George Plimpton was the first, in the sports world, to employ "participatory journalism" in order to produce a story, or in this case a book. Over the years, Plimpton put himself in several different positions for the sake of his readers... hockey goalie... prizefighter... pitcher... he even tagged along on the PGA Tour. However, none of those really hit home on a large scale quite like PAPER LION, the story of Plimpton's trials and errors in training camp with the Detroit Lions prior to the 1963 season. It even led to a movie starring Alan Alda by the same name.
When PAPER LION was published in the mid-1960's, it was a wonderful behind-the-scenes look at professional football. Before the days of constant national television coverage, Monday Night Football, hour after hour of pregame shows, or the NFL Network, this book was truly the first look at what goes on before a season for the players that you'll be cheering for when fall rolls around. Plimpton's premise was that he was coming in as an unheralded rookie just trying to find a position to play, but it wasn't long until his secret was out.
The beauty of this book is that Plimpton was anything but an athlete. He came into this setting having never played a down of organized football in his life. That being said, the strides he made in a four week period were astonishing. Granted he wasn't going to make the team as a 36-year old rookie, but he certainly made progress leading up to his time in the intrasquad scrimmage. More important than the actual time on the practice field is the look he provided into the inner workings of the Detroit Lions program; the life in training camp after the day's practice had ended and everyone was back in their rooms or out on the town. As passionate as fans can be, some of them tend to forget that their gladiators of the gridiron have lives outside of the playing field. Reading about the lives of the Lions players, from the well known names of Alex Karras and Night Train Lane to the relative unknown players like Lucien Reeberg, adds a dimension to the league that went uncharted until this was published.
What makes this work so great is the fact that it is truly timeless, despite the fact that is was written 41 years ago, 4 years before the first Super Bowl! When it was first unleashed in the mid-1960's, PAPER LION was a great behind the scenes look at an NFL team in training camp. Now, a reader is treated to an amazing commentary showing the progression of professional football from then to now. Gone is the innocence and the flat out passion of those years, replaced by steroids and money hungry athletes. Are there players now who remind the reader of the players from that era? Look at Brett Favre. But that's become rare. If PAPER LION was being written today, Plimpton may have had an entirely new perspective. He may have been granted a roster spot because five different players were holding out for "contract reasons". He may have spent his time writing about unnamed players using illegal performance enhancers or engaging in other illegal activities, not writing about the team going out to a club for some dancing after practice or initiating the rookies with Fright Masks. My how times have changed. The offensive and defensive schemes have changed, and the overall attitude of the players has done a 180. Yet, football is more popular than ever.
It doesn't matter if you're a football fan that remembers that era of the game, or if you're a young fan taking a look back, PAPER LION is an enjoyable read for football fans and non-football fans alike.
Just don't try to imagine George Plimpton doing an endzone celebration dance. It just doesn't make sense!