The teams in next month’s Super Bowl, the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Green Bay Packers, are two of the most storied teams in the National Football League. So it’s not surprising that two of the greatest books about pro football were written about those teams.
“About Three Bricks Shy Of A Load” by Roy Blount Jr. chronicles the Steelers’ season in 1973. Blount, a Sports Illustrated writer at the time, spent the entire year with the team, from training camp to the playoffs. As I mentioned last summer, it’s one of my favorite books, and I read parts of it before every football season. Blount is funny and smart, and has much to say about 1970s America in general, viewed through the lens of pro football. But it’s a football book through and through.
Blount’s book, though, might not have gotten the green light if not for the success of “Instant Replay,” a diary of the Green Bay Packers’ 1967 season. All-pro lineman Jerry Kramer spent the year making observations into a tape recorder and sending the tapes to sportswriter Dick Schaap, who compiled and edited them. The Packers won the second-ever Super Bowl that year, and Kramer played a key role. His biggest moment came when he threw a key block on a last-minute touchdown in the next-to-last game of the year, known as the “Ice Bowl” because of the subzero temperatures in Green Bay.
In a foreword to the 2006 edition of “Instant Replay,” Pulitzer Prize-winning critic Jonathan Yardley said the book remains “the best inside account of pro football … no book matches the immediacy of Kramer’s or its intimate knowledge of the game and the punishment men undergo to play it.”
Once the Steelers and Packers made their way to this year’s Super Bowl, I went back to both books to see what, if anything, each team said about the other back then.
There’s not much about the Steelers in “Instant Replay.” Although Green Bay played Pittsburgh twice in 1967, once was an exhibition game, and once was the final game of the year with nothing on the line for either team. Kramer doesn’t have much to say about the Steelers, although he notes that they played hard. But one Steeler earns his enmity:
I kept looking for No. 50, Bill Saul, the linebacker who’d grabbed me and thrown me to the ground — after the play was over — during our preseason game. I was really looking to blast him. But I got only one shot at him and it wasn’t a very good one …
I still drove him back about five yards. He looked at me kind of oddly. I don’t think he remembered what he’d done to me in the exhibition. He didn’t have a tooth in his mouth; he was gummy and evil-looking.
Gummy and evil-looking. OK then.
In “About Three Bricks Shy,” Blount had somewhat more to say about Green Bay. The Steelers played a preseason game there, and Blount (a down-home Southern boy) was taken with the small-town charm of the place and the degree to which the city identified with its football team.
In an attempt to find a corner of town with no signs about the Packers, no copies of the Packer newspaper and no Packer postcards, I went up a flight of stairs into a suitably musty used-book store and found there, amidst volumes of Schopenhauer, Halliburton, Jerome K. Jerome and Herbert Read, the proprietor eating his lunch off a napkin that said “Go Pack.”
As “The Star Spangled Banner” was being played before the game by the Crown Point High School Marching Band … [Pittsburgh Press sportswriter Phil Musick] said to me, “We are in the heart of America,” and we were glared at for talking. I think it would be a shame if the NFL were ever to stop playing games in Green Bay.