The last few years have been conflicting ones for football fans. While NFL devotees wrestle with their collective conscience regarding the impact of football on it’s participants’ long-term health, the sport has arguably never been more popular (or certainly more financially successful).
While not ignoring the troubling revelations coming out almost daily on the medical front, the rich history of football in the United States is still worthy of celebration.
It is in the spirit of this celebration that we now have the fantastic visually striking Football Nation: Four Hundred Years of America’s Game (Abrams Books 2013). The book was written by Library of Congress author Susan Reyburn, and it is this association that is Football Nation‘s greatest strength. So let’s talk about that.
As much as I love hunting and viewing great photographs on the internet — particularly at the Library of Congress — there is simply no substitute for looking at a beautiful image in the context of the printed page. And it is in this area that Football Nation is a true winner. Nearly every page of this book is decorated with classic photographs, illustrations, and news articles documenting the history of football in this country. Reyburn’s direct access to the LoC’s staggering collection is at the heart of the book, and it is what makes almost every page pop.
In fact, if all you wanted was an excellent book to own or give as a gift to someone who loves looking at football photos, this would already be an excellent choice. But this is sold as a history of the sport, so let’s talk about how it does on that front.
There is one aspect to the history presented here that I find a little troubling, and that’s Reyburn’s framing of the history of the sport as extending back to the Colonial era. While she does present multiple references to “football” in documentation from the 17th century, I doubt very much that it resembled what we know as football in any but the most rudimentary fashion.
I appreciate the attempt to provide a differing view on the accepted wisdom that American football really developed from rugby in the mid-19th century, but I think she reaches too far. Still, that portion of the narrative takes up a tiny portion of Football Nation and it does provide for some interesting stories, so it’s not a huge mark against the book.
By and large, Reyburn does as thorough and engaging a job as can reasonably be expected of documenting the sport’s rich history over the course of 256 pages. She gives good coverage to modern football’s roots, the pro and college games, as well as some of the most influential figures in the sport’s history — Walter Camp, Red Grange, Vince Lombardi, Pete Rozelle, and Joe Namath among them. It also covers the game’s major innovations and important milestones — such as the first-ever college football game in 1869 between Rutgers and Princeton, the Flying Wedge, the all-time great college rivalries, tailgating, and even the super-hot issue of Native American nicknames.
In short, Football Nation is a worthy entry in the field of football tomes, and is an excellent addition the library of both any devoted football fan or historian, as well as a great primer for fans looking to fill gaps in their knowledge. It’s on sale now and retails for $30. If you purchase from Amazon using this link, it will help support this site.