There's obviously something about washed-up pro athletes in search of redemption that appeals to John Grisham. "The Innocent Man," Grisham's 2006 nonfiction debut, told the gripping story of a former pro baseball player named Ron Williamson who's wrongly convicted of murder. Ultimately, DNA evidence proved Williamson's innocence, but he'd already spent years in prison.
With "Playing for Pizza," Grisham returns to fiction, but focuses again on an athlete who's seen better days. Rick Dockery's career as a third-string NFL quarterback has all the elements of tragedy, but what Grisham delivers instead is a delightfully comic tale of redemption. The story's opening should resonate with any Red Sox fan. Like Bill Buckner in the 1986 World Series, Dockery's epically bad performance has cost his team a chance to win a championship.
Dockery wakes up in a Cleveland hospital bed on the Monday morning after the AFC title game. Due to a concussion, he remembers nothing about his performance, but his agent Arnie soon arrives to fill him in. With the Browns winning big, Dockery had thrown three interceptions in the final quarter, allowing the Denver Broncos to come back and win. The Cleveland media is up in arms, and fans riot in front of the hospital hoping to get their clutches on Dockery. In short, Grisham's protagonist has hit rock bottom.
The Browns cut Dockery, and no other NFL team is willing to consider signing him. Grisham knows the mindsets of professional athletes enough to understand that Dockery can't quit. He asks his agent to find him a job somewhere, anywhere. Hence the comedy begins.
Grisham is a storyteller who keeps the narrative flowing at a swift pace. He also has a penchant for humorous dialogue. Here's agent Arnie calling his jobless client with the only offer available: "Listen to me, Rick, Parma Panthers." Dockery is dumbfounded. "Okay, Arnie, pardon the brain damage, but why don't you tell me exactly where Parma is." It's in northern Italy and a desperate Dockery goes there to play.
Grisham gives Dockery all the culture shock and resulting comedy readers could wish for. Dockery wakes one morning to find himself inexplicably placed in the custody of Parma police. Instead of some Kafkaesque scene, Grisham concludes the episode with Dockery being introduced to his new fullback, nicknamed Franco, who's not just a football player but also a powerful judge. When the judge/fullback shows Dockery his personal highlight film of greatest runs, the quarterback wisecracks, "Is this in slow motion?"
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Dockery gradually falls in love with Italy and his teammates. He feasts on the best pasta and wine he's ever tasted; he savors the anonymity of playing football in soccer-crazed Italy; he falls for a gorgeous opera singer named Gabriella; he socializes with teammates who play only for love. Dockery even begins playing well, despite a shaky start.
Grisham reveals Dockery's own transformation. Removed from the pressure cooker of NFL football, Dockery regains his passion. When a Canadian team offers him more money, Dockery stays put. After Grisham has entertainingly taken us inside the subculture of Italian football, Dockery's Parma team reaches the Italian Super Bowl. Near the end of the championship game, with his team needing a touchdown to win, Dockery drops back to pass only to find a huge defender chasing him down. Looking up, Dockery spots an open Parma receiver and rears back to pass.
While I won't reveal whether Dockery connects for the winning touchdown, Grisham has connected with a deeply satisfying story of an athlete finding redemption. What could have been a painful exile for a disgraced American quarterback becomes a delightfully unexpected homecoming.
Chuck Leddy is a freelance writer who lives in Dorchester.