Saturday, January 30, 2010

Book Review: That First Season

John Eisenberg's That First Season: How Vince Lombardi Took the Worst Team in the NFL and Set It on the Path to Glory tells, rather well, the story of Vince Lombardi's first year, 1959, coaching the Green Bay Packers, a team that had gone 1-10-1, the year before. When I first saw this book existed, I put it on my list but without much intention of reading it; the "story of a team's single year" isn't a genre I'm particularly fond of, since most seem to be quickies designed to appeal to that team's fans and quickly take a well-deserved fade away to the dustbin of history. Add in that the book was about a team a half century ago (no strong personal interest) about a team that didn't have any postseason success (7-5, missed playoffs), trods mostly well-torn ground (on sidebar about Lombardi Packers: Kramer, Curry, Lombardi bio), and by a guy whose last book was about Barbaro, and I almost didn't pick it up when I saw it at the library.

Having picked it up and read it, I'm glad I did. The nice thing about a book a half century later, particularly one about ground that's been well-trod, is there's a lot of material available, and people will make more sensitive, potentially hurtful material available that would've been too raw to release at the time, and Eisenberg is able to take full advantage of this to give a good portrait of things. The book starts with the disastrous finish to the 1958 season and goes through the Packers' decision to hire Lombardi, the offseason, training camp, and then the preseason and regular season, in perfectly sensible and normal chronological order. Players are introduced at the time they were introduced to Lombardi, be it Starr coming up early before training camp begins to watch film and learn the offense, or Hornung when visited in Louisville in the offseason. Eisenberg tells the story well, with good details about each game and other important moments, and I enjoyed reading the book.

Beyond that, I'm not sure what to say about the book and what I got out of it. It contains an index, a list of regular season games with their result and location, and he notes which players he interviewed and a list of the most important books, though your hope for footnotes is a forlorn one. Eisenberg does give me a better idea that Lombardi was an excellent football coach, and not just a good motivator and leader; Maraniss's bio left me uncertain, and that Eisenberg accomplishes making the distinction with the use of key details only serves to confirm my atypically low opinion of Maraniss's book. If you're only going to read one book on the Packers, this isn't it; you'd be best served by Jerry Kramer's Instant Replay, if you're a football fan, or Maraniss's bio of Lombardi, if you hate football. I wouldn't have paid anything near list for this book, for the reasons I enumerated earlier, and still wouldn't have, knowing now it's better than I thought it'd be, but That First Season still represents a worthy addition to the Lombardi-era Packers corpus, and if it sounds interesting to you, go ahead and read it.

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