Does George Plimpton’s ‘Paper Lion’, a story about a journalist who attends the Detroit Lions’ 1963 preseason training camp, stand the test of time?
I’m pretty surprised that this was my first time reading George Plimpton’s ‘Paper Lion: Confessions of a Last-String Quarterback‘, especially considering that good Detroit Lions reading material can be hard to find. I’ve known about the book’s existence for a pretty long time and it appealed to me, but I just never got around to diving in.
The premise of ‘Paper Lion’ was appealing to me for two reasons. First, it’s one of the original “average Joe trains with the pros and chronicles his experience” stories. Nowadays, it’s a category of sports media that has been done enough times that it seems a little uninspired.
The inevitable conclusions are that professional athletes are really good at sports. No big surprise. Or maybe it was back then. Plimpton was the originator though, and at the time of publication it was a revolutionary angle for a story.
The second reason I’ve always wanted to read this book is because it takes place during a period in Lions’ history where they’ve recently won championships. The team is a perennial contender with a winning culture within the franchise that becomes evident early and often in the book.
Lines such as “I just don’t know how our scouts do it year after year” are common from coaches, players, and even equipment managers. Plimpton even marvels about a certain zest emanating from the very pages of the defensive playbook “indicative of Detroit’s great tradition of defense.” He writes these lines without the faintest trace of satire.
For anyone unfamiliar with the book, Plimpton is a journalist who attends the Lions 1963 preseason training camp at Cranbrook as a player (he’s scared to death/he’s scared to look/at his ****ing yearbook). It’s a half-serious attempt to document life in pro football for a “last string quarterback”.
50 years and handfuls of copy cats later, you can probably guess what happens next. Plimpton obviously isn’t any good. He plays up his mishaps for comic effect and quickly appreciates how difficult it is to be a pro football player. Some of the guys on the team kinda/maybe/sorta accept him as one of them. He gets “cut” at the end of training camp, and everyone gets on with their lives.
To be honest, these aspects of the book weren’t particularly interesting to me. To be fair to Plimpton, I’ll chalk it up as being a generational thing. I’ve seen the idea done and re-done and improved upon enough times. By, now the original ultimately comes off looking dull by comparison.
It’s the same reason why David “Skywalker” Thompson’s supposed #1 NBA highlight dunk wouldn’t even crack Michael Jordan’s top 50. Or even why a guy like me has rec-league highlights better than anything from Bob Cousy’s career mixtape. Not because I’m any good. Just because the game has changed that much since the era of “the Cooz”.
Plimpton’s general narrative may seem a little tired and dated by today’s standards. Still, there are more than enough notable/funny tidbits about some of the old time Lions and various other NFL legends. These parts redeem the book and make it a worthwhile read in my eyes.
Bobby Layne, Night Train Lane, Alex Karras, and even Slingin’ Sammy Baugh all get some good shoutouts in ‘Paper Lion’. I also always enjoy reading about some of the largely forgotten and obsolete aspects from sports in bygone eras.
The 1960s NFL featured plenty of nuances that are hilarious to me in retrospect. They probably made perfect sense at the time though (i.e. the 37 man roster limit, or the concept of using relief quarterbacks, similar to baseball pitchers).
I’ll cover some of my favorites from these side notes and anecdotes in more detail next week. I’ll leave off by saying I’d give ‘Paper Lion’ a mildly positive recommendation. I’m not calling it a ‘must read’ by any stretch.
However, a diehard Detroit Lions’ fan stuck in offseason withdrawal would find it a fine way to spend some time. At the very least, it should make counting the days until the start training camp a little more enjoyable.