They’re Playing My Game

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Although Hank Stram, former coach of the Kansas City Chiefs and currently a successful football broadcaster, covers some of the details of his life off the field in this book, he makes it quite clear that his primary interest in life is the game of football. For the reader who shares this obsession, the book provides an intelligent and highly knowledgeable view of the development of the complex, dynamic version of football that is played by the NFL today. For anyone not intrigued by and fairly familiar with the details, terminology, and legendary characters of the gridiron sport, it will probably seem somewhat self-absorbed and rather esoteric.

One of the book’s most appealing features is Stram’s ability to capture in his writing the same elements that have made him a popular network analyst. He is direct, concise, and often humorous, and his terse assertions have a blunt power appropriate to their subject. While he is candid about his own reactions, he manages to avoid any sense of inflated self-importance.

The heart of the book chronicles the birth and growth of the AFL in the early 1960’s. Stram develops a fine sense of narrative tension as his team, the old Dallas Texans and then the Kansas City Chiefs, struggles for survival, rises to prominence, and then achieves dominance in the newly structured NFL. Stram’s intense involvement with the new league draws the reader into the locker room and onto the field, conveying the energy, spirit, and originality of the upstart organization.

Stram’s satisfaction at teaching the smug, establishment figures of the NFL “his” game is presented without rancor. The integration of the AFL was, for Stram, a high point but also the beginning of a kind of decline. With his greatest challenge in the past, the wine of victory can never taste as sweet, and now that he is a successful analyst, one detects a twinge of regret in his discussion of the brash Chicago Bears, a lingering desire to be part of the action instead of explaining it. There is a poignance, perhaps unintended, in the book’s conclusion, as Stram seems to be asking for another chance to participate fully in the only life he wants to live.