Published on March 8, 2014 12:22 PM by dbo.
A review of two CFL titles released last year, Bouncing Back and End Zones & Border Wars, one a must have for any fan, the other a resource for die-hard CFL history buffs.
Some authors are able to capture the essence of a era that take you back to a time period, enforcing what you remember with behind the scenes details. Paul Woods is one of those authors and his 2013 book Bouncing Back: From National Joke to Grey Cup Champs is a shining example. Woods does a masterful job of tracking the Toronto Argonauts 1983 Grey Cup Champion team from their assembly in the early 1980’s as a terrible football team through the joys of the 1982 and 1983 seasons.
The story is told captivatingly through player interviews and stories intertwined with the history of what was going on and reported during those times. The sense of family and camaraderie felt by the players in their stories, especially of off-field activities and personality reflections, is expressed throughout the book. Conflicts and memory discrepancies are not ignored or sugar coated, providing insight into giants of Canadian Football that have rarely been seen before.
Woods’ writing style is easy and effective. I burned through the chapters, savouring the memories and wanting more. He puts you in the locker room in the early 1980’s, soaking up the atmosphere of the coaches and players, great men from a long gone era in sports. Reliving those moments with the players, the best days of their lives, their fondness for their time with their teammates and coaches is impressed on you. I have a much better understanding of Condredge Holloway from this book, but also insight into Paul Pearson, Jan Carinci, Terry Greer, Joe Barnes, Bob O’Billovich and many others and their part in the team dynamic.
All Grey Cup champions (and even some that fell short, like Craig Wallace’s A Slip in the Rain 1971 Toronto Argonauts team) deserve a record of their experience. This book was a long time coming. I look forward to more CFL stories from Paul Woods.
End Zones & Border Wars: The Era of American Expansion in the CFL by Ed Willes doesn’t know what it wants to be. Supposedly a history of the CFL during the period of American expansion (1993-1995), it covers that period, the brief lead-up, the behind the scenes decisions at the league office and club level that led to the push into the US and the aftermath, but tries to be a flag-waving history of the 1994 Grey Cup and apologetically reviews the 1995 season and Baltimore Grey Cup victory. Is it a history of this period, with facts and revelations not publicly known to now? Is it a celebration of the Canadian game and the 1994 BC Lions, defenders of Canada’s football game? Is it a retrospective on the errors of the expansion and an examination of why it should have been known to fail? It is none of those things, though it tries to be all.
While the history of the period is covered, the focus is on the characters. Information is presented from media reports and interviews from the period as well as new interviews with the individuals involved recollecting on those times. No new information and facts from records are presented. Individuals are relied on to explain what happened, and it appears while they speak the truth, their statements, while not exaggerated, lack a certain exactness with secondary confirmation that I expect. It may be described as an oral history, but it delves into areas that require more investigation.
Two chapters, perhaps the best, focus on the 1994 BC Lions and their Grey Cup championship. Those chapters, containing many interesting characters on the Lions team and their against all odds run to an eventual Grey Cup victory at home perhaps should have been a book by itself, much like Bouncing Back. That story, fleshed out with expanded tales and anecdotes from even more staff and players associated with the team could be an interesting read not only to CFL fans, but sports fans in general who love inside stories of the behind the scenes goings on and oddballs of the sports world.
The Baltimore Stallions years are covered in two chapters as well, along with their move to Montreal in the final chapter among other things. I can only describe the coverage of the setup of the franchise and their first two seasons culminating with a Grey Cup victory as brief. The Baltimore Stallions Oral History covers the team with much more detail.
The book starts as a “we told you so” review of all the CFL‘s errors during this period, filled with snark. Each decision, failure, oddball and kook is given the “how could they be so stupid” routine which may suit some, but turned off this reader. The snark dies down somewhat later in the book, and is minimal in the last chapter that covers the period from 1996 to present, but overall cheapens the book as less of examination of the crisis that faced the league in the mid-1990’s than a shaming of those that fouled our institution with their antics and let this happen. The roots of the renewed patriotism and belief in our home grown game that began in 1996 is left unexplored, and the suggestion that the selling of our game to the US being a catalyst for the CFL‘s resurgence with Canadians is not ventured.
This book could have been many things, or multiple books. It doesn’t pick up on the facts and inner workings of the league, economics of the time and societal changes like Frank Cosentino’s A Passing Game. It gives short thrift to the 1994 BC Lions team, which could have been a book on its own based on the characters and stories presented. It isn’t an analysis of this period, the errors, the reasons, or posit that these actions saved the CFL and led to its resurgence, or condemn the period and present an alternative that would have saved the CFL without the American “experiment”. Ed Willes is an effective writer, and this book may appeal to his target audience, but it targets the CFL for sins past. This only contributes to the underserved stigma attached to the league, while ignoring the reality the league has operated in for the past 35 years: a radically changing sports and entertainment industry, political, social and economic transformations, and an attitude shift in the populace on athletes and what it means to be Canadian. To understand history, you have to put the events into the context of those times.
CFL history buff: A-
BC Lions fan: B-
Regular fan: C-