I think a good film–documentary or fiction–exists in it, but I’m not sure a film should be made. It’s such an amazing feeling when reading the last few pages–acknowledgments too–and finding out that Bob Sutton’s contract at Army was renewed as well as how the Army and Navy football players experienced the rest of their school year. Nearly every time I read more than five pages, I would become misty eyed. Feinstein’s writing is just that moving.
I’ve never regarded the military with anything but deference, framed around a cognitive (historical) understanding of what they do and what they represent. Vietnam and the 21st Century haven’t been so kind to them in terms of PR, but I don’t hold them responsible for the way Middle Eastern relations have or haven’t gone. After reviewing a documentary called Occupation: Dreamland three years ago and recently watching a documentary called Combat Diary: The Marines of Lima Company, I felt more respect and gratitude, which were magnified after finishing Civil War.
Reading Feinstein’s book humanizes the Cadets and the Midshipmen in a way that not even a good Hollywood drama could hope to achieve. The reason? The football context is key–it functions as an agent of psychological identification for the reader. Attending West Point or the Naval Academy is the exotic factor–the element of curiosity possessing the potential to educate the reader on the life at service academies. To me at least, the football is the familiar half. There’s already some understanding of what it entails on general grounds: time management, physical and mental exhaustion from practice and game-play (or in some cases, the struggle to participate in any amount of game-play), and the pressure and desire to win. Put the two together and one has an incredibly engrossing story. Add Feinstein’s remarkable prose and the result is thought-provoking, humorous, insightful, informative, and awe-inspiring.
In Next Man Up, Feinstein explicitly states in the Introduction that the ostensibly unprecedented degree of access to players, the coaching staff, and other personnel of the 2004 Baltimore Ravens took the form of first-person, real-time presence. In other words, he was allowed to witness meetings, locker room speeches, practices, and an assortment of conversations as they happened…in addition to the inevitable phone calls and emails placed and returned.
Feinstein puts it like so: “My access, as you will read, was pretty much complete. [Brian] Billick never once asked me to leave a room, and the players, who weren’t quite sure who I was or why I was there–many referred to me early on as ‘the book guy’–became, I believe, comfortable with my presence. Deion Sanders even took the trouble to pull my jacket collar up while we were standing in the tunnel in Pittsburgh, saying, ‘Man, you have to at least try to look good on the sideline‘” (11).
Feinstein also thanks Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti for getting the machine rolling that would eventually produce the material for the book.
While the acknowledgments in Civil War spotlights the persons who were instrumental in helping to secure the permission and support necessary to make the research process possible, there’s only a slight suggestion or implication that Feinstein was present as conversations took place. Now, we’re not talking about voice-over in a film, where logically a character usually needs to have firsthand knowledge of an event to speak of it. Feinstein can write about an incident, a conversation, or report the progression of events without necessarily being there as it happened. For credibility, though, it helps.
Since Civil War was completed before Next Man Up, it makes sense that there’s some ambiguity as to the proportion of witnessed and non-witnessed exchanges. Moreover, the former focuses more on capturing an essence of the rivalry via the players and coaches of the 1995 season. Thus, first-person, real-time presence isn’t necessarily mandatory. On the other hand, Next Man Up is an inside-out, behind-the-playing-field book. The expectation for first-person, real-time presence is very much there.
Furthermore, because the NFL monitors and limits the media’s access to players in ways the NBA and the MLB do not, it’s important that Feinstein is explicit in pointing out how he conducted primary research.* It not only speaks to methodology and bolsters his credibility, but it also invites the reader to take part in a journey through him.
Trailer of from Occupation: Dreamland:
A short clip from Combat Diary:
*Feinstein notes in the Introduction of Next Man Up that “most professional sports make their players available to the press often. Almost every NFL team severely limits access to its players. There are limited times each week when the locker room is open to journalists, but most players simply stay out of the locker room during that time. Most practices are off-limits, except perhaps for a few minutes of stretching at the start of the day. Coaches are paranoid and secretive about everything” (6).