Monday, June 23, 2008

Book Review: It Never Rains in Tiger Stadium

Honestly compels me to admit to a perhaps strange affection for Varsity Blues, and not just for Ali Larter in a whipped shaving cream bikini. In particular, the last line got me: "The day was ours . . . and no one can ever take it away." Ok, fine, you reached this wonderful level of achievement. But what happens tomorrow, when that achievement is over? That is, in its essence, the heart of It Never Rains in Tiger Stadium by John Ed Bradley.

Bradley was an All-SEC center for the LSU Tigers who, after ending his career in 1979, walked away from the game. Or tried to, at least. Sometimes, he was successful. Other times, not so much. And the siren song of the game, of the adoration, of the brotherhood still beckoned, yet was resisted.

In some respects, this is the book Friday Night Lights wanted to be, but couldn't, because Bissinger was an outsider. Bradley saw it, felt it, was part of it, then had to deal without it. Bissinger just got to see it-he described it well, and there's this communal aspect, but it's not innately part of him.

I know I'm trying, and failing, to put into this post just exactly what it was about Never Rains that caused me to read it in four hours. Those of you that are getting what I'm talking about are fine, but I'm sure I'm about to lose those of you who aren't. Then again, I have trouble passing up a chance to talk about the most underrated movie of the past 20 years, Toy Story. Yes, that Toy Story. Half (or so) of "Toy Story" (the arc of Buzz Lightyear) was a brilliant telling of the story A.I. tried to tell. The other half (the arc of Woody), is in part the story of John Ed Bradley and of thousands of others. Except Woody's story is more like that of Lance in Varsity Blues-finding his place within the same field of action, but from a different perspective. Bradley, the son of a coach, consciously forgoes this option, turning down a chance to be a graduate assistant, for ... something, though what it is is not quite clear.

One of Bradley's thing as a football player is he had this chest injury. And because of the pads he used, and a not-so-good job of fixing it (in part the result of macho bullshit). This chest injury gets ripped open every game, worse and worse. He has a scar to this day (or so he tells us, and it's quite plausible). This is, pretty much, his metaphor or what football meant to him. It's not particularly satisfying, though, and nor is his story of why he walked away from the game, his coaches, and his teammates. He turned down the GA because, well, he saw coaches as people trying to recapture the old thrill of the playing days. This is, of course, quintessentially sophomoric thinking. Nearing three decades away from his playing days, you'd hope Bradley could now give a better answer than that-it feels like there's more to it than that, particularly now that I've finished the book and put it down for a while (this section of the review would read differently if I'd written it yesterday, immediately after finishing the book). Maybe this is Bradley's real answer, maybe it's the answer for public consumption, and maybe it's an answer that's grown comfortable because it's been repeated for so long.

One of the problem with memoirs, of course, is it's difficult to entangle the personal foibles and failures of the author from the broader lessons you could take from the text. And Bradley, like all of us, has his own foibles and failures. The point of this meandering review, though, is many of those foibles and failures are universal enough, and the broader lessons evident enough, that I can enthusiastically recommend this book to football fans.

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