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Original Issue

Reading the Play

An ex-college star's soul-baring memoir sets the standard for this season's football lit

by John Ed Bradley
ESPN Books, $24.95

John Ed Bradley was the rarest of college students, one who knew precisely what he wanted from adulthood. In the spring of 1980 he was slogging through the final semester of his senior year at LSU, looking to fill the emotional void he felt as an ex--football player while straining to distance himself from the game. When a Tigers coach offered him a position as a graduate assistant with the team, Bradley, despite having no job or prospects, turned him down. It was, he said, his "destiny" to be a writer. "I never doubted that playing football here was a privilege," Bradley, who had been an all-SEC center and a Tigers captain, told the coach. "But I also know that if I don't break from it now, I'll never break from it."

Bradley recounts the scene in It Never Rains in Tiger Stadium, a bracingly candid memoir about the joys and drawbacks of defining oneself as an ex-athlete. Bradley fulfilled his writerly destiny, going on to become a Washington Post sportswriter, a novelist and frequent contributor to SI. (It Never Rains is based on The Best Years of His Life, an essay he wrote for the magazine in 2002.) But despite his best efforts—avoiding former teammates, leaving the room when the Tigers were on TV, refusing to let strangers in on the secret of his athletic past--the former LSU star never fully made the break from football. Having resolved not to become an ex-jock who can't let go of the glory days, Bradley discovered, as he moved toward middle age, that his fondest memories were also his most haunting. "There are things we never get over," he writes. "And for me football is one of them."

Bradley, the son of a high school coach, isn't the first athlete to be unnerved by the thought that life off the field isn't as simple as it is on it. But his honesty and unadorned, bittersweet style make It Never Rains a compelling rumination on the allure of football, for those who watch and those who play, and on the bonds of family, whether they're forged by birth or in the heat of August two-a-days. "All I ever wanted was to leave a pretty piece of writing behind," is how Bradley sums up his youthful dreams. He has.

by Tom Callahan
Crown, $25.95

Fantasy owners convinced their skills would transfer to the NFL will find a dose of reality in The GM, Tom Callahan's behind-the-curtain look at Giants general manager Ernie Accorsi during the 2006 season. Callahan, the author of the 2006 best seller Johnny U, deftly documents the all-consuming nature of the job and the strain it can place on relationships. (After delivering a lucky rock from Ireland's County Kerry to coach Tom Coughlin, Accorsi says he hopes "one of us doesn't kill the other with it.") But the joy of the book is its peek into Accorsi's storehouse of anecdotes from his three decades in the NFL. As Accorsi relates the events of '06 to the past--at one point, a salary-cap discussion turns into a breakdown of how he built the Browns in the 1980s--Callahan's book becomes a celebration of one man's rich history.

by Jerome Bettis and Gene Wojciechowski
Doubleday, $23.95

by Tedy Bruschi with Michael Holley
Wiley, $24.95

As-told-to autobiographies are usually about image burnishing, but two new ones gain points for their honest portraits of NFL life. In The Bus, retired Steelers running back Jerome Bettis recalls faking a knee injury in 2000 to keep from being cut. The story is a stark reminder that NFL survival means navigating ethical gray areas. Never Give Up is Patriots linebacker Tedy Bruschi's account of the stroke he suffered in '05. Bruschi's recreation of his illness is compelling, as is his rationalization of why he came back and his response to those who said he shouldn't.

by Lars Anderson
Random House, $24.95

Asked once what he thought about Dwight Eisenhower as a football player, Jim Thorpe said, "Good linebacker." He was in position to know. In 1912, two decades after the U.S. military's massacre of 153 Sioux at Wounded Knee, Thorpe's Carlisle Indian School faced Ike's Army team in a game fraught with symbolism. SI senior writer Lars Anderson brings the moment to life in the richly detailed and gracefully written Carlisle vs. Army: Jim Thorpe, Dwight Eisenhower, Pop Warner, and the Forgotten Story of Football's Greatest Battle. The book chronicles the matchup of two early football powerhouses--Carlisle was coached by the innovative and ambitious Warner--and the significance the game held far from the gridiron. In an often overlooked football era, Anderson found a true Game of the Century.



PAST IMPERFECT Bradley is comforted and chagrined by his LSU memories.