed on about the tragedy of wearing out a prize horse by racing him so often. He could have said more about what he calls in one place the "holiness" of seeing such athletic achievement in person. He doesn't, and the book's understatement makes it better than most sports volumes.

To read the entire review, click here.


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