Striking Gridiron: A Town’s Pride and a Team’s Shot at Glory During the Biggest Strike in American History, by Greg Nichols
[Note: This book was provided free of charge by NetGallery in exchange for an honest review.]
Every once in a while I mention the fact that I was born in Western Pennsylvania near Pittsburgh . Among the more decisive elements of my birthplace, aside from a fondness for bridges, forested mountains, rivers, and the possession of an unusual accent that says “Stillers” and “Iggle” for “Steelers” and “Eagle” or “crick” for “creek” at times, is my loyalty to Pittsburgh sports teams. Among the more successful sports teams in Pittsburgh history is the record-breaking Braddock High School team of the late 1950’s that, in a time of labor unrest and political uncertainty, gave a town hope even as its workers faced the uncertainty of labor trouble in an area whose blue collar background closely mirrors my own modest personal background. So, as a person whose interests include both sports history as well as labor history, with a strong area of interest in Western Pennsylvania, this was a book with obvious personal appeal.
It is a skillfully written book, enriched greatly by the memories of the head coach of this historic team, who is shown as a good man but certainly a flawed man with a certain amount of colossal personal ambition as well as a genuine love for doing well by his students and encouraging them to success, a man who was not above taking advantage of the corruption of the Democratic political culture in the Pittsburgh area to do well by himself and his family. The author of the book manages to skillfully combine three separate stories together into one narrative with a high sense of drama, especially for those who have a strong interest in football as well as the Pittsburgh area. In a mostly chronological fashion, with some flashbacks, the author manages to use personal interviews as well as documentary evidence to weave the stories of a lengthy and damaging strike among Pittsburgh steelworkers with the personal story of a high school coach seeking to achieve his own career ambitions and be recognized among the elites of coaching while also talking about a massively successful team in high school sports history.
This particular book works on a variety of levels, in part by explaining the particular quirks of Western Pennsylvania and its history and culture to those who might not be familiar with the effect of superstition and isolation on so many people from this region of Upper Appalachia. Other parts of the excellence of this book come from the author’s in-depth research and his obvious passion for the story he is telling, which clearly lives in the vivid descriptions of the football players and coaches and their broken and dysfunctional families full of abusive and alcoholic blue collar fathers who mercilessly tease and cut their children down. Clearly a lot of vivid recollections went into the research for this book, some of which strikes very close to home. Additionally, the author has a great style that manages to capture the corruption and moral ambiguity of the time, of coaches who wanted to raise teens right and help counteract bad examples at home taking advantage of the politics of nepotism and connection to build up political capital while also being somewhat idealistic about race as well. This is a complicated book about complicated people at a complicated time, but it is a compelling and worthwhile read for those with an interest in its subject matter.
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