A memoir of life as a disappointed fan becomes a meditation on “isolation and the things we do to overcome our loneliness… emptiness, and not knowing how to fill it.”
Editor’s Note: The Rumpus is publishing this review despite my better judgment. As Books Editor, it made little sense to me to cover a book about the Philadelphia Eagles, a team of notorious degenerates who’ve never really won anything—unlike, say, the glorious New York Giants, who wear three Super Bowl rings, and who romped over Carolina in the season opener, while the sad little Parakeets lost to Green Bay. Still, the book sounded interesting enough, and Justin St. Germain is a well-meaning guy and a decent enough writer, despite his truly pathetic sports allegiances. In the end, we figured we’d throw the poor guy a bone. —afa
With the NFL season kicking off, now is a good time to ask why there aren’t more books about football. Literary types, who tend not to be football fans, might be more inclined to ask whether there should be. The answer is, indisputably, “Yes.” If writers pride themselves on their ability to shed light upon our contemporary condition, why aren’t more people writing about one of the dominant cultural institutions in America?
Consider the following: In the last forty-odd years, the NFL has grown from a niche interest to become the country’s most popular sport by a wide margin, and one of the premiere entertainment brands in the country, appealing to people across a broad spectrum of demographics—socioeconomic, political, geographic, racial. Last year’s Super Bowl was the most-watched event in American television history, perhaps because the occasion has become a semi-official national holiday, the most popular day of the year for many quintessential American activities: watching TV, eating, drinking, gambling, and, according to persistent myth, committing acts of domestic violence. (And that’s just professional football—the college game is its own juggernaut, particularly in the South and Midwest.) Some of America’s most prominent issues are writ large in pro football: racism, classism, misogyny, and homophobia; tribalism, violence, and partisan rhetoric; post-industrial urban decay and corporate greed. As a part of our culture—as what sometimes seems like the culmination of our culture—football cannot be ignored.
But it often has been by the American literati. Baseball has lured the likes of Robert Coover, W.P. Kinsella, Don DeLillo, Bernard Malamud, and many, many others. So have more genteel sports such as tennis (David Foster Wallace), basketball (Sherman Alexie, John Updike, Pat Conroy), running (Haruki Murakami) and golf (Richard Ford, repeatedly). In a recent piece for The Guardian, Benjamin Markovits blames football’s violence for its lack of literary attention. But it’s hard to believe that the same people who love Cormac McCarthy would flinch at the notion of well-paid men in helmets colliding. And if violence is the issue, why does boxing boast what might be the greatest bibliography of all? Hemingway, Leibling, Mailer… even Joyce Carol Oates has written about the sweet science.
But try naming the best book about football. Few come to mind. Buzz Bissinger’s Friday Night Lights. Don DeLillo’s End Zone. Fredrick Exley’s A Fan’s Notes. George Plimpton’s Paper Tiger. Investigating this paucity could make for its own book, likely involving the exploration of sticky issues of class, race, and literary elitism. Bury Me In My Jersey is not that book. This memoir tackles the phenomenon of football obsession from the inside, through the experiences of one member of an infamously rabid fan base. Meet Tom McAllister, Philadelphia Eagles fan.
The book opens at the nadir of McAllister’s fandom, as he and his friends sit in a basement in North Philly, dressed in Eagles green, drunk, watching Super Bowl XXXIX slip away. That crushing loss evokes memories of others: the Eagles’ last three season-ending defeats, as well as one much greater loss: McAllister’s father’s death from cancer.
Bury Me In My Jersey is, most of all, a memoir of relationships. McAllister wisely chooses to focus on the three overlapping bonds that define his identity: with his father, his hometown, and his favorite football team. He loves his father and his father dies. He loves Philadelphia but has to leave, and soon finds that he doesn’t know how to live anywhere else. And he loves the Eagles, but the Eagles never fail to disappoint him. They win some games, including division championships, but not the big one.
McAllister’s depiction of his fan experience is frank and honest; he certainly doesn’t spare the self-incriminating details. At various points, he confesses to his compulsive participation on an Eagles internet message board, stalks a player in a supermarket, participates in a near-riot for playoff tickets, and heckles Kansas City Chiefs fans about Derrick Thomas, a Hall of Fame linebacker who died from injuries suffered in a car accident. Perhaps most poignant are the scenes that reveal how his obsession with the Eagles affects his real-world relationships: the first time he watches a game with his eventual wife, he breaks a toe kicking a piece of furniture; the last time he sees his father, as the latter lies dying in a hospital bed, they talk about an Eagles draft pick. (Jerome McDougle, a complete bust.)
Many fans will see themselves in McAllister, and perhaps cringe along with him as his more misanthropic moments recall their own. He cuts a tragic American figure: the meathead football fan, a blustering caricature of masculinity—and no fan base works harder to embody that stereotype than Philadelphia’s. The famous story about Philly fans booing Santa is apocryphal, but Eagles fans have cheered a career-ending neck injury, fired a flare gun in the stands, and been arrested so many times that a courtroom and a jail were constructed in the old stadium. (Full and incriminating disclosure: I’m also a lifelong Eagles fan.)
McAllister is acutely aware of that legacy, and of his role in it. His internal conflict over how to justify caring so much about football provides much of the book’s emotional weight. Near the end, he attempts to describe the hollow feeling of being one of those fans:
This is not a story about the redemptive power of sport, or the transcendence of connecting with my heroes. It is not a story about how football saved my life… this is about isolation and the things we do to overcome our loneliness. This is about emptiness, and not knowing how to fill it.
But this is a book about football like Rocky is a movie about boxing: Football functions mostly as an organizational and thematic lens through which McAllister examines larger and more universal issues: obsession, identity, loss, redemption, love, violence, place—both literal and figurative—and what it means to be an American and a man and a son and a husband. Wrapped up in all of that is the more specific question of what it means to be a fan.
And whether you love, hate, or ignore the sport of football, that’s a question worth asking in a country as football-obsessed as ours. As an educated, reasonable, and remarkably self-aware narrator, McAllister makes an excellent guide through a world of football fandom that could otherwise be opaque to outsiders. He knows the game, and he certainly knows the Eagles, but he approaches these topics with a refreshingly accessible voice that will engage and interest readers who aren’t fans. McAllister avoids the neat epiphanies and predictable bromides of sportswriters, choosing instead to investigate the dark side of sports obsession. Take, for example, one of McAllister’s many trenchant observations about his favorite sport and his native city: Philadelphia spent $200 million on a new football stadium for the Eagles in the same year that more than 25% of its high school seniors failed to graduate. (Indeed, the stadium as taxpayer-funded boondoggle is one of the most disturbing aspects of modern American sports.)
Which is not to say Bury Me in My Jersey doesn’t suffer some missteps. At times the sections about McAllister’s youth seem rote, and the war stories from his MFA workshop probably won’t interest many readers. Occasionally he’s a bit too eager to explain his and other characters’ motivations, rather than letting the reader interpret them. But these are relatively minor concerns. McAllister is at his best when he focuses on the subjects in his subtitle: his father, his hometown, and, yes, football. Whether or not readers care about those subjects at the beginning, they likely will after following McAllister’s struggle to find an appropriate place for all of them in his life—as he tries to honor his father’s memory without wallowing in grief, to reconcile his love of Philadelphia with its troubled legacies, and to be a fan who transcends the stereotypes.