Monday, July 27, 2020

Nonfiction Monday- Gridiron and Interview with Fred Bowen

Mr. Bowen is a sports writer whom my students adore, and he and I go waaaay back-- in the fall of 2009, I entered a contest for naming a coach in one of his books, and Mr. McMillan, history teacher at my school and the head cross country coach with whom I worked, was the winner. When I found out that he had a nonfiction book on the history of football coming out, I knew I need to highlight this fantastic book and prolific author.

Interview with Fred Bowen about Gridiron: Stories from 100 Years of Football

Ms. Yingling- Your fictional books usually work in an event from history, and your newest book, Gridiron: Stories from 100 Years of the National Football League, is a great overview of this popular sport. What got you interested in the history of sports?

Mr. Bowen- I’ve always been interested in history, especially American history.  History was my favorite subject in high school and I majored in history when I was at the University of Pennsylvania (PENN).

My interest in sports history was a natural outgrowth of that interest.  I was always fascinated how sports changed and evolved through the years.  For example, before around 1920, only three or four baseballs would be used during a nine-inning major league game.  The fans would toss foul balls back or ushers would retrieve them.

In the early days of basketball, there was a center jump after every basket!  The early basketball courts were surrounded by cages made of rope or chicken wire.  That’s why basketball players in the 1920s and 30s were called cagers.

There are a million examples to show how the games were different than the games we see today.  At its core that is what history teaches: the world was not always as you see it now.  But if you know and understand the history of the games (or of your country) you will better understand why the games (or the issues facing your country) are the way they are now.

Ms. Yingling- One hundred years is a long time! What is the biggest change that has occurred in the sport during that time? What has stayed the same?

Mr. Bowen- Professional football in 1920 was very different from the National Football League (NFL) of 2020.  First, the teams in 1920 were in smaller cities such as Akron, Ohio, Decatur, Illinois and Rochester, New York.  The teams did not play the same number of games and some teams played teams outside the league.  The games were hardly ever mentioned in the newspapers.  In other words, the early NFL was not the big-time, billion-dollar enterprise we see today.

The game was also different in those early years.  There was very little passing and the games were generally low scoring.  One of the reasons there was so little passing was the ball was different.  It was rounder and therefore harder to grip and throw.

And, as James Ransome’s wonderful illustrations demonstrate throughout the book but especially at the beginning of each quarter of Gridiron, the equipment was completely different.  In the early days, players wore leather helmets with no face masks and had little in the way of padding.  Now, of course, players wear so much space age equipment that they look as if they stepped out of a video game.

Ms. Yingling- I learned so much from your book, such as the fact that the NFL was started in Canton, Ohio! What was the most amusing fact you discovered when researching? 

Mr. Bowen- I guess my favorite fact was the story behind the first NFL championship game.  The game was played between the Portsmouth Spartans and the Chicago Bears in December 1932.  So for the first twelve years of the NFL they didn’t even play a championship game.  The teams selected a champion.

The most amazing thing about the 1932 championship game was that it was played in a Chicago ice rink because a blizzard had made the Bears field unplayable.  But what was even more incredible was that a circus had been at the ice rink in the days before the game.  Contemporary accounts of the championship commented on the smell in the arena because of what the circus animals had left behind on the floor of the arena!

Ms. Yingling- Looking forward into the next century of football, what do you see being the biggest concerns in the sport?

Mr. Bowen- Of course, I am answering this question during the novel coronavirus crisis and so I would say one of the immediate challenges is how the NFL is going to play a contact sport such as football in this medical environment.

However, assuming we come through this medical emergency, perhaps the greatest challenge facing the NFL and the game of football is chronic traumatic encephalopathy or CTE.  That is the brain disease that can occur from repeated blows to the head.  The researchers at Boston University who are studying CTE have found the condition in the brains of more than one hundred former NFL players as well as other athletes.

More study needs to be done, but if it is found that football can cause CTE this may affect the number of young men who are willing to play the game.  That is why I included a chapter on CTE and the story of Mike Webster, the Pittsburgh Steeler center and the first NFL player diagnosed with CTE, in the book. 

Ms. Yingling- Teachers and librarians usually encourage their students to investigate historical events, but don’t usually emphasize sports. Students love sports. Why do you think this disconnect exists? 

Mr. Bowen- I think most people and most teachers think of sports as simply entertainment instead of seeing sports as part, an important part, of the culture.  

I often tell kids and their parents that people have been interested in athletic events for thousands of years.  The Olympics started with the ancient Greeks.  The Colosseum in Rome is really just a ballpark.  People have been interested in sports for as long as they have been interested in art or music or the theater.  

In addition, many of the important issues – race relations, economic fairness, gender equity – that you find in the general culture are reflected in our athletic contests and leagues.  Sports and sports history are certainly worthy subjects of study. 

For example, lots of students watch the Super Bowl every year.  It is always the biggest television event of the year.  Teachers should ask their students to explore the history of the game and how it became such a cultural phenomenon.  Gridiron has a chapter on the first Super Bowl (although it was not called the Super Bowl that first year).

Ms. Yingling- Why do you think sports are so appealing to tweens and teens? 

Mr. Bowen- Sports have drama, excitement and a host of fascinating characters.  Why wouldn’t young people or anyone else be interested in sports?

For example, in Gridiron I have chapters on some of the most exciting moments in NFL history, the 1958 championship game, the Immaculate Reception, and Super Bowl XLII (42).  But there are also chapters on some of the most interesting characters in the history of the league.  Red Grange, Benny Friedman, Vince Lombardi, Bill Walsh, the list goes on.

Playing sports, following sports, rooting for a favorite team, going to the games are all so much fun I feel sorry for the people who say they are not interested in sports.

Ms. Yingling- Which of your fiction books would you recommend to read along with Gridiron?

Mr. Bowen- I have four football books in my Fred Bowen SportStory series: Touchdown Trouble, Quarterback Season, Double Reverse and the latest book in the series, Speed Demon.  As with all my series books, these books combine sports fiction, sports history and there is always a chapter of sports history at the back.  I think anyone who likes Gridiron will enjoy those books too.

Ms. Yingling- What upcoming projects do you have that your fans need to know about? 

Mr. Bowen- The next book in my Fred Bowen SportStory series – tentatively titled Soccer Trophy Mystery - will be published in 2021.

James Ransome and I are teaming up for another sports history book that is scheduled to be published in 2022.  

I am hoping to write my Fred Bowen SportStory series and sports history books for as long as kids want to read them.  They seem to like the books and I have fun writing them.

Bowen, Fred and Ransome, James E.
Gridiron: Stories from 100 Years of the National Football League
July 28th 2020 by Margaret K. McElderry Books
E ARC provided by Edelweiss Plus

Fred Bowen's fictional sports books are usually tied to an event in sports history, so it makes perfect sense that he would eventually turn his hand to an anecdotal history of football. Starting with the early days of the sport, and dividing it into four "quarters", Bowen explores and explains the development of this beloved but controversial American pastime by using short but illustrative stories. From the beginning of the NFL in a car dealership in Canton to the diagnosis of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy in player Mike Webster, Bowen deftly choses specific instances that mirror the evolution of the sport as a whole. This manages to cover a wide array of topics both on the field and off. We learn about the development of gear, strategies, plays, and positions but also how football was shaped by the culture of its times. There are well known stories, such as the 1967 Ice Bowl, but also lesser known ones that could use whole books of their own, such as early African American players Fritz Pollard and Bobby Marshall who played in 1916!

Each story is brief bu powerful; I don't know if high school speech teams have a Prose and Poetry division any more, but there were a couple of stories that made me want to work them into a speech for competition, since they made me tear up a little bit! The accompanying illustrations will appeal to young readers, since Ransome's colorful style has a sense of urgency and movement to it.

I was impressed by the variety of stories, and it's odd to think that football has been played for over 100 years. Bowen reaches into the past to tell stories that help understand why this sport has appealed to both players and spectators, and has worked its way into popular culture: I had no idea what kind of player Deacon Jones was, but I remembered his name because he appeared as himself on an episode of The Brady Bunch.

While there are huge numbers of nonfiction football books about football teams and players, they are often formulaic and a bit lacking in literary quality and emotion. Readers who have enjoyed more specific football history books like Sheinkin's Undefeated : Jim Thorpe and the Carlisle Indian School Football Team, or McClafferty's Fourth Down and Inches, or other overviews like Shenolikar's Football Then to Wow! will find that Gridiron delivers exciting and evocative stories that entertain but also beg to be investigated more thoroughly. This is a must purchase for elementary and middle school libraries, especially where Bowen's fictional titles circulate well.

1 comment:

  1. Yes, indeed, I am excited to hear about this book! Thanks fr letting me know. The NFL has been around for 100 years, huh? Something I didn't know. Just goes to show that your blog is not only fun but educational!