- - Thursday, January 30, 2014

By Allen St. John and Ainissa G. Ramirez
Ballantine Books, $26, 272 pages

Like many other people, one of my great passions is watching pro football. I live and die by the Dallas Cowboys (in keeping with the team’s decline during this past season) and can watch two or more NFL games on the weekends. I also thoroughly enjoy U.S. college football and the march toward crowning a national champion.

The Super Bowl will be played on Sunday. With the NFL kickoff game more than six months away, I’m going to have to patiently wait before replenishing my regular football fix. Luckily, there are ways to keep the football fires burning during our regular battles with Old Man Winter.

Have you ever considered the relationship between football and science, for instance? Most people wouldn’t necessarily associate this great game with intellectual study. While there is obviously great skill and strategy involved in football, the casual observer would likely be unable to see the football through the goal posts, to paraphrase an old saying.

Allen St. John, an award-winning journalist and author, and Ainissa Ramirez, an author and former engineering professor at Yale University, have just changed that perception. After the success of outside-the-box sports books such as Michael Lewis’ “Moneyball” and Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski’s “Soccernomics,” they have introduced “Newton’s Football: The Science Behind America’s Game” to the world. The two authors noted it “would be a book not about football or about science but about ideas. Ideas coming from the most unexpected sources, converging in the most delightful ways.” Many readers will be astonished by what they learn, what they discover and what they didn’t know about the sport that consumes their Sunday afternoons.

Mr. St. John and Ms. Ramirez start from football’s inception, noting “the very first footballs are made from inflated pig bladders.” These “pig-sourced footballs fell out of fashion quickly, replaced by balls stitched from leather and rubber,” but not “before lending a cowhide football its evocative, if incorrect, nickname: pigskin.” The early footballs, much like soccer balls, were distinctively round in their shape. As time went by, the more common “prolate spheroid” shape took form, making it “easier to throw” and it “also cheats the wind.”

The early days of football went through a series of rule changes. Walter Camp, a Yale halfback who “could be called football’s Abner Doubleday,” was an important architect who modified the game to make it less like rugby. Among his innovations was “reducing the size of the teams from fifteen to eleven,” creating “a line of scrimmage,” and devising “a system of ‘downs’ similar to modern football.” His new rules led to the creation of the now-banned “Flying Wedge,” in which the ball carrier was pushed ahead by his teammates using a giant V formation. Most importantly, Camp’s efforts “injected another crucial aspect into football: science.”

It should be noted then-President Teddy Roosevelt played an important historical role, too. Realizing his beloved sport “was no longer a rough-and-ready diversion,” according to the authors, but a “brutal and potentially deadly spectacle that made even rabid fans look away,” he quickly took action. On Oct. 9, 1905, Roosevelt said football was “on trial … I want to do all I can to save it,” and called together representatives from Yale, Harvard and Princeton to “stem the game’s injury epidemic.” The result was the Intercollegiate Athletic Association, “a precursor to today’s NCAA,” which “marked a decisive step in the right direction,” although it was “hardly an immediate panacea.”

Many football players and important moments are also discussed in “Newton’s Football.” Vince Lombardi, one of the greatest coaches in NFL history, is called a “geek” and “man of science” who “came to realize that there was a right, even a perfect, way to play football.” Greg Cook, who had a short career with the Cincinnati Bengals, was the early prototype for coach Bill Walsh’s game-changing strategy of “deep, vertical routes that would stretch the defense the length of the field.” Ed Keenan was “pro football’s first 300-pound player” in 1926, and a “trendsetter” for other “behemoths on the gridiron.” The incredible Jerry Rice, who “might just be the greatest football player of all time,” understood that “the catch wasn’t the end of the play, it was the beginning.”

Mr. St. John and Ms. Ramirez’s thought-provoking book will surely intrigue football fans, and give non-fans much to think about. You could say that the authors have created the Holy Grail of football for the learned. Or a perspicacious parable about the pigskin, if you will.

Michael Taube is a contributor to The Washington Times.

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