I read Monsters mainly because I really enjoyed Rich Cohen’s previous novel. A few of my housemates have been following the 13/14 NFL season, so when I noticed the book and it’s subject; the ’85 Chicago Bears, I had to read it.
I’m no NFL fan, or really into sports at all, but I found the history of the league fascinating: Teams were literally owned and assembled by factory owners, and the players were as rough as the steel they were banging on all day in the mill. There was hardly any money in it, and good players were celebrated for the amount of pain they could stand before they reached the end zone. No endorsements, cheerleaders or big data.
The mythos of Football, which Rich has a bit of trouble articulating as a true fan, almost always comes back to the spectacular violence: the ‘hits’. Friday Night Lights (which I think is a better ‘outsider’ look at America’s fascination with the game) loops around and around the collisions, injuries and bravado of players that give everything to win. You keep forgetting that they’re playing high school football.
The subject of brain trauma emerges in Monsters because one of the players in the ’85 bears was Dave Duerson. Dave was the guy who recently asked for his brain to get checked for CTE because he was feeling unwell, and then shot himself in the chest with a shotgun. McMahon, the quarterback for the team in the 80’s is in the middle of legal battle with the NFL over negligence, and is in the early stages of dementia.
As Rich runs through the rest of the team, who have either committed suicide, gone to jail, lost all their money or become deeply depressed (pick one or more), I couldn’t help feeling sad and sorry for these guys. They flew too close to the sun, experienced such extreme highs and were so powerful that they started to break to pieces like a space shuttle re-entering the earths atmosphere. When you’re scoring a touchdown at the superbowl at 25 you can’t help but wonder what happens next.
Two men at the peak of their careers, one takes out the other with a dirty, low tackle; ACL, knees, one never plays the same again. 30 years later, they bump into each other at a supermarket, and break down, sobbing, both haunted by the tackle. Guilt and anger for years and years, both struggling at 50 to come to grips with what happened to their lives, what it all meant.
Malcom Gladwell recently said NFL is ‘going to become the Army’, because of the unavoidable risks associated with the sport. He’s a little late, it’s been worse than the Army for years.