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Captain For Life: My Story as a Hall of Fame Linebacker

While football star Walter Payton's biography is making headlines, don't miss 'Captain for Life,' Harry Carson's poignant and revealing autobiography.

By Ross AtkinStaff Writer / January 20, 2012

Captain For Life: My Story as a Hall of Fame Linebacker By Harry Carson St. Martin's Press 336 pp

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Without question, the blockbuster football book of this season has been “Sweetness: The Enigmatic Life of Walter Payton.” But there is another work that shouldn’t be lost under the pile of recent releases. That’s Harry Carson’s Captain for Life: My Story as a Hall of Fame Linebacker.

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Payton, once a megawatt running back for the Chicago Bears, is surely is the better known of the two players, and his story, as told by biographer Jeff Pearlman, is a legitimate page-turner. Carson’s book, however, is every bit as fascinating, revealing, and poignant as Payton’s.

In a number of ways, the two players' stories are similar – yet also widely divergent. Both, for example, grew up in the deep South as integration dawned. Both were band members who emerged as high school football stars, went on to play at historically black colleges (Jackson State and South Carolina State), and captained pro teams in major Northern cities (Chicago and New York) that shed losing images to win Super Bowls. They also both played for coaches with outsized personalities (Payton for Mike Ditka and Carson for Bill Parcells) and were both elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, although in far different ways – Payton in his first year of eligibility, Carson in his 13th.

Payton became addicted to painkillers, while Carson, in the most disturbing development of his career, had to submit to random drug tests two or three times a week during his final season. The order came after he tested “dirty” in training camp, a finding Carson viewed as outrageously false and demeaning. The regular urine tests, which never provided any substantiating evidence, were kept quiet, but they still managed to create an awful cloud over an honorable player winding up an outstanding career. 

The differences in personal lives of Carson and Payton are striking, with Payton a tragic, ultimately lonely and troubled, man who died at age 45, just 12 years after his football retirement. Carson, by contrast, is a rock of consistency, a person whose teammates came to depend on and trust him. He is the Walter Camp Football Foundation’s 2011 “Man of the Year,” a character award based on a person’s service to the game and the public. (The award presentation was made on Jan. 14 in New York).

That Carson’s Hall of Fame enshrinement took so long may have been due to his playing alongside Lawrence Taylor with the Giants. Carson was the hard-hat middle linebacker, charged with stopping inside runs amid the blur of bodies. Taylor, a flashy outside linebacker, used his speed and ferocity to become an electrifying defender and one of the foremost pass rushers in NFL history.

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