BATTLE'S END: A SEMINOLE FOOTBALL TEAM REVISITED
By Caroline Alexander
Alfred A. Knopf
220 pp., $23
The athletes who compete in the Super Bowl represent an elite within an elite. Those who make it to that coveted game come from the somewhat larger pool of talent that made it onto a National Football League roster. Hundreds, maybe thousands, of other young men had that dream, but never saw it fulfilled.
This book is about a few of those NFL wannabes - promising young players recruited to Florida State University's Seminole squad in the early 1980s. High school athletes good enough to be wooed by a football powerhouse like FSU may have reasonable hopes for a pro career, but life usually lands them elsewhere, with regrets that their college years yielded little in the way of academic or intellectual benefits.
Caroline Alexander chronicles those regrets, and more. She had gotten to know these men when they were starry-eyed lower classmen and she was their English tutor, hired by the university to help them pass academic muster. What emerges from her extensive interviews 10 years later are individuals who defy the ''dumb jock'' stereotypes. They recognize how ill-prepared they were to do college work, how their motivations were skewed by the deception that they could ride their football skills to success, and how important it is to give their own kids a more realistic view of life. Their eventual careers ranged from prison guard to car salesmen to convicted criminal to (yes, one made it) NFL wide receiver.
Take Greg Allen, one of the more athletically gifted among Alexander's band of Seminoles. He made it to the pros for a short stint as a running back, but found the life there didn't agree with him and gravitated, perhaps inevitably, back to his small-town Florida birthplace. He manages a supermarket and sees to it that his own son, Greg Jr., reads books and becomes the English scholar his dad wasn't. He also still muses on the sayings passed along by his mother, who raised him and his siblings single-handedly. Sayings like, ''Think twice, and speak once.'' ''Just those little words to keep us on track,'' he says. ''It helped.''
Strong mothers and home-town ties figure in the lives of many of these men, though not all. Another Seminole, Billy Allen (no relation to Greg) had a turbulent, big-city upbringing with absentee parents. His brief stay in the NFL soon gave way to drug use, drug dealing, and prison. He's found religious faith in prison and wants to help other black youngsters avoid his mistakes once he's out from behind bars.
Most of the men who tell their stories in ''Battle's End'' seem to have a reservoir of family and moral values, hopes for the next generation, and appreciation of what a sound education can do - though few of them had much of a shot at one. These are people whose lives were early distorted by the larger-than-life trappings of youthful football stardom. And then further twisted by a college-football system that wrings out athletic talent and cares little about individuals' long-term prospects. But these men have somehow shed the distortions - no bloated egos here, unlike many overpaid pro ''stars.''
These are people that many Americans, who may be hanging onto stereotypes about athletes, and about young black men in general, ought to get to know.
But the interviews - straight transcripts complete with bad grammar and repetition - go on at some length. It takes perseverance to get through them. Nevertheless, the portrait one gets of an initially glitzy, but ultimately very down-to-earth facet of American life is worth it.