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Don’t pass on John Feinstein’s ‘Quarterback’

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The NFL is America’s sport. Football is as close to monocultural as it gets these days; even in a world with nigh-unlimited options available for our entertainment, a lot of us choose football. It is shared culture and it is BIG business.

These teams, these billion-dollar entities – their on-field well-being is placed in the hands of a single man. What kind of person is capable of being all things to all (or at least most) people, in the pocket and in the studio? What kind of person is capable of being a quarterback?

That’s what author John Feinstein wants to tell us in his new book “Quarterback: Inside the Most Important Position in the National Football League” (Doubleday, $27.95). He takes a deep dive into the realities of the position – what it means to play at an NFL level, of course, but also what goes into dealing with the pressures of being THE guy, the one who gets credit for the wins, yes, but also takes the blame for the losses.

To do that, he profiles five men who understand precisely what it means to be the QB; four still-active players – Andrew Luck, Alex Smith, Joe Flacco and Ryan Fitzpatrick – and the retired Doug Williams. Given tremendous access, Feinstein walks us through the world of the NFL starting quarterback, the journey that leads to being one of the chosen 32.

These are guys who run the gamut of the QB experience. You have a pair of number-one picks – Smith and Luck – whose careers took very different paths, and then you’ve got someone like Ryan Fitzpatrick, a late-round draftee out of Harvard who has survived and occasionally thrived in the league. You’ve got players like Flacco and Williams who can talk about what it means as a QB to take your team to the pinnacle, a Super Bowl victory. The highs of big wins, the lows of injury and ineffectiveness – it’s all there.

There’s an on-field perspective here that you don’t often get from the written word. Through these conversations, Feinstein has found a way to capture what it FEELS like – what it’s like to be standing in the huddle, to take the snap, to throw passes and take hits, to lead your team to a last-minute victory. It’s a view of the game from their perspective; engagingly capturing that perspective is one of Feinstein’s greatest talents.

But the life of the NFL starting quarterback is far more than what happens on the field. We’re also given the chance to follow these men through what happens after the game. We see the responsibilities they carry with regards to the media – the locker room interviews, the press conferences, all of it. They are the public face of success or failure; they’re the ones who must humbly acknowledge the wins and stoically accept blame for the losses.

And then there’s the even bleaker side. The assorted health crises caused by the game’s violence – substance abuse and CTE. The reality of racism and the NFL’s newly-acquired politically-charged nature. Reckoning with the very real long-term consequences of playing this game.

It’s tough to say who comes off as the star of the books – all five men have their moments. Each story is different, which is to say that there’s no one correct way to become an NFL quarterback. All you have to do is avoid all the wrong ones and there you’ll be. Whether we’re learning about Luck’s struggle with an injured shoulder or the ramifications of Fitzpatrick’s journeyman team-swapping, about Smith getting booted from the driver’s seat just as his 49ers were on the verge of a Super Bowl championship (the same one ultimately won by Flacco and his Ravens) or Williams becoming the first African-American QB to win it all, the journeys undertaken by each of these men are worth exploring. Particularly when they’re rendered with this degree of compelling clarity.

“Quarterback” is as good a behind-the-scenes sports book as you’re likely to find. Feinstein has always been a masterful sports storyteller; what he’s spun together here holds up alongside his best. It’s a captivating deep dive, with the participants choosing to be a good deal more forthcoming than you might expect. There’s a great deal of honesty throughout this book that is refreshing; the nature of the job is such that you have to remain guarded with what you say and to whom. It’s clear that some trust was earned, which in turn leads to genuine depth.

Any fan of the NFL and/or the intricacies of football really should check this book out; it’s smart without being pretentious and informative without being dry. If you have any interest in what it means to be a quarterback, then you need to read “Quarterback.”

Last modified on Wednesday, 21 November 2018 12:41

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