Sports Illustrated Football’s Greatest, by its own admission, is an educated barroom discussion of what makes up the best. The best quarterbacks, the best running backs, the best coaches, the best linemen, the best games, the best plays, and for the completists; best uniforms, best stadiums and best football movies. Discussions we’ve all had with our family and friends endless times, not because we really want to come to any sort of real conclusion about who is the best, but because it’s fun to debate the merits of our favorite players and teams. Discussing talent, skill and the plays that made us shout is what makes us fans.
Gathering together a lofty panel of talent, SI’s Don Banks, Mark Godich, Damon Hack, Tim Layden, Mark Mravic, Jim Trottier, and of course, Peter King, Football’s Greatest looks to elevate the barroom discussion by voting, ranking and defending who and what they perceive to be the best. The results are not that surprising — okay, I have to admit that even as a Steeler fan I was shocked to see Hines Ward at number ten on the Best Wide Receiver list — allowing everyone to take a nice stroll down memory lane and gaze upon football in the warm light of nostalgia, even while discussing players who are still in the league today.
Ultimately the all the nonsense about best and ranking really doesn’t matter, Football’s Greatest is an excuse to comb through the vast SI archives and pull quotes from the likes of Frank Deford, Paul Zimmerman and Dan Jenkins and frame them around Sports Ilustrated’s legendarily beautiful photography. It’s a reason to revisit old magazine pieces from the past few decades and see them in a historical context. While we do give certain SI writers a hard time around here on a regular basis, Football’s Greatest is a nice change of pace to see some of their previous work pared down and focused, because underneath all of those nuggets of information there lies an older body of work that is still impressive.
Flipping and reading through Football’s Greatest isn’t always smooth going. It’s jarring to come to OJ Simpson and being told his placement and ranking is only judged by his body of the work on the field and not by his actions later in life, which is nearly as upsetting as coming to the section on Mike Webster and its pull quote from Damon Hack describing how Webster was always seemingly covered in blood, which in the context of how Iron Mike died at age fifty just a decade ago — broken, in pain and shocking himself unconscious with a Taser gun just to get some sleep, is rather disturbing. The appearance of Terrell Owens on the Best Wide Receivers list gives the editors a chance to pull out one of the meaner player take downs to appear in SI in recent years, Have ‘tude, Will Travel, in which an imaginary conversation takes place between Owens and Allen Iverson about their own greatness. Its inclusion in a pretty much otherwise complimentary book seems unneeded, especially since kicking around TO is hardly sport these days.
As for the fun fluff at the back, the Best Football movies is saved because they centered their list on the NFL (something it took me ten seconds to realize after getting over my white hot rage over not seeing WILDCATS on the list), although including the abysmal LEATHERHEADS and while omitting SEMI-TOUGH is a shame. And a personal quibble on the Best Franchise list, it would have been nice to have a picture of anything else than a row of cheerleader asses for the Cowboys. One doesn’t expect to have a book like this to include women in any meaningful way which is fine, this is football after all, but being the one place they are featured to be a tight end shot seems rather sad. A few pages of Best Fans or Best Cheerleading Squads and the Cowboys image probably wouldn’t have even pinged on my radar.
This is a huge coffee table sized book that I imagine will be gifted many times this holiday season and passed around while dinner is being readied, thumbed through as a shield against listening to a crazy relative’s political rantings and shown to young nieces and nephews who have no memory of Mike Singletary’s playing days. Football’s Greatest is a gorgeous picture book meant for sharing and debating during breaks between the games with your friends — it has been nice to hand this book of between plays the past couple of weeks instead of the usual iPad or phones playing gifs — and visiting the even older friends you’ve spent your Sundays with since becoming a football fan.
Sports Illustrated: Football’s Greatest is available now from Sports Illustrated. Review copy provided by Sports Illustrated.