18 Football Books for Football Haters

You go home for Thanksgiving. You stay in an uncomfortable room—maybe because it’s an unused guest room, maybe because it’s the living room, maybe because it’s your childhood room and you have to facepalm because that Heidi Klum poster is still on the ceiling. You eat some food, and inevitably, Dad or Uncle Bill or whoever sits down to watch about 418 hours of football.

Football season is not the most fun when you’re a man who doesn’t like sports. Especially if you’re a man who doesn’t like sports but also doesn’t get riled up about their existence. Which is where I’m at. I’m sports-neutral. Yes, I think there are some bad things caused by sports, especially in colleges and financially for big cities. But I think there are some pretty good sides to sports, too. It’s how I feel about religion. Not for me, but it seems to work for other people.

Sports-neutral is probably the worst thing you can be. If you’re anti-sports, you’ve got a group to hang with. They play good video games and listen to good music. If you like sports, you’ve got a group to hang with. They’ve got far-and-away the best snacks, and you’ll never hear “A beer? It’s 8:30 AM” from that crew.

The one good thing about being sports-neutral is you can look at sports books and recognize that there are some legitimately good football books out there. I know that those of you who are anti-sports are shaking your heads right now, but trust me, “football” is a genre of book just as much as sci-fi, romance, sad girls in pretty dresses, pop psychology, or books that I call “Why did I play God, create life, and make said life about 100 times stronger than it needed to be?”

My advice to you who hate football is this:

1. Read this list.

2. Read one of the titles.

3. Get just enough material to do a flyby in the room where everyone’s watching football on Thanksgiving. Check out the snacks (I cannot stress this enough. These are different snacks than everyone else is eating!) and skate out.

4. For the love of god, enough with the “sportsball” jokes. Nobody is going to say “Sportsball!? You’re a riot!” Never have I seen a joke so widely adopted by a group of people that purports to hate jokes based on feigned ignorance. Stop it.

1. If You’d Rather Watch An 80’s Horror Flick Than Football: 'Killerbowl' by Gary K. Wolf

In the year...well, I guess it would’ve been 2005, the sport of Professional Street Football combines MMA, armed combat, and football in a 24-hour streak of mayhem. If you threw The Running Man together with football (which isn’t a big stretch), then you’d have Killerbowl. Fun Fact: Author Gary K. Wolf is best known for creating Roger Rabbit.

Buy Killerbowl from Amazon.com


2. If You Want To Read A Great Book And Passive-Aggressively Piss Off Your Relatives: 'Among The Thugs' by Bill Buford

This one’s all about the rowdy football/soccer fandom in the UK. Bonus points because you can pretend to be confused and force your family to clarify that they’re talking about “American” football every time they mention it. Trust me, if you have a relative you want to piss off, the type of relative who has eagle paraphernalia on the mantle, this is the way to go.

Buy Among the Thugs from Amazon.com


3. If You Want to Be Involved, But Can’t Care About Sports: 'The NFL Gameday Cookbook' by Ray "Dr. BBQ" Lampe

The author of this one is known as “Dr. BBQ.” Not "Mister" BBQ. DOCTOR BBQ. These are not recipes for beginners to make or the faint of heart to eat. I wouldn’t suggest eating apples with entire Snickers bars baked inside if you’re on a diet, and by “diet” I mean you’re generally aware of what’s going in your mouth on some level beyond “this is one of the best flavors ever experienced by mankind.”

If you can master Italian Beefs, Tailgate Chili, and Nutella Rice Krispy Bars, you’ll be swarmed with invites to every game. Nobody gives a shit if you know football so long as you can master a nice garlic cheese dip.

Buy The NFL Gameday Cookbook: 150 Recipes to Feed the Hungriest Football Fan from Amazon.com


4. If You're Curious About The Non-Superstar Players: 'Slow Getting Up' by Nate Jackson

Lots of sports biographies out there are all about the greatest. And they have names like “The Greatest” or “The Greatest of All Time” or “Hide Your Erection Under a Table Because You’re About To Read This Story About a Guy Who’s Great At Football.”

Slow Getting Up is a different kind of book. It follows a mid-level, average player. Somebody who isn’t going to be on a poster in some kid’s room.

This book is a lot more than a collection of “this sports thing happened, then that sports thing happened.” It’s more focused on life off the field for a struggling player. Plus, as writing goes, Jackson’s is plain fun to read, which isn’t always something you get in a sports memoir.


5. If History Is Your Bag: 'The Big Scrum' by John J. Miller

If you’re going to talk football history, you might as well go WAY back. Plus, you’ll be talking about Teddy Roosevelt, a President most football fans can get behind.

The story here is so weird. In one year there were 18 football-related deaths. 18! That doesn’t sound like a lot, but can you imagine if the NFL season resulted in 18 deaths this year?

Teddy Roosevelt is, in no small part, responsible for some changes to the game that made it safer, including the forward pass. And like anyone who grew up in Colorado in the Elway era, I have to thank him.

Not to mention that this whole thing is kind of bizarre. How does the President end up getting involved in football? It would be like if Bill Clinton, in 1994, really pushed the NFL’s adoption of the two-point conversion. Or if Barack Obama, in 2010, had taken a pretty strong stance on the specific rules of Arena Football. Or if Trump was involved on some oddly specific level with the ethics of professional football players...

Buy The Big Scrum: How Teddy Roosevelt Saved Football from Amazon.com


6. If You Want To Understand The Game, Even If You Hate It: 'Take Your Eye Off The Ball 2.0' by Pat Kirwan

If you want a primer that’ll let you get into the game, this is the way to go. Read it on the plane. Just take it easy on trying to impress Uncle Abe with your new, hard-won knowledge. Yes, he knows what a “screen” is, and if he comes back at you and you don’t know how a shovel pass plays in, you’re going to look like a fool.

Think of it as learning something that you can write or read about later. Maybe you’ll never use this information. But maybe you’ll want to write a football scene into a book, and just maybe you don’t want it to look like a football scene from The Room.

Buy Take Your Eye Off the Ball 2.0: How to Watch Football by Knowing Where to Look from Amazon.com


7. If You’re Looking For Something To Tie Any Room Together: 'The Boz' by Brian Bosworth

Just for the cover. I flipped through several (none) issues of Better Homes and Gardens, and not one of those homes wouldn’t be improved with this book, facing front, on one of the bookshelves.

Buy The Boz from Amazon.com  


8. Because You Wish There Was A Real Mutant Football League: 'The Rookie' by Scott Sigler

Sigler is a Detroit Lions fan, and it shows. The Rookie (and the entirety of the Galactic Football League series) takes place 700 years in the future, features mutants and aliens, and draws heavily from current-day football. This book is in the rarefied air of being something sci-fi nerds and football lovers alike can agree on. Not to mention that if you fall in love with it, you can buy Krakens jerseys, meaning you could finally wear a sports jersey with pride! 

Buy THE ROOKIE (Galactic Football League Book 1) from Amazon.com


9. Because You Like A Sports Story, Even If You Don’t Like Sports: 'Twelve Mighty Orphans' by Jim Dent

I’m not a huge boxing fan, but Rocky kicks ass. Same deal with this. It’s one of those overcoming adversity tales, a group of orphaned boys with nothing rise through the ranks of Texas high school football, which is about as easy to do as rising through the ranks of holiness in Vatican City.

Buy Twelve Mighty Orphans: The Inspiring True Story of the Mighty Mites Who Ruled Texas Football from Amazon.com


10. Because You Love A Rebel Journalist: 'Paper Lion' by George Plimpton

George Plimpton takes a shot at playing football as a total amateur in the 60’s. This is before football was what it is today. The average salary for an NFL player was something like $6,000 (which is a tidy $50,000 in today’s dollars. A salary, to be sure, but not something that’s getting you to celebrity status). Plimpton is a great writer, and he captured an era of professional sports that is long, long gone and unlikely to ever return. It’s a pretty cool act of embedded journalism, and Plimpton’s writing is solid.

Buy Paper Lion: Confessions of a Last-String Quarterback from Amazon.com


11. Because You Love An Exploration of Subculture: 'Rammer Jammer Yellow Hammer' by Warren St. John

This one gets bonus points because A) it’s about fan culture more than it’s about football, which gives it another angle entirely and B) because it’s about college football, which is a whole world of what-the-fuck all on its own. If you’re a person who doesn’t mind reading about folks that make you shake your head, if you like Nathan Rabin’s book about Juggalos and Phish fans, then you’ll get into this one. Warren St. John buys an RV and hangs with the hardest of the hardcore fans, tailgates with the grillin’-est of the grillers, and even profiles a minister who watches Alabama football on a small screen while performing weddings. "You may now roll tide."


12. Because You're Always Up for a Screwball Comedy: 'Semi-Tough' by Dan Jenkins

Look...this was written in the 70’s, and it’s the screwball comedy of football books. What does that mean? Well, like Animal House or Porky’s, there’s fun to be had, but there are some racial slurs, and sexual politics are not what I’d call “banner." There's a certain intertwined thing going on with this type of comedy and football. The Longest Yard, North Dallas Forty, Necessary Roughness. If you get down with that type of raunch, then you might get a kick out of this one. 

Buy Semi-Tough: A Novel from Amazon.com  


13. Because You're Not Up for a Screwball Comedy: 'Beautifully Unique Sparkleponies' by Chris Kluwe

Let’s balance out the last one with this. Chris Kluwe was a pro player who was known for his political outspokenness, and especially for being pretty left-leaning in an arena where those aren’t necessarily the prevailing politics. A collection of essays about football amongst other things. A personal suggestion: rather than reading this one straight through, read a section, put it down, and come back for the next section a day or two later.

Buy Beautifully Unique Sparkleponies: On Myths, Morons, Free Speech, Football, and Assorted Absurdities from Amazon.com  


14. Because You Want To Understand The Greats: 'Sweetness' by Jeff Pearlman

On the field, he was an incredible talent. Off the field, Walter Payton had a difficult life. This is a good one if your only exposure to football is video of Ray Rice and the dog-fighting trials of Michael Vick. Walter Payton wasn’t as easy to dismiss as a monster, but he was also someone who was as complicated off the field as he was great on the field, and Sweetness has no problem presenting the real, unvarnished person.

Buy Sweetness: The Enigmatic Life of Walter Payton from Amazon.com


15. If You’re Looking To Pick A Fight This Year: 'Against Football' by Steve Almond

If you took it easy on your relatives at Thanksgiving last year, if the election was just not something you could talk about, and if you’re looking to get back into it with your relatives, this is the book to read.

“Welfare moms? What about the NFL being a tax-exempt organization?”

“It’s not just the concussive hits. It’s sub-concussive hits that are causing a lot of damage to players, especially high school players.”

“You don’t want to pay for someone else’s healthcare, but you were happy to fund that gigantic stadium, and they don’t even throw you a couple tickets twice a year?”

Against Football is a tough read, especially if you’re a football fan, but that’s what makes it good. Steve Almond likes football. And he understands how friends and family connect over the game. This isn’t some hippie nerd who’s dismissible because he doesn’t get it. This is a diehard fan who’s had a change of heart.

Buy Against Football: One Fan's Reluctant Manifesto from Amazon.com


16. If You're Looking for an Unsung Memoir: 'Fifth Quarter' by Jennifer Allen

A book by and about a high-ranking football coach's daughter. It's pretty easy to identify with Allen's struggle. How do you connect with your dad when it seems all he cares about is football? This one flew under the radar a bit, and I think it's because the audience for it missed out, seeing it as a football book. Trust me, you don't have to love football to get something really good out of this one.

Buy Fifth Quarter: The Scrimmage of a Football Coach's Daughter from Amazon.com  


17. If You're Looking to Connect to a Fan's Softer Side: 'I Am Third' by Gale Sayers

The inspiration for the TV movie Brian's Song, starring none other than Lando Calrissian himself, Billy Dee Williams, I Am Third is a story of football, friendship, loss, and grief. If a football fan you love came of age in the 70's, and if you've never seen them cry, bring up Brian's Song.

Buy I Am Third: The Inspiration for Brian's Song: Third Edition from Amazon.com


18. If You're Looking for a New, More Interesting Fight to Pick: 'But What If We’re Wrong?' by Chuck Klosterman

It’s the saw amongst non-fans of the sport: “This shit’s going to be gone in 25 years.” And the unspoken part is, “Proving I was right to never like it in the first place.”

Klosterman takes a different look at the current, heavily academic argument about the idea that football will completely fade within the next couple of decades. The quick version: What if the violence of football is precisely what saves it? What if football moves from culture to subculture, and the things that set football culture apart are the very things that allow it to continue?

Side bonus: In Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs Klosterman also presented two hypothetical questions that are certain to get football fans talking, one about a super gorilla whose sole desire is to play football, the other being about a glimpse into the future where you are a serious Canadian Football League Fan.

Buy But What If We're Wrong?: Thinking About the Present As If It Were the Past from Amazon.com


There you go, haters. What's your go-to book when you're looking to earn some sports cred?

Column by Peter Derk

Peter Derk lives, writes, and works in Colorado.  He's a master of library science (which is a real thing) and considers himself a master of picking out the one functional treadmill in any gymnasium (which is not a real thing).  Buy him a drink sometime and he'll talk books all day.  Buy him two and he'll be happy to tell you about the horrors of being responsible for a public library's restroom.

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