By his own admission, author Nicholas Dawidoff has written “a weird collection of books.” Over the past two decades, he has published books about baseball-playing spy Moe Berg, country music, various relatives – and now, football.
Dawidoff’s new book is “Collision Low Crossers: A Year Inside the Turbulent World of NFL Football,” documenting a season he spent behind the scenes with the New York Jets and their flamboyant coach, Rex Ryan. Dawidoff will read from and discuss the book Monday night in Durham (an event that should be over in time for you to make it home for “Monday Night Football” between the 49ers and Redskins). We caught up with him by phone.
Q: Given the NFL’s notoriously control-freak reputation, how on earth did you talk the Jets into letting you do this?
A: Rex Ryan and the general manager were both very enthusiastic, especially Rex – who is a great character and a very literate man. Say what you will about Rex Ryan, but he’s an interesting person who is really smart in an unusual way, great at bringing out the best in other people. He’s remarkably nonjudgmental in understanding people and finding unusual ways for them to contribute. The NFL is very controlling and remains elusive to a lot of people. Most of what happens is not on TV, it’s behind facility walls. It’s a game of preparation and process, which I was more interested in than the games. I think they liked the idea of bringing to light the work and lives and stories of a lot of people who are part of making an NFL team competitive.
Q: Before this, were you a fan of the Jets?
A: No. I tried to make it more a portrait of an institution rather than one of that institution’s 32 offices. Now as soon as I got enmeshed in their day-to-day events, I did want the Jets to win more than anything. You see how much goes into it, and you want it to go well. But the book wasn’t contingent on them winning. I was there during the 2011 season and they had some tremendous victories and crushing defeats. A few years later, I think of NFL teams in relation to the people I knew who had been with the Jets that season. Kansas City is doing well this year, but I think of that team as the Kansas City Bob Suttons rather than the Chiefs – Bob was the Jets’ linebacker coach then, and he’s the Chiefs’ defensive coordinator now.
Q: Sports-related concussions have been in the news a lot this year; was that something the players talked about?
A: Football is a blood sport, very dangerous, and there are unexplored areas of real danger that can affect lives. But the players didn’t really talk about it. Football requires violent abandon, which you can’t do if you’re worried about injury. Not that the players didn’t worry about that, but they did their best not to when they were playing. If you’re in two places emotionally, you can’t perform at the speed and level required to have success. A helmet allegedly is a protective device, but it’s also a weapon. At least the sport’s culture of injury seems to be changing. It used to be if you got a concussion, you weren’t tough enough. Now there’s understanding that it’s serious and needs to be dealt with in a very conservative way. Some older-school coaches feel like the game’s getting too soft, its rigor compromised.
Q: Did you see anything like the bullying and abuse that’s been alleged on the Miami Dolphins with offensive lineman Richie Incognito?
A: No, I never saw anything like that. Football teams are organized into groups that spend tremendous amounts of concentrated time together, and you certainly see the potential for crazy things that can happen. But Rex Ryan always talked over and over about building teammates up, making each other better players. Rex is a complicated dude, but his strength is in integrating different kinds of people into a unified sense of purpose. The situation in Miami, whatever happened, shows how hard that is to do.
Q: Why have there been so many more books about baseball than football?
A: Because baseball is easier to write about. It’s a slow, deliberate accumulation of events building to a gradual, possibly surprising climax. Players are visible and of all sizes, the game is understandable, there’s this great history and lore. It has a timeless, almost backward-looking feel. There’s no clock. It sounds pretentious to say, but baseball has a literary feel. But football is very here and now. It’s fast, hard to tell what’s going on, based on codes and secrets. Baseball is a radio sport while football is made for TV. Baseball might be the national pastime, but football is the national passion.
Menconi: 919-829-4759 or blogs.newsobserver.com/onthebeat