Old time football has a certain amount of haunting poetry interwoven into it. While baseball was the unquestioned national pastime in The United States dating all the way back to the Civil War, professional football has always had a long era of back alley niche appreciation. Played by the toughest and most brazen of men, the few heroes that did develop in the public landscape were unfairly thrust into having to carry the entire sport on their shoulders. It’s hard to imagine the NFL as anything but a juggernaut, but most of the mainstream success it enjoys today can be attributed to a small handful of people. Today’s Book Club subject features such a frontier paver, but as we’ll soon find out, most of the glory of the “good ol’ days” came at a price to rewriting history. Get out the leather helmets and dust up on this new fangled “forwards pass,” it’s time to rewrite some playbooks and history books alike.
Tough Luck by R.D. Rosen isn’t so much of a biography as it is a revision. Any appreciation to old time football pre-World War II will require an understanding of the importance of Sid Luckman. One of the first professional success stories of using the forward pass, Sid Luckman put up NFL passing stats for the Chicago Bears that would arouse the most stingy of fantasy football owners, even by 2019 standards. Luckman threw 400 yard and 7 passing TD games regularly when such things were the thoughts of pure witchcraft. Sid Luckman helped make modern football what it is today, and a little bit of every long TD thrown in this era should be held in tribute to his time in the game. By combining that incredible physical ability with his firm but charming charisma, Luckman was a marble man in his profession up until the day he died. As you can imagine, such an immortal personality from that time would yield an upchuckian caliber of cheesy comparisons to American folklore as the Jewish kid from Brooklyn who makes good. And while Luckman himself may have lived up to this standard in his own way, his family life before football has somehow been washed away from history. Enter then, the concept of Rosen’s book. You can’t really tell the story of a man without explaining where he came from, and perhaps some 80 plus years later it’s high time we take a look at the whole picture…
Rosen’s book isn’t so much a biography as it is an assessment of previous coverage and bios of the legendary football icon from decades before. As a kid in Brooklyn, Luckman’s family was heavily involved in organized crime. In 1935, when Sid was in high school, a man was found brutally murdered in his family’s trucking garage. The long and short of it: Sid Luckman’s father was convicted of murder, and a strange chain reaction of events led to an unraveling of one of most notorious crime syndicates in American history, all from this somewhat arbitrary moment in the Luckman garage. It’s worth stating again that Sid, the subject of football lore, was not a known factor in this criminal underworld, but the sheer proximity of it alone would be enough to sensationalize even the most straight laced of sports stories in 2019. The more Sid Luckman captured the imagination of the budding football world, the less people seemed to remember the connection to the brutalities known of his relatives. The book delivers this message in a satisfying structure that alternates between the well known football immortality and the less known hard truths that Sid himself seemed so determined to make better from. For every notation to the NFL record books comes an examination of the political wrangling and media power that affected not only organized crime but professional sports as well. While some chapters detail the comprehensive history of the T Formation offensive playbook, the next may cover New York D.A.’s and US presidential cabinet members fighting for compromise over mob-rule and racketeering, in no less passion or detail from the author. The back and forth structure adds a level of immersion for the reader as we can identify with Sid Luckman’s own struggles to juggle the fledgling glories of pro football while having a foot in the criminal underworld becomes America’s latest fascination, all the while his own father rots in Sing-Sing for murder.
Verdict: Tough Luck by R.D. Rosen is a brilliantly detailed examination of one of old time pro football’s most important characters, and shines a light on the conflicting public and private life that was nearly lost to history. The author covers ground in both football history as well as organized criminal history that have never been so keenly matched together in such a style of writing. The story is entertaining as well as informative, as it feels for the first time in nearly 100 years, every stone on Luckman has finally been turned. Whether you want to learn about Sid Luckman, the T Formation, the mafia, or even just some history about pre-war sports…this book is altogether a must read. Now more than ever, there is room for truth in our world, and thankfully it’s never too late to tell the whole story.
Special thanks to Grove Atlantic for supplying an advance copy of Tough Luck to TehBen.com for review. All thoughts and opinions are my own.
Publisher’s Website: GroveAtlantic.com
Publisher’s Twitter: @groveatlantic
Author’s Website: rdrosen.com
Pre-Order/Purchase Link: Amazon