|Bill Littlefield collects many of the book's essays from his NPR program, "Only a Game."|
First an admission - I've long enjoyed listening to Bill Littlefield's quirky, thoughtful radio program, "Only a Game," on NPR every Saturday morning. Littlefield isn't merely a voice of sanity in the overly critical, overly hyped world of sports, he's also a fine writer whose wry essays explore the pains and pleasures of fandom, the perseverance of great athletes in lesser-known sports like women's ice hockey, and the intersection of sports and family. Littlefield blends a love of sports with healthy perspective, a yearning to look at sports as one part of life, but not the only part.
In this book, Littlefield collects many of the best essays from his radio program. His humor is evident early on, when he wonders about the bizarre nicknames of boxers and college sports teams. He introduces us to boxer "Frank Moran, who was billed as 'the battling dentist' " and boxers "Truck Hannah, Bombo Chevelier, and Frenchy the Coal Man." Littlefield finds himself rooting for such college basketball teams as the Fighting Camels (of Campbell University) and the Fighting Squirrels (of Mary Baldwin College).
For Littlefield, sports can teach us about our families and ourselves. Many of these essays are personal, describing the author's role as a father of two daughters who play sports. In one essay, "Soccer Granddad," he takes his daughter Amy with him to the dry cleaner's. John Papadopolis, the proprietor, is also a friend and a soccer fanatic. Littlefield proudly informs the white-haired Papadopolis that Amy scored a goal during a weekend soccer game. Papadopolis literally drops what he's doing, bows to Amy, and congratulates her, handing her a lollipop on the way out. "A wise friend of mine told me that he thought we all had to find our fathers where we could," writes Littlefield. "I like the idea that this seems to be true of grandfathers as well."
Littlefield's sense of proportion is again evident in his terrific piece on marathon gold medalist Joan Benoit Samuelson, whom he finds trying to juggle running, work, and family a decade after becoming an Olympic champion. Living quietly in Freeport, Maine, Samuelson is busier than ever: "Training runs and her turn to drive the car pool for [daughter] Abby's swimming class. Physical therapy, and all the invitations to address all the groups, and the pesky inclination to try writing a children's book." From this stellar profile, Samuelson seems like a kindred spirit, grounded in family and work but (like Littlefield) finding much of life's pleasure in athletics.
Littlefield's most passionate moments in the book come when he denounces the tendency of sports fans and others to view football as a metaphor for war. He denounces the US government for misrepresenting the tragic death of former NFL player Pat Tillman, a soldier who was killed in Afghanistan. After Tillman's family demanded answers from the Pentagon, notes Littlefield, "it became apparent that [Tillman] had been killed by so-called 'friendly fire' " and not while directing an attack on the enemy, as the Army initially claimed. While Littlefield admires Tillman's sacrifice, he denounces the Bush administration for exploiting his death for political gain.
The author's love of sports is abundant, but it's an adult kind of love. In his final essay, Littlefield lyrically explains why sports are so beloved: "It is for the temporary connection to beauty that the game offers: the beauty of the perfect move, selected and executed for its own sake; the joy of the marriage of talent and skills developed from hard practice. It's an image that celebrates life." "Only a Game" does the same.
Chuck Leddy is a freelance writer who lives in Dorchester.
Only a Game
By Bill Littlefield
University of Nebraska
143 pp., paperback, $16.95