Football season, the time of year when Americans spend countless hours watching hulking men pummel each other on the field.
But, hey, we’re all looking for something to do when we’re not watching sports. Why not learn more about it?
We’ve found some of the best football books with a Northern California flavor. We have mostly avoided single-subject biographies (there are a million of them) and X’s-and-O’s instructionals for the sake of conciseness (and our sanity).
Instead, the following books are more concerned with capturing the game’s history, passion, glory, craziness, and drama.
‘Five Laterals and a Trombone: Cal, Stanford, and the Wildest Finish in College Football History’ by Tyler Bridges
According to radio sportscaster Joe Starkey, it was “the most amazing, sensational, dramatic, heartrending, exciting finish in the history of college football!”
One would think that by now, college football fans would be well-versed in the last-second kickoff return that Cal used to stun Stanford in the 1982 Big Game: The ecstasy, the controversy, and the musical collaborators (“The band is on the field!”).
Bridges, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and Stanford graduate, has an excellent sense of detail. And he deftly draws on a dizzying array of perspectives to provide the most in-depth examination of the madcap game and its aftermath ever written.
Fun nuggets include a hare-brained (and botched) plot by four Stanford losers to vandalize the Cal field the day after the game.
‘San Francisco 49ers: From Kezar to Levi’s Stadium’ by Brian Murphy
This bulky volume, the only true coffee table book on our list, is jam-packed with over 300 photographs and 70 years of history. You can use it to do arm curls when you’re not reading its 250 pages.
Murphy, the host of KNBR’s popular morning radio show and a former 49ers beat writer, guides readers through the 49ers’ history, from their first season at rough and rowdy Kezar Stadium to the dynastic years at windswept Candlestick Park to the move to new, high-tech digs in Santa Clara. He provides vivid insights into the teams, players, and games that have defined the legacy of one of the NFL’s most storied franchises along the way.
Jerry Rice wrote the foreword, and 49ers CEO Jed York wrote the introduction.
‘Goodbye Oakland: Winning, Wanderlust, and a Sports Town’s Survival Fight” by Dave Newhouse and Andy Dolich
“Oakland is America’s most abused sports city, and there is no close second,” write the authors of this somber but timely tome that investigates how and why grass-is-greener team owners continue to seek reasons to abandon the East Bay.
As the title suggests, “Goodbye Oakland” is about much more than football, with the recent battle over the A’s proposed move to Las Vegas being a major focus. If the A’s do leave, it will be an unprecedented “hat trick” of departures, according to Newhouse and Dolich.
But, of course, Oakland is the only city in the United States to be abandoned twice by the same team, so the Raiders draw a lot of attention — and a lot of ire. The Davis brothers are described as a “traitorous father and son duo — Benedict Arnold and Benedict Arnold Jr.”
Fortunately, it isn’t all greed and doom. Oakland’s glory days, when the city was home to championship teams and shining stars, are also remembered. For example, an entire chapter is devoted to Raiders legend Jim Otto, dubbed “the ironman of ironmen.”
‘Badasses: The Legend of Snake, Foo, Dr. Death, and John Madden’s Oakland Raiders’ by Peter Richmond
The Raiders may now call Sin City home, but it’s safe to say they’ll never be able to throttle opponents and seize imaginations the way they did in Oakland under Madden.
Those 1970s-era Raiders, led by their exuberant coach, not only won with regularity — and won Super Bowl XI — but did so with a rowdy cast of colorful characters, or “lovable rogues,” as quarterback Ken “The Snake” Stabler described them.
“No team was as consistently dominant as the Raiders,” Richmond writes. Or so out of the ordinary. Or just plain entertaining to watch.”
Richmond offers a highlight reel of fantastic silver-and-black moments, as well as ribald tales of off-field shenanigans. Even better, rather than relying on second-hand rehashing, he crisscrossed the country, going directly to the sources. Now that several members of the old Oakland Raiders, including Madden and Stabler, have passed away, his book — first published in 2011 — takes on added significance as a treasured keepsake.
‘Paradise Found: A High School Football Team’s Rise from the Ashes’ by Bill Plaschke
One of the most powerful aspects of sports is their ability to inspire. This profoundly moving story, described by one reviewer as “‘Friday Night Lights” meets ‘Unbroken,'” does just that.
Plaschke, a Los Angeles Times columnist, follows the Paradise High Bobcats through an extremely difficult season following the deadly 2018 Camp Fire, which devastated their tiny foothill town. Consider the enormous challenges: The majority of the team’s players lost their homes and were forced to seek alternative living arrangements. The varsity roster had been reduced from 76 to 22 players, many of whom had been severely traumatized. Their equipment had melted, and their uniforms had caught fire. The first practices took place on a field littered with rocks, glass, and potholes.
Nonetheless, their zealous coach, Rick Prinz, was convinced that football could help the town recover and provide some hope. What followed was a stirring display of human tenacity.
‘Undefeated, Untied and Uninvited: A Documentary of the 1951 University of San Francisco Dons Football Team’ by Kristine Setting Clark
Unless you’re of a certain age, you may be unaware that the University of San Francisco once had a football team. And the Dons’ best season by far came in 1951, when they went 9-0 and outscored their opponents by a total of 338 points to 86.
Despite their dominance, they were denied entry into the Orange Bowl because two of their players — Ollie Matson and Burl Toler — were Black. The team was offered the opportunity to compete without Matson and Toler, but they unanimously declined on moral grounds.
Clark, a USF graduate, resurrects the legendary squad. The ’51 Dons, dubbed “the best team you’ve never heard of,” have received increased attention in recent years as a result of her work, a Sports Illustrated profile, and a 2015 ESPN documentary.
Eight players from that team went on to play in the NFL, and four of them are in the Pro Football Hall of Fame: Matson, Bob St. Clair, Gino Marchetti, and Dick Stanfel.
‘The Incredible Slip Madigan: The Flamboyant Coach Who Modernized Football’ by Dave Newhouse
They also used to play football at Moraga’s tiny St. Mary’s College. In the 1920s and 1930s, the P.T. Barnum-like Madigan built the Galloping Gaels into a national power and established himself.
Edward Patrick (“Slip”) Madigan was a visionary, raconteur, and entrepreneur who had played for Knute Rockne at Notre Dame. His Gaels were the first team from the West Coast to visit Hawaii and the East Coast. They drew record crowds and used creative strategy to dethrone larger, more prestigious universities. He outfitted his teams in flashy silk jerseys and wisely negotiated a percentage of ticket sales.
Meanwhile, Madigan courted the media and Hollywood celebrities. Nonetheless, he is a largely forgotten figure.
Enter Newhouse, a former sports columnist for the Oakland Tribune and Contra Costa Times who specializes in unearthing lost history. Readers of this colorful story will be grateful.
‘If These Walls Could Talk: San Francisco 49ers: Stories from the Sideline, Locker Room, and Press Box’ Matt Barrows’
Beat writers, or reporters who are paid to spend endless days and nights shadowing their teams, are frequently the best sources of inside information.
Barrows is a senior writer for The Athletic and has covered the 49ers since 2003. He takes us behind the scenes to experience the team’s highs and lows, as well as periods of reinvention. One chapter, for example, discusses the scouting reasoning behind the 49ers’ controversial 2005 decision to draft quarterback Alex Smith over Cal standout Aaron Rodgers.
Readers should be aware that the book does not go all the way back to the 1980s and early 1990s Super Bowl victories. In his foreword, former offensive lineman Joe Staley says, “It’s about the emotional roller coasters the 49ers have been on in recent years.”
‘Tales from the San Francisco 49ers Sideline: A Collection of the Greatest 49ers Stories Ever Told’ is a collection of the greatest 49ers stories ever told. Daniel Brown, Matt Maiocco, and Roger Craig
Here’s another collection of 49ers memories compiled with the assistance of an ace beat writer (Maiocco). These concise “tales” are told through the eyes of standout running back Roger Craig, who played under Bill Walsh and alongside all of the Super Bowl greats, including Joe Montana, Steve Young, Jerry Rice, and Ronnie Lott.
‘When the Game Stands Tall: The Story of the De La Salle Spartans and Football’s Longest Winning Streak’ is a book about the De La Salle Spartans and their record-breaking winning streak. Neil Hayes’s
The Concord powerhouse’s historic 151-game winning streak between 1992 and 2004 under coach Bob Ladouceur is legendary. No high school football team has even come close to breaking that record. The Spartans’ success drew the attention – and respect – of professional sports luminaries.
Hayes had full access to the DLS program while writing his book, which was first published in 2003. He then followed the principals’ lives for a revised edition in 2014, which accompanied a film based on the story. It’s still an excellent read — not just a rote rundown of gridiron invincibility or how-to coaching tactics, but a riveting coming-of-age story full of life lessons and unexpected twists.