Jack Gilden is a past winner of the Simon Rockower journalism award. His work has appeared in Orioles Magazine, the Baltimore Sun and Evening Sun, and the Baltimore Jewish Times. He also consults businesses about their messaging and teaches writing at the college level. You can meet Gilden this Saturday at 1:00 p.m. in the Barnes & Noble in White Marsh, Maryland.
Sports in Context
I imagine that when most writers sit down to write their first book they rarely consider the many unintended consequences of that decision.
I found out soon enough that doing it properly means spending extraordinary amounts of time in a chair, alone. It can mean the prolonged loss of a paycheck; time missed with growing children; rolling the dice without health insurance; the ridicule of others, including even close family members; and maybe even the strain or total ruination of a relationship.
As the Australian philosophers, Angus and Malcolm Young, once wrote: “It’s a long way to the top if you want to rock and roll.”
Of course the decision to write, as excruciating as it may be, is only the first and easiest decision that you make as an aspiring author. If you intend to write a nonfiction work you will make hundreds of thousands of decisions. If you’re lucky every one of those choices will one day be subject to public scrutiny.
In my case there was one particular decision that I made for my new book, Collision of Wills, that sparked an unusual amount of interest and debate from my readers and reviewers. Early on I made the choice to contextualize my story with historical information that for some seemed to go beyond the main football story and narrative arc of the characters.
On its most obvious level, Collision of Wills is about two famous figures from the history of professional football—Johnny Unitas, the game’s greatest quarterback, and Don Shula, perhaps its finest coach. As members of the old Baltimore Colts, they had a higher winning percentage than Vince Lombardi’s Green Bay Packers.
As a result of Unitas and Shula’s relentless drive and near perfection, football in their era and forevermore, surpassed major league baseball in sports fans’ affections, though the old ball game had long been rhapsodized as “the American pastime.”
Unitas and Shula’s story was quite compelling all on its own. But as I researched and wrote it I began to take notice of how emblematic the two men were of their times. While their game was seen more and more as a metaphor for a nation engaged in cold war with the Soviets and red-hot jungle warfare with the Vietnamese, the discord between the two men also mirrored a dysfunctional society in which the young and old, men and women, doves and hawks, blacks and whites, Jews and gentiles, and Protestants and Catholics were all, to some degree, in opposition to each other.
As this was impressed upon me, I interpreted the title’s “Collision of Wills” more and more broadly. In the beginning of the 1960s it was easy to see the effect the era was having on the men. But by the end of the decade the men were profoundly changing the culture.
Photos of the early part of the decade showed stadium seats filled with white men smartly attired in coats and ties and fedoras. But as the 1960s came to a conclusion the fans in the stands were decked out in athletic apparel featuring team colors and logos. The fans were from both genders and different colors.
In the early 1960s minority players in the NFL were sometimes asked to ride separate buses than their white teammates and to stay in different hotels. Their participation in the NFL was kept artificially low due to secret quotas that limited their numbers.
But football, like society, was changing. By the end of the decade black athletes were peacefully helping lead Americans to a more integrated future. At first outspoken blacks such as Olympic sprinters John Carlos and Tommy Smith, who held defiant black power-fists in the air from the victory podium at the Olympics, were reviled by many white fans for their stances. With the perspective of time, however, Americans of all colors would profess admiration for the moral courage displayed by the two Olympians.
Heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali, always bigger than everyone else, took on both racism and the Vietnam War when he refused induction into the US Army. “No Viet Cong ever called me n***er,” he bellowed by way of explanation. Another person who also came to oppose the war was the Jewish-American journalist, David Halberstam. Young and fearless, Halberstam went on patrol with the soldiers and found himself in President Kennedy’s formidable crosshairs for merely reporting the truth.
These, too, were collisions of will.
By sticking to my guns and telling a story that defied categorization and emphasized contextualization, sophisticated readers were able to see and enjoy exactly what I wanted them to see—the connection between each individual man and his times.
That was Johnny Unitas and Don Shula’s story in the 1960s, and it’s our story too.