The All Americans
St. Martin's Griffin, 248 pp.
Perhaps because its practitioners conceal their sacred strategy with a vigilance that makes the CIA look like an open house, football promotes a paramilitary posture.
It's part of the lexicon. Quarterbacks are ''field generals." Mastodons collide ''in the trenches." The most cherished imprimatur is ''I'd want him in my foxhole." Never mind that most modern football personnel have been no closer to a foxhole than to a fox hunt. Inflating a game into a surrogate for war seems ludicrous, if not blasphemous.
Except in Lars Anderson's ''The All Americans," a haunting exhumation of the 1941 Army-Navy game and its apocalyptic companion, World War II, that beckoned the competitors. The game was played before 102,000 fans in Philadelphia's Municipal Stadium on Nov. 29 -- eight days before Pearl Harbor. Anderson wisely employs sport as a background serenade muted by the dirge of devastation.
The book opens not on the field of play but the field of battle -- Normandy's Omaha Beach on June 6, 1944. D-Day. Combat engineer Henry Romanek -- one of the four '41 players, two each from Army and Navy, through whom Anderson personalizes the planetary upheaval -- must navigate a gantlet of dismembered comrades as he sloshes toward the beachhead, where fresh atrocities await; he becomes one, gravely wounded. Fighter pilot Robin Olds, Romanek's former Army linemate, surveys the blood-dyed sand and observes, ''It looks like the end of the world down there."
For which Romanek, Olds, and their two Navy fellow protagonists, star tailback Bill Busik and scrub Hal Kauffman, are fully prepared, thanks in part to their football training. It teaches them to cope with crisis but in no way does it approximate the real thing.
The real thing is unavoidable. The four proceed through their respective schools of war to the 1941 game amid global convulsions. With the services trying to force-feed officers into their active ranks, the curricula at West Point and Annapolis are condensed from four years to three. One fewer year of football; perhaps one fewer year of life.
The big game serves as both an athletic pageant and a farewell to peace. On Army-Navy eve, Busik tells Kauffman, ''I'm ready to fight." He's not referring to the Army defense. And just before kickoff, Navy coach Swede Larson informs his team that this will be his last game; he's headed for active duty -- leading by example in the extreme.
Oh yes, the game. Navy wins, 14-6, and the players bid adieu to innocence as they prepare to head for hell, where the four principals barely escape harrowing deaths. Fifteen of their fellow players from the '41 game don't.
Today the football season officially ends with the Pro Bowl in Honolulu, not far from Pearl Harbor. If the NFL is as big on patriotism as it boasts, here's a chance to prove it: Just give Anderson's book priority over the playbook.