Sports Illustrated’s Football’s Greatest: a provocative, visual dreamscape


I was looking at an impressive pile of dishes that I had let gather over the past 24 hours, pondering the idea of actually washing them, when the phone rang.

My eldest son, Michael Jr., was calling me from Massachusetts.  “Hey, Dad, guess what I’m looking at?”

He had taken the two hour trip south from Lewiston the night before to see the Celtics and Jazz square off in Boston, and said he might take the 20 mile trip further south to Foxborough the next day…and sure enough, he was standing at the entrance to Gillette Stadium.

I have never been to Gillette, never even to Foxborough, so I was hanging on his every word as he described what he was seeing – and I could visualize and conjure a picture in my brain…he paused for a moment then said something that brought everything back into focus for me, “I’m gonna let you go,” he trailed off, as if in awe of what he was seeing, “I’m gonna go be a kid again.”

I was taking a break from writing a review for Sports Illustrated’s newest collaboration, Football’s Greatest (2012 Sports Illustrated Books), and I was experiencing a formidable bout of writer’s block, so I thought perhaps a bit of domestic occupational therapy – dishes – would help break down that wall of jumbled thoughts.

But all it took to break through the cobwebs were those six words – I’m gonna go be a kid again, and dishes be damned…

In truth, I haven’t even read all of the book.  At nearly 300 pages long featuring excerpts and photographs from the artists at the weekly publication throughout the ages, it will take until Christmas to give the book the full respect it deserves – my progress impeded mightily by my own memory of each player, providing my own weird mental captions.

Oh, I read the introduction by Steve Rushkin about how Moses was somehow to blame for the rash of Top 10 lists and his incessant whining about how the internet has ruined barroom arguments, and then the almost apologetic bit by editor Bill Syken about how the panel of experts helped construct their Top 10 lists…and then the book delves off into an explosion of color and exquisite prose.

It arrived by UPS a few days ago, and the very first impression that it made upon me was how freakishly large it is.  The size and weight of a marble kitchen tile, the dust cover busy and smart with wallet sized photographs – and my 8 year old believed it’s practical purpose should be for it to be used as a solid surface for his laptop computer.

This photograph of Tom Brady appears on page 27 of Sports Illustrated’s Football’s Greatest, honoring Brady as the number 3 ranked Quarterback of all time.

I explained to him that it’s essentially a “Coffee Table” book, designed to be a conversation piece – with football experts from Sports Illustrated ranking the top 10 players at individual positions, as well as the greatest games, best plays and even the coolest uniforms.

“Is Gronk in there?”, he asked curiously, referring to Rob Gronkowski, a tight end for the Patriots – and his favorite player.  “Let’s take a look”, I said, sitting down next to him on the couch, taking the opportunity to slide the book out from underneath his laptop.  Each page we flipped to, in a funny exasperated voice I would say, “Well, that’s not him”, and my boy would laugh…and after a while he looked up at me and said, “this is kinda like trying to find Waldo”

Indeed.  Where’s Waldo?

For any football fan that opens this book, it’s going to be a game:  Finding your team, your favorite player – trying to find Waldo…but a curious thing happens along the way.  What starts out as a quick jaunt to the Top 10 Tight Ends section ends up as a series of visual memory provocations, ending in slack-jawed daydreams – the quality of the photography pulling you in closely to the action on the page, the captions and excerpts giving personality to the icons.

You start to reminisce, start thinking to yourself, “yeah, I remember Earl Campbell steamrolling linebackers and corners”, shaking your head and smiling, your subconscious releasing the images of Campbell running folks over…and if that’s the state you catch yourself in, then this book has served it’s purpose.

Virtually everything and everyone on the pages I have very distinct memories of, some to the point that I remember exactly where I was when I saw them play or accomplish their feat – a very few made such an impression on me that, for a few magnificent moments, I was 14 – a kid again…

…In Iceland, you don’t venture too far from your home in the middle of December.  Storms come on suddenly, and since the snow piled up in feet rather than inches, your best bet is to be hunkered down with some videos, perhaps take the time to do some internet surfing while waiting for the game to begin.

But in 1976 we had none of those things – at least not in Keflavik.  The rest of the world may have been fully functional, but we just felt lucky when the local TV station showed a program in english. 

My bedroom window on the 4th floor of our building faced Reykjavik Bay, and I could sit and watch the storms roll in across the ocean – the bay embracing them, gathering them in like a mother would her children – just me and my issues of Sports Illustrated and collection of vinyl records, watching the weather happen.   If it was Sunday the radio would be on after dinner, the Armed Forces Radio service bringing us the NFL game of the week – and I could look at the pictures in my magazines as some sort of preternatural substitution for the visual game action

From my perch on the 4th floor, I always felt a moment of panic as the black clouds drew closer, awed by a force that I was powerless to stop – a wall of snow inching closer by the second, the leading edge of the tempest beginning to spit large flakes on the frosted window…

I looked down at my latest issue, Rocky Blier of the Steelers following his lineman through the snow against the Cincinnati Bengals…”The Steelers Storm on” the cover title read.  I flipped to the page where the story started and Dan Jenkins took me to Riverfront Stadium, heavy snow making it difficult to see, Walter Iooss Jr. providing me as a clear a backdrop as could be had on the snowy night…

I was enthralled by the story telling, the humor, the feeling that football was meant to be played in the snow, or at least inclimate weather…the intensity of the blizzard outside coupled with the skilled story-telling struck me in such a way that I have never forgotten it, the memory triggered by the weather…or when I happen across one of those old issues.

Sports Illustrated’s Football’s Greatest captures the essence of this experience, and the experience is as individual as the person reading it.

Sports Illustrated’s Football’s Greatest: A provocative dreamscape…

For a few magnificent moments, I was 14 again, sitting in front of the window, listening, visualizing -my magazines, my one connection to professional football, at my side.

This isn’t just a book for people who love football, it is also for people who love the people who love football, otherwise it’s just a curious paperweight or an impromptu laptop surface, or perhaps even the football version of Where’s Waldo, deftly placed in a waiting room somewhere – picking it up and thumbing through it to see if you can find your favorite player, the strain on the eyes not nearly as harsh as actually trying to find Waldo in those evil books.

But for a person who loves football, a person who holds the history of the game sacred, a person who keeps the game alive with their memories, this book is a treasured scrapbook.

If you give this book to someone who really loves football  – and has for a lifetime –  in their hands it becomes a dreamscape.  Watch his face – he will come to a point somewhere in this book where the lines on his face will soften, his lips will part in a slight smile, his eyes will glaze over as if daydreaming…and it’s a look that is as priceless to you seeing it as it will be for him remembering it…

When I hung up from my conversation with Michael I grabbed my hoodie and headed outside. I was not expecting the emotional response that his phone call evoked.  Feeling somber and melancholy, I walked down to the local high school field as I do often, walking slowly around the track that circles it, then going up into the stands, sitting on the cold aluminum slats…

We are not that far from Foxborough in southern Maine, so I’m not sure why I’ve never been, other than blaming it on small town inertia.  I soak in the weather, the view of the sky, the now leafless trees waving their branches in the constant light breeze, the bite of the dry crisp air on my face…the hilly drab skyline of this typical New England factory town adds to the filthy charm of my daydream.

I try to be outside as close to game time as possible on Sundays, adding those stimuli to my football viewing experience…the weather pronouncing it’s intentions for both my mood and the playing conditions.

Sometimes it’s sunny and cold like it is today, others it’s moist and grey – and the weather goes a long ways to dictating what memories are conjured…sometimes I think about certain plays like Curtis Martin’s touchdown run in the Super Bowl, sometimes the fans at Gillette throwing snowballs in the air, creating the snowglobe effect…

Sometimes the sites and sounds and smells combine to elicit memories from my own times spent on the field as well…always an edge to the feeling – an anxiety – the anticipation of the upcoming game, now mere minutes away.  The pregame shows are about to give way to the broadcast teams which, sadly, are neglected in this work.  I rise from the bleachers and step lively home…

…back inside to the smells of the food in the oven, the sight of my kids sitting on the couch flipping through this fine new book, looking for their Waldo – their favorite player – arguing about who made their own top 10 lists, giving credence to the beast’s existence – always sure to have a place cleared for me to sit down when the game is about to begin.