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The Penguin Press



Why Football Matters: My Education in the Game

Edited by Scott Moyers

Acclaimed essayist Mark Edmundson uses his own rite of passage as a high school football player to showcase larger truths about the ways America’s game shapes its men. 

Football teaches young men self-discipline and teamwork. Football celebrates inflicting violence. Football is a showcase for athletic beauty and physical excellence. Football damages young bodies and minds, sometimes permanently. Football instills confidence and direction. Football instills cockiness, an inflated sense of superiority. The athlete is a noble figure with a proud lineage. The jock is America at its worst.

When Mark Edmundson’s son began to play organized football, and proved to be very good at it, Edmundson had to come to terms with just what he thought about the game. Doing so took him back to his own childhood, when as a pudgy, shy, and bookish boy growing up in a blue-collar Boston suburb in the sixties, he went out for the high school football team and found his life changed. Why Football Matters is the story of what happened on that team, and what else it changed, not least his relationship with his own father, who for the first time began to hope that his son could learn how to be tough enough.

What does it mean to be tough? Again and again, Edmundson’s education in the game forced him to come at the question from different perspectives. Can toughness be learned? At first he didn’t feel tough at all, and he was a hapless football player, and thus a miserable teammate. But over time, he got over his fear and got tougher. He learned to be a better player and came to feel a part of the team, during games but also along for all sorts of escapades, some unsavory and even illegal. There is no “I” in team, famously, but is that always a good thing? Is being tough and being sensitive a contradiction in terms?

Why Football Matters is moving, funny, vivid, and filled with the authentic anxiety and exhilaration of youth. Edmundson doesn’t regret playing football for a minute, and cherishes the experience. His triumph is to be able to see it in full, as something to celebrate, but also something to handle with care. For anyone who has ever played on a football team, is the parent of a player, or simply is reflective about its outsized influence on America, Why Football Matters is both a mirror and a lamp.





“One of Edmundson’s greatest strengths as a writer and thinker has always been his ability to present knotty arguments and erudite material in an accessible, appealing, and relevant way. In “Why Football Matters,’’ he is similarly deft in linking literature to life, books to boys. From Jung to Emerson, from Shelley to Wordsworth, canonical authors are sprinkled seamlessly throughout and always to good effect. An extended discussion of two Homeric heroes, Achilles and Hector, works brilliantly as a way of opening up questions about courage, character, and what it means to win and lose.” The Boston Globe

“Terrific. . . .Edmundson’s Why Football Matters: My Education in the Game is an elegiac account of his youthful rescue and redemption on the high school gridirons of suburban Boston in the 1960s.” Los Angeles Times

“[Edmundson] presents a richly textured look at football as a vital part of American culture. [Why Football Matters] shows the deep connection between football and the core values of Western culture, something that isn’t often stressed in as-told-to football books. Frankly, I can’t think of a better way to while away the time between games this season than reading it.” The Washington Post

“The writing is uniformly strong throughout the book, as Edmundson vividly renders his memories of high school teammates or specific plays. He conveys warm feelings for the lessons he learned from football, particularly how to lose and get back up. And he gives moving examples of how the lessons he learned affected more important parts of life, such as helping him cope with his younger sister’s death.” Chicago Tribune

“Eloquent…[Edmundson] brings the worlds of literature and pop culture to his playing field, citing everyone from George Carlin to Sigmund Freud, Herman Melville to Ralph Ellison.” Cleveland Plain Dealer

“A from-the-heart memoir….a movingly told account of how the game taught him lessons that he used to direct his life.” St. Louis Post-Dispatch

“In his erudite but approachable new book….[Edmundson] writes with wisdom and understatement…. [He] captures the deep vein of ambivalence that so many fans have started to feel when they think hard about the game.” –Daily Beast

“A wide-ranging and insightful meditation on what football means in American culture. Beautifully written and impressively thought out, this smart memoir should appeal to a wide audience.” Library Journal (starred)

“Why football matters should be self-evident to a nation that’s lost its mind over the game these past few decades, but Edmundson…gives an uncommonly thoughtful take on the issue….A remarkable memoir that can only elevate its readers’ response to the game.” Booklist (starred)

“Unafraid to challenge common assumptions about what football does and does not teach us, Edmundson’s book is uncommonly probing and insightful and should have wide-ranging appeal.” Publishers Weekly

“Mark Edmundson’s first spell-binding memoir Teacher told how one inspiring high school philosophy class in the blue-collar suburb of Medford, Massachusetts, lured him into a life of the mind. Why Football Matters takes us back to Medford High and to harder, darker lessons learned on the turf of Hormel Field. I grew up in Pasadena, California, spent high school Friday nights cheering at home games in the Rose Bowl; few American lives are untouched by this supremely emblematic game that Edmundson examines with equal measures of sympathy and skepticism in a book sure to become its own American classic.” —Megan Marshall, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Margaret Fuller: A New American Life

“Mark Edmundson’s book is a great gift for those of us who love football but can’t easily explain or justify our passion, as well as a superbly entertaining read.” —Michael Sokolove, author of Drama High

“An essential (I’m tempted to say ‘indispensable’) guide to the guts and the glory—and, yes, the grief—of maleness in America. Edmundson has written one of those rare memoirs that dares to make the personal political, that paints the picture even as it questions it. Perceptive, passionate, intolerant of platitudes (whatever their political stripe), Why Football Matters asks what makes boys, and the men they sometimes grow into, tick. What drives us, frustrates and frightens us. What’s admirable about us, what ain’t—and why. You don’t have to know football, much less have played it—hell, even like it—to appreciate Why Football Matters; you only need to be a man, or to know one. Which covers pretty much everybody.” —Mark Slouka

“I’ve long admired Mark Edmundson’s work and I especially admire his new book: its understated balance, lucid prose, elegant logic, and above all for his complicity—his insistence upon acknowledging that he himself is part of the problem. (As are you, dear reader, as are you.)” —David Shields

“Finally. Somebody with the required head, heart and soul skill set delivers us the game, our game, from within and without. Somebody takes us inside the helmet of a teenage boy who has offered himself to our rite of passage and makes us see-smell-hear-taste-touch it . . . while simultaneously floating above it, a psycho-spiritual scorekeeper tallying up everything that’s gained and lost in the magnificent transaction. Finally. Somebody uses Nietzsche to render Nitschke. Somebody: Mark Edmundson. Thank you!” —Gary Smith

Author Q&A


At the first installment of Medford Mustang two-a-day sessions I looked around me in the locker room and saw what must have been a hundred other guys all in white practice outfits. I was among a strange new tribe, but I surely didn’t feel part of it. I was disoriented and anxious, and I hated being inside my pads. I could hardly move.

At first, when I told my friends that I was going out for the team they were incredulous. They thought I was lying when I said that I’d be going to the stadium soon to pick up pads, and then begin two-a-day practices. But then they saw I was serious and they could hardly contain themselves. It was absurd that someone with my deficits should step on the field with the high school idols.

I was a junior in high school then, a buttery, oversensitive boy, credulous and shy. I’d never been much of an athlete. I wasn’t usually last picked in the schoolyard now, but sometimes close. I surely wasn’t the sort of kid the gym teacher spots and commands to go out for the football team. I was probably a touch depressed too, though that wasn’t a term we used in Medford, Massachusetts, in 1968. A couple of my friends actually laughed in my face when I told them about my plan. I’d taken a few steps toward going out for the lowly sophomore team the year before, then gotten sick: colds, asthma, infections. To my friends (so called), that was even more reason to doubt me.

What was I doing going out for football? Why was I trying to join the team that the year before had gone undefeated and won the Greater Boston League title? I’d always been drawn to the game and happy to play at the park. Slow as I was, I loved running with the ball. Heavy as I was, I wasn’t always easy to tackle. But this wasn’t going to be a slapdash affair with my buddies. Now I was placing myself under the iron law of the coaches. I’d be blocking and tackling in ways that scared me to think about.

But there were no doubt deeper reasons for my being in that locker room with all those guys tricked out in white on that first day. Somewhere in me there had to be the memories of Sunday afternoons watching football with my father. Somewhere there must have been the image of Jim Brown, the perfect football player and perfect man. But more important were surely memories of Y. A. Tittle, the guy who had built himself up a brick at a time. I needed some building up then—I needed it badly.

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