Favorite Non-Fiction Books, #22: A Civil War, Army vs Navy
I got to know sportswriter John Feinstein a little bit a few years back when his daughter attended the private school where I worked in Maryland (thanks to an intro from the great Andrew Ship). And by got to know, I mean in the "hey" with a brisk man-nod sense. His most famous work has probably come from the worlds of tennis and golf (including his most celebrated book, "A Good Walk Spoiled"), but his interests and scribblings have been broader than that. I've read a lot of his stuff (excepting the Ray Lewis drivel), but my favorite is far and away his 1996 book about "college football's purest rivalry" - a volume detailing a year inside the Army-Navy game.
Feinstein delves into the cultures of West Point and Annapolis, exploring what draws young athletes to service academies. It's the sort of mix you might expect: guys who would have a hard time starting at other D-I schools, guys who wouldn't get scholarships other places, and guys with a legitimate desire to serve our country who could also play some ball.
It's a fast-paced, gripping read. The games are fun to read about, especially the climax at the 1995 Army-Navy tilt. It's a window into a different time, and into places most of us will never venture. My favorite part was the camaraderie between the rivals when the game was done. These are men who battled tooth and nail against each other but came out on the same side.
Feinstein's prose is at his best as it unearths the complicated psyches and very real sacrifices made by these young men. They're not headed to the NFL (with very few exceptions). They're headed to bases and battleships and deployments. Some of the players Feinstein met and profiled would wind up in Iraq in 2002. Some didn't come back. War language has long been used to describe the game of football - the trenches, the long bomb, the line of scrimmage - but these are guys who know the difference.