In 1968 Frederick Exley published A Fan's Notes, a "fictional memoir" about a young man who becomes obsessed with Frank Gifford, the late great halfback for the New York Giants. Of course, it's about more than that. The Wikipedia entry for the book calls it "a sardonic account of mental illness, alcoholism, insulin shock therapy and electroconvulsive therapy, and the black hole of sports fandom."
Earlier this year, Chris Bachelder published a novel to great acclaim that hinges on the New York Giants. The Throwback Special, which was nominated for the National Book Award, is about a group of men who assemble each winter at a budget hotel to recreate a play that occurred in an NFL game between the New York Giants and the Washington Redskins in which Lawrence Taylor broke Joe Theismann's leg, ending his career.
It's a watershed moment not just in sports but in sports broadcasting because Taylor didn't just break Theismann's leg, he shattered it, and the pieces of the bone broke through the skin—all on Monday Night Football. Frank Gifford was part of the broadcast team that night. "If your stomach is weak," he said, "just don't watch."
Like A Fan's Notes, Bachelder's book isn't just about football, it's an exploration of the complicated rituals of middle-aged men who don't know each other that well. There are endless variations but they all adhere to an unspoken rule to repress the bulk of their feelings. It is enough that they do what they have set out to do. "They had created sub-tradition, sub-community."
The bulk of the book is dedicated to the lore of the play that the men have come to recreate and the ritual of their re-enactment of it, which is complex and thoroughly examined. There is no plot in The Throwback Special, nor does the narrative provide a single protagonist with which the reader identifies. Instead, perspective shifts from player to player like a roving eyeball, fixating on their individual concerns, which are petty, mundane, and occasionally hilarious.
On the surface, The Throwback Special is a sad book. Life has not been kind to these men. They have all been blitzed by the vagaries of life—bad marriages, children they don't understand, jobs that suck—and like Joe Theismann they have to somehow put the pieces back together and go on.
What makes the endeavor so engaging is not the purpose for which they have gathered, the successful execution of the simulation, but the camaraderie that comes from simply doing one's part.