Sportswriting was an entirely new field to me when I started this website. I had been writing professionally for many years, and I was fairly accomplished at least in the computer industry. When it came to Nebraska football and football in sports writing specifically, I realized I had a lot to learn.
When I was at the University of Nebraska, I had several friends who wrote for the Daily Nebraskan. I remembered that they would review books and albums that publishers gave them and then later sell them for beer money. This gave me the idea to start reading and reviewing books as a method of jumpstarting my knowledge of football, just like I had started my computer industry writing career by reviewing software.
I wasn’t just interested in Nebraska football, but interested in college football across the board. I was particularly interested in learning more about college football history, strategies, and in understanding what people expected from books about college football because at some point I knew that I wanted to write my own.
So I started reviewing books.
When you have a new website and little track record you have to be fairly persuasive when you’re requesting books for review. You also need to know who to properly contact and you need to persevere. It’s also best to you start close to home and that’s why the first two books I reviewed were published by the University of Nebraska press. The first is a photo book by National Geographic photographer and native Nebraskan Joel Sartore called “Nebraska: Under A Big Red Sky”. The second is by Steve Smith - “Forever Red” (link is to the updated version). That book was updated last year and remains the greatest Husker fan book ever written.
Most sports books tend to be “glory stories” - books full of stories you’d hear when you attend a high school reunion and the jocks want to relive their glory days on the football field or basketball court. They’re written to make you feel part of the group, in on the fun they had.
Another popular category - coaches books on leadership and teamwork, all the things that would make them great public speakers (for a fee) after they’ve retired. They’re typically released after a championship season, and they’re mostly the same - just like business books on the same subjects. That doesn’t make them bad, (there’s always a unique story about YOUR team) but they tend to be formulaic.
There are several history books I’ve particularly enjoyed.
Dave Revzine’s (you know him from BTN) “The Opening Kickoff’ is excellent in telling the story of Wisconsin’s Pat O’ Dea, while “The Big Scrum” by John J. Miller is as equally worth in telling how Teddy Roosevelt saved football. Both deal with very early periods in football, and both do a good job of bringing you into the context of the times.
Another was “The Wow Boys” about the 1940 Stanford Indians, the invention of the T Formation by Clark Shaughnessy.
I did some follow up interviews with authors. Those were always interesting, such as an article called “Nazi Influence on Football?”, talking to James J. Johnson (The Wow Boys) about Shaughnessy’s love of military strategy.
However, there’s one article amongst all the book reviews that stands out by being (most likely) the most popular article we’ve ever done here at CornNation. The article is “We Are Marshall” and “The Marshall Story” - Hollywood vs Reality.
In case you’re not familiar, on November 14th, 1970, a plane carrying 75 people, most of whom were members of the Marshall football team, crashed, killing all aboard. “The Marshall Story” is the story of how Marshall fought back from a scandal and the plan crash, enduring several losing seasons before winning a Division I-AA national title in 1992 and another in 1996 before moving to Division I-A in 1997.
“We are Marshall” is a movie starring Matthew McConaughey that deals with how Marshall University fought to bring back football. The story I wrote deals with the difference between what really happened and what was shown in the movie.
Was this reality?
The movie, basically, is intended to be a tear jerker. Reality is much worse. To this day, I cannot think of what happened and not think of Red Dawson and how many years of pain the man must have endured.
The story about the movie and the book review were both done in 2007, yet they still show up in our analytics as one of our top web pages on a periodic basis. I assume that means that the “We Are Marshall” movie is being televised or highlighted somewhere in the world and that people are still looking for information on it.
There are, of course, plenty of Nebraska-related books that have been reviewed over the years, although not as many lately. The Huskers need a championship season. Then you’ll see paraphernalia (jerseys, shirts, hats, key chains, couch covers, grills, you name it) flying off the shelves, along with new books about how Mike Riley got the team to come together for a special season.
At least that’s what I hope happens, because if it isn’t Mike Riley with a championship season we’re going to be waiting a while longer.