1. ‘When Nobody Was Watching: My Hard-Fought Journey to the Top of the Soccer World,’ by Carli Lloyd with Wayne Coffey
The biggest names in American soccer have often been in the women’s game, where the US has enjoyed most of its international success. The name “Carli” is the one with probably the most cachet at the moment, as in midfielder Carli Lloyd, who made history at the 2015 FIFA world championship by scoring a hat trick (three goals in one game) in the final against Japan – within the first 16 minutes! Before that she scored the gold-medal-winning goals at the 2008 and 2012 Olympics. The incredible commitment and sacrifices she had to make to achieve stardom, however, form the wrenching behind-the-scenes story of “When Nobody Was Watching.” An uncompromising trainer/coach drove her relentlessly to raise her game, a regimen she voluntarily undertook but a decision that partly led to strained relations with her own family.
Here’s an excerpt from When Nobody Was Watching:
“Between the time the master of ceremonies says, ‘I proudly present the FIFA Women’s World Player of the Year,’ and opens the envelope, it feels as if a full ninety minutes goes by, plus ten minutes of stoppage time. I think my heart might pound right out of my gown. It keeps pounding until I hear the emcee say:
“I want to get up and run around as if I were celebrating a goal, but I play it cool instead. The happiness I feel is almost indescribable. I give [fiance] Brian [Hollins] a kiss and begin the walk up onto the stage, careful to lift up the gown so as not to trip, pausing to shimmy my foot back on the heel because it has slipped out from the sweat. I successfully make it up the steps without a tumble and gratefully receive the trophy, which is so heavy I could do curls with it.”
2. ‘Fields of Battle: Pearl Harbor, the Rose Bowl, and the Boys Who Went to War,’ by Brian Curtis
When the football teams from Duke and Oregon State squared off in the 1942 Rose Bowl, the specter of war hung over the proceedings. Pearl Harbor had been bombed less than a month before, so with concerns about an assault on the West Coast, the Rose Bowl was moved to Duke’s home stadium in Durham, N.C. – the only time the game has not been played in Pasadena, Calif. Oregon State won 20-16. In a hybrid sports/war account, “Fields of Battle” recounts this historic turn of events and the aftermath, which saw many of the players and coaches of both teams enlist in the military and in some cases fight alongside each other on World War II’s battlefields.
Here’s an excerpt from Fields of Battle:
“Even before America’s entrance into World War II, as the country mobilized for war and as many of [Wallace] Wade’s former [Duke] players and coaches entered the service – either on their own or through the draft – Wade felt guilty. Guilty that he had not served in combat during World War I. Guilty that he was merely coaching a game of football while some of his current and former boys were preparing for battle. Guilty even that his mind was wandering from football, a disservice to his team. It was his duty to serve. In keeping with his very private nature, he shared his desire with no one outside of his family, but after December 7, Wade was resolute in his decision to join the military and fight, and shortly after the Rose Bowl game in 1942, Wade reached out to the United States Army and volunteered.
“ ‘My boys were going in and I felt like we should stay together as a team,’ Wade was later quoted. ‘We were just participating in a different battle.’”
3. ‘Phog: The Most Influential Man in Basketball,’ by Scott Morrow Johnson
Some of the greatest names in basketball history – Michael Jordan, John Wooden, LeBron James – have nothing on Forrest “Phog” Allen, whose influence on the sport is hard to match. Because his impact occurred in the early part of the 20th century, though, means that many modern fans are unaware of it. Not so the basketball faithful at the University of Kansas, where storied Allen Fieldhouse still bears his name. “Phog” the biography serves as a well-researched introduction to Allen, who succeeded basketball inventor James Naismith as the Jayhawks’ coach, and spent the next 39 years in that post. He also was instrumental in creating the NCAA tournament and helped usher basketball into the Olympics.
Here’s an excerpt from Phog:
“The gymnasium was cold. Quiet. Desolate. Something was missing.
“The arriving players looked around, seeing nothing but the man known as Doc standing there at center court. He wore a sweatsuit, with a towel wrapped around his neck like a scarf. His hair was combed to one side, not a strand out of place, and he carried a combination of welcoming charm and no-nonsense austerity. His blue eyes seemed to smile around the edges but bore the intensity of a drill sergeants’s.
“Some of them already knew him. Doc Allen had been at the school a few weeks to that point, he having been hired as the athletic director and coach [at Missouri State Normal School] of the football, basketball, and baseball teams. They’d seen him sauntering around campus, often with a fedora on his head, his chest puffing out inside a flashy suit. But this would be the first time they’d see him in action as a basketball coach.”
4. ‘Olympic Collision: The Story of Mary Decker and Zola Budd,’ by Kyle Keiderling
Few races in the Olympics were ever more eagerly anticipated than the women’s 3,000 meters as the 1984 Games in Los Angeles. The final brought together Mark Decker, America’s oft-frustrated but golden girl of distance running, and Zola Budd, the wunderkind from South Africa who ran barefooted and had to transfer to the British team in order to compete in the Olympics (South Africa was barred because of its apartheid policies). “Olympic Collision” is the story of this historic showdown, which, in fact, resulted tragically in a collision of the two runners. Their legs tangled late in race, as they jockeyed for the lead. Decker fell injured into the track’s infield, while Budd managed to continue on, met by boos, while fading from medal contention and finishing seventh. The lead-up to and aftermath of this incident, plus a look at what has happened to both athletes since, makes for a meticulously researched examination of a major Olympic drama.
Here’s an excerpt from Olympic Collision:
“The prospect of a Mary Decker-Zola Budd matchup in the 3,000-meter final had reporters across the United States and around the globe in utter thrall. After the two had qualified for their respective national teams scarcely a day passed when someone, somewhere, failed to speculate about the outcome of the race.
“The Los Angeles Times, in the host city, gave its prime space in the sports section to coverage of the Olympics. Bill Dwyre, the sports editor, had a stable of talented writers that produced a staggering number of features about the games. Many were devoted to Mary Decker and her looming confrontation with Zola Budd.”
5. ‘QB: My Life Behind the Spiral,’ by Steve Young with Jeff Benedict
Steve Young’s journey to become a Super Bowl MVP required him to serve as the understudy to Joe Montana, one of the greatest quarterbacks in NFL history. When his wait finally ended, he kept the San Francisco 49ers in contention, and in the 1994 season guided the Niners to their fifth Super Bowl title. This in itself is the basis for an interesting read, but Young chooses not to leave it there, with a book that is about a challenging life both on an off the field. While a freshman at Brigham Young University, he experienced acute homesickness, and hardly was encouraged as an eighth-string, southpaw quarterback whose coach saw no potential in his throwing ability. But Young, a descendent of Mormon leader Brigham Young and a 4.0 student, persevered to become an All-America selection, a Heisman Trophy runner-up, and first-round draft choice. His NFL career landed him in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2005. Today he is an analyst on ESPN’s weekly NFL coverage.
Here’s an excerpt from QB:
“Occasionally, helmets come off in football. But nobody runs the ball without a helmet. Especially not quarterbacks. The Chargers expect me to go down. Instead, I turn upfield and run between the hash marks, rumbling nine yards before I’m taken down.
“Why run without a helmet? It’s simple. There is something known as Super Bowl hangover. It’s when championship teams fall off in their performance. Well, I have never had a hangover in my life, and I’m not about to have one now. My teammates are instantly energized by the sight of me running helmetless through San Diego’s defense. Ken Norton Jr. and Gary Plummer bang on my shoulder pads. The whole team responds. We dominate the Chargers.
“After the game, the coaches tell me no more running downfield without a helmet.”
6. ‘The Baron & the Bear: Rupp’s Runts, Haskins’s Miners, and the Season That Changed Basketball Forever,’ by David Kingsley Snell
Seldom has major social change been better encapsulated in a single sports event than it was at the 1966 NCAA basketball championship game. That was when a stark racial divide helped catapult college basketball into a new integrated era. This historic crossroads is the focus of “The Baron and the Bear,” which chronicles how Texas Western College (now the University of Texas at El Paso) parlayed its all-black roster to upset the all-white University of Kentucky. Both teams had white head coaches, Adolph Rupp (“The Baron of the Bluegrass”) for Kentucky, and Don Haskins (“The Bear”) for Texas Western. The outcome of their teams’ encounter on basketball’s biggest stage is credited with integrating Southern teams and ending unwritten quotas other schools used in limiting the number of black players on the court at one time.
Here’s an excerpt from The Baron & the Bear:
“The 1966 NCAA Championship game was played in Cole Field House on the campus of the University of Maryland, barely seventeen mlles from the Lincoln Memorial, where Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his ‘I Have a Dream’ speech just three years earlier. But despite passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of ’65, there was a psychic distance yet to be traveled before college athletics would be ready to sit down at Dr. King’s ‘table of brotherhood.’
“The laws had changed, but college basketball teams in the North still limited their recruitment of black players and adhered to an unwritten rule limiting their participation: two at home, three on the road, and four when you’re behind. The laws had changed but on southern campuses (including the University of Kentucky) athletics continued to be a whites-only activity. The laws had changed, but there was still a gentlemen’s agreement that northern schools were expected to leave black players behind when they journeyed into the Deep South. The laws had changed, but many still believed that permitting African Americans to participate as equals in athletic competition would lead inexorably to a sense of equality in their daily lives and irrevocably destroy a precious southern heritage.
7. ‘Chuck Noll: His Life’s Work,’ by Michael MacCambridge
During his 23 years as head coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers, Chuck Noll was neither charismatic, colorful, nor flamboyant. He was a winner, however, even if a rather enigmatic one, even to his players. He proved to be an absolute godsend when he arrived in Pittsburgh in 1969, with the city depressed by the decline of the steel industry and the Steelers suffering through nearly four decades of futility. How he transformed perhaps the NFL’s worst team into a four-time Super Bowl winner makes for an interesting read, made more so by author Michael McCambridge’s efforts to understand Noll, who passed in 2014.
Here’s an excerpt from Chuck Noll:
“It was as though everyone was a rookie. No one seemed sure of themselves, no one seemed comfortable under Chuck’s watch. Many of the conventions they’d grown up with had changed. He didn’t yell at them, he reasoned with them. ‘I’d had good coaching,’ said veteran All-Pro linebacker Andy Russell. ‘But I’d never seen anyone like Chuck.’
“ ‘I knew what you had to do to win,’ Chuck would say later. ‘Number one, you had to not lose. And that means you have to play good defense. And you wanted an offense that didn’t get your defense in trouble. That was our first thought, we had to improve our defense. We have to play good defense and have to not make mistakes on offense – even if we have to run the ball on every down and punt. Don’t get turnovers. Don’t get yourself in trouble giving up the ball at the 20-yard line where they need only 20 yards to score or they’re in field-goal range already. You don’t want to do that. That’s a prescription to lose.’”
8. ‘Losing Isn’t Everything: The Untold Stories and Hidden Lessons Behind the Toughest Losses in Sports History,’ by Curt Menefee with Michael Arkush
The ultimate dramas in sports often involve a crushing disappointment for an athlete or team. What that experience is like is the refreshing angle examined in “Losing Isn’t Everything,” which connects with athletes long after their abject moments. Sportscaster Curt Menefee, host of Fox NFL Sunday, and co-author Michael Arkush, check in with a variety of athletes to gather their insights on coping with their worst memories, from Patriots defensive back Rodney Harrison about a miraculous Super Bowl catch he was unable to prevent to distance runner Mary Decker’s fall at the 1984 Olympics.
Here’s an excerpt from Losing Isn’t Everything:
“The fastball wasn’t sinking, and for a major league pitcher, there may be nothing more frightening than a fastball that doesn’t sink.
“The hitter, if he’s any good, and most hitters are – that’s how they got here – will hit the ball hard and, more often than not, a long way. The hitter in this case wasn’t just good, he was great. He was one of the greatest of all time.
“No wonder Al Downing, the Los Angeles Dodgers’ left-hander, knew he was in trouble.
“The hitter was Henry Louis Aaron. Most people knew him better as Hank. And, on this April 1974 night in Atlanta, Georgia, he was trying to do something no one had done before.”
9. ‘Playing Through the Whistle: Steel, Football, and an American Town,’ by S.L. Price
A lot of threads get woven together in “Playing Through the Whistle,” a journalistic narrative that examines the challenges of a small Pennsylvania steel town through the lens of its high school football team. The town is Aliquippa, which sits 26 miles northwest of Pittsburgh, while the master storyteller is S.L. Price, a longtime senior writer for Sports Illustrated. Aliquippa’s steel mill was once the fourth largest producer in the US, and its high football team has achieved its own measure of fame by fielding such great players as Mike Ditka, Darrelle Revis, and Ty Law. With the demise of the steel industry, however, Aliquippa’s fortunes have suffered as poverty and drug abuse have risen. That causes football to assume a heightened role in providing a way out of the depressing environment that grips the town.
Here’s an excerpt from Playing Through the Whistle:
“Everything was shrinking fast now. By 1980 Aliquippa’s population was down to 17,904, and the exiting stream never stopped; by ’90 there would be just 13,374 left. Half the world that JFK saw when he spoke downtown had dissolved away. One by one, bars and stores boarded up their windows. Ambition withered. Postures sagged. It was not the time and place to think big.
“Yet by force of will, personality, ego, delusion, or spite, that is all Don Yanessa did. He made Quips’ home games – complete with fireworks, an Indian on horseback, the dunt-dunt-dunt, and increasingly winning teams – into community events; packed Carl Aschman Stadium (official capacity, 5,500; oft-reported standing room crowd, 9,000) and made himself the unofficial drum major of Western Pennsylvania football.”
10. ‘Success Is the Only Option: The Art of Coaching Extreme Talent,’ by John Calipari and Michael Sokolove
During his years as the University of Kentucky’s basketball coach, John Calipari has turned the program into the ultimate “overnight campground” for some of the nation’s top high school players. His special knack is for taking a collection of schoolboy superstars and turning them into a cohesive powerhouse in the one season they are required to play college ball before turning pro. How he molds these “one and done” extreme talents into a selfless unit is what he calls an art in his second book about his methods and philosophies. These he uses in basketball, but the suggestion here is that Calipari’s approach may have application in the business world as well.
Here’s an excerpt from Success Is the Only Option:
“I don’t recruit players because I believe they are one-dimensional, or only have the potential to do one thing well. What I do watch is to see is what they would add to our team, not worrying so much about their other areas. Normally someone else on our team will make up for that. Ultimately, they will have to try to build a more varied skill set, either while they’re still at Kentucky or after they move on. And most of them are capable of that. But when they struggle, my own go-to move, to put it in those terms, is to get them to focus on what they do best. One philosophy of my program is that we don’t harp on weaknesses; we build on strengths.
“I say to them, ‘You don’t have to show me everything. What is your identity? What is that got you on the radar of college recruiters in the first place?’ Once they become successful with that, it builds confidence. They can expand it from there.”
11. ‘Relentless: Seven Marathons, Seven Continents, Seven Days,’ by David Getting
How do you train for, much less finish, an extreme distance running event – namely the World Marathon Challenge? Well, David Gething’s book title sums it up: You’ve got to be relentless, which he was in 2015 by besting a field of a dozen runners from around the world who spent 168 hours breathlessly racing in seven marathons on seven continents. Yes, that includes Antarctica, where the 180-plus-mile journey began before finally ending in Australia. How Gething, a veterinary surgeon living in Hong Kong, survived this athletic ordeal and was motivated to pursue it is part of this far-from-ordinary sports story.
Here’s an excerpt from Relentless:
“The wait. The wait was difficult, more difficult than I had expected. We had to wait until the return flight was confirmed,as the Antarctic marathon had to begin as close to when the flight leaves Antarctica as possible. The moment that starting gun fires, the clock starts ticking. From then we had seven days, 168 hours, to reach the finish line under the Harbour Bridge in Sydney, Australia. No time zones, no tricks – 168 hours from start to finish; 168 hours to travel between seven continents, fly over 55,000 kilometers, run seven marathons totaling 295 kilometers, and do it all without any mistakes or errors.There was no room to maneuver.’
“The waiting was difficult. The uncertainty was worse. If I had known how long it would take, I could plan, adjust, count down the remaining minutes and hours. But it could be a day or, they tell me, it could be a week. It all depended on the weather being safe enough to allow that IL-76 to land again.”
12. ‘Snake: The Legendary Life of Ken Stabler,’ by Mike Freeman
Oakland sports fans love their Raiders, and perhaps no player in the team’s colorful history was more beloved than swashbuckling southpaw quarterback, Ken Stabler – or “Snake” as he came to be called after a long, winding run in high school. He loved to party and stretch the envelope in various ways off the field. Put him under center, though, and he was a wily, pinpoint passer and field general who led Oakland to a Super Bowl victory in 1977. In Mike Freeman’s look at this football legend, who died last year, he pens a biography that does justice to Stabler’s on- field leadership and skills and his honorable and sometimes less honorable behavior off it.
Here’s an excerpt from Snake:
“There was a reason why [University of Alabama coach Bear] Bryant came to tolerate some of the Snake’s antics. It’s as old as organized football itself: Snake was too good for Bryant to totally dismiss.
“Oh, Bryant would try, prompted by Snake’s behavior. But in the end, he couldn’t. The level of athleticism Snake possessed cannot be overstated. He physically didn’t look the part but in the pantheon of college athletes – from Bo Jackson to Herschel Walker to Tim Tebow – Snake was as good as any of them. He was faster than people thought and stronger than people knew, and the core of his athleticism was a mind that could think quickly under duress.
“As Bryant watched Snake practice and play at Alabama, this would become even clearer. Bryant knew what he had in Snake and Snake knew what he had in Bryant. Snake tried not to be Snake when playing for Bryant. He tried. He really tried.”