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on September 3, 2013
It was only a half century ago but professional football was a very different sport from the one we recognize today. The newly formed American Football League competed with the NFL signing players out of college but the Super Bowl had not yet been invented. More importantly, "pro football ranked lower in popularity on the American sports scene than baseball, horse-racing, boxing and college football." Author Lev Freeman focuses on the Chicago Bears pursuit of the NFL title in 1963. But he has a lot of additional raw material to work with including gambling scandals, the death of one of the best players in the game, the opening of the Hall of Fame, competition with the AFL over college players and the NFL's decision to play on the weekend following JFK's assassination.
As an older fan, I looked forward to publication of Clouds Over the Goalpost but was disappointed by the book. My primary problem is the way it is packaged and marketed. Clouds has little to do with gambling and assassination. Gambling refers to the suspension of Paul Horning and Alex Karras for betting on games. Freeman deals with this in an early chapter, adding little information to a story that is fairly well known. It is difficult to determine whether the assassination in the title refers to the demise of "Big Daddy" Lipscomb or the death of the President during the football season. Freeman discusses the controversy over whether Lipscomb died of a drug overdose or was murdered by the underworld in chapter 3. When the author finishes this chapter, the book is less than one quarter complete and we have heard the last of gambling and assassination (other than that of the president) in the NFL.
My other issue with Freeman is the pedestrian, and often careless, writing style he brings to the text. He mentions that Pete Rozelle found the manner in which "Big Daddy" died to be "unseemly." In the very next sentence, Freeman says "having a star player's death be associated with drug-taking was unseemly." In the same chapter, he explains how opposing players tried to even the playing field with the physically imposing Lipscomb: "that often led to illegal tactics, such as holding. If they couldn't stop Lipscomb from stomping their quarterback legally, they'd rely on illegal tactics." After a lengthy, blow by blow description of the Bears dramatic opening day victory over NFL champion Green Bay, Freeman concludes with a not quite incisive analysis by one of players: "'They beat us,' said Green Bay center Jim Ringo."
The pacing of Freeman's narrative is a bit erratic. There is an awkward inclusion of the events surrounding the killing of President Kennedy and Lee Harvey Oswald. While this helps establish the context for Pete Rozelle's unfortunate decision to play football during that tragic weekend, the level of detail provided is unnecessary for the reader. Freeman also delivers a virtual play-by-play of the 1963 championship game between the Bears and Giants. The game is important but less than exciting and most of the names will be unrecognizable to the modern reader or casual fan.
I applaud the author for his conversations with some of the surviving players from 1963. He lists 17 interviews including stars like Ditka, Hornung, Starr and Keith Lincoln, outstanding players from the time who are not remembered today such as Bear linebacker Joe Fortunato and a few obscure performers like back-up Patriot QB Tommy Yewcic. Even here, however, Freeman is constrained by the value provided in his discussions which is sometimes negligible. When asked to comment on the Giants loss in the title game to the Bears (the third New York failure in as many years against the West), Coach Allie Sherman replies, "We could have won it but we didn't"
There are larger than life personalities on display here including Coaches George Halas, Vince Lombardi and Al Davis; players Bart Starr, Jim Brown and George Blanda and enough forgotten names from the past (Ernie Ladd, Erich Barnes, Cookie Gilchrist) to keep older fans satisfied. The problem is that the writing does not match the level of the events being described. This could explain the decision to oversell gambling and assassination. It may have been a good idea out of a sports writer's playbook to revisit 1963 fifty years later on the eve of a new season. Unfortunately, the execution in Clouds over the Goalpost is lacking.