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Tom Chaney: Playing for Pizza

Of Writers and their Books, Playing for Pizza is a John Grisham novel about American style football in Italy. It first appeared 14 October 2007
The next earlier Tom Chaney column: Tom Chaney: Assassination, Abolition, and the Rights of Women

By Tom Chaney

Playing for Pizza

I was on the Caverna High School football team for one year - 1952, the longest season on record. In those days we played six-man football. You might recall that the six-man variety had a peculiar rule. When a team got 45 points on its opponent, the game was over.

My position must have been crucial. Coach Sidwell called on me at least twice during the season. Both times we were about 40 points or so ahead. He would send me in to get hit on the side of the line where the ball was not so we could get the game over with and go for hamburgers. We had not heard of pizza.

That was my last foray onto the gridiron. Others had to play for four seasons. I completed my career in one.

Yet, when I got to Georgetown College I was hired to be the student manager for football and all other sports. If not washing socks and towels, I was on the sideline helping cart the wounded off the field and toting water. By the time I graduated, I had had enough of football for several lifetimes.

I no longer look at the sports section. When athletic alumni mail comes from Georgetown, it goes in the trash right away. I don't read sports books -- mostly.

That rule got broken a few days back when sister Ann brought me a copy of John Grisham's latest novel, Playing for Pizza [Doubleday, September 2007]. She had the foresight to order a copy for each of us to prevent a fight over dibs or my inadvertent selling of the book before she got it. I do that with some regularity when I win the toss.

Grisham mostly writes about lawyers and other criminals. Playing for Pizza is a football novel. What's more, it is about professional football -- a breed of the sport which has even less attraction for me. But it has that Grisham touch.

Rick Dockery is a failed, third-string quarterback for the Cleveland Browns who will forever be known for throwing the perfect interception pass which loses the game for the Browns as well as their place in the super bowl.

His agent Arnie tries to find him another berth in the sport. No team will even let him be water boy.

Finally Arnie gets Rick a contract as quarterback for the Panthers -- the Parma Panthers in the Italian football league for $20,000 for the season.

Yes, there is a NFL even in that Italy which worships its real football -- soccer.

While Grisham was in Italy doing research for his previous thriller, The Broker, he discovered the Italian NFL through a driver he hired while in Parma. The driver was a player who, like his Italian teammates, kept a day job, playing American style football on the weekend for the fun of it. The eight-team league even has a super bowl.

Rick reluctantly takes the job and from there the story moves much like the stories of heroes we read in our youth. He suffers both physically and in the challenge to his ego. He begins to learn some things about himself. He finds redemption for himself and his team. He gets the girl.

Ho! Hum! you might say. But John Grisham's storytelling is masterful. One critic called it shallow. So what? A beautiful, singing, rippling mountain brook is shallow. You want deep? Go read Moby Dick. The ocean is deep. I admire the skill of Grisham in telling the tale.

And the food makes it worth the trip. Grisham provides an abundant description of the dishes Rick comes to relish. I think I gained five pounds in the first three chapters.

Through Rick's adventures in love, first with an opera singer then with an exchange student, we watch him come to appreciate opera, art and architecture as well as prosciutto.

The team really does play for pizza. Each of the eight teams in the league is allowed three American football players who are paid in Euro dollars. The rest play for love of the game or for the weekly pizza and beer feast hosted by the Panthers' owner.

Sure, the plot is shallow -- like the sparkling mountain brook. But it serves to carry the love interest between Grisham and life in Italy. Rick is seduced by Parma ham and the opera singer; Parmesan cheese and the student; the best wine and olives and pasta. The veteran NFL football player actually cries when he first experiences tortellini in brodo.

If you prefer the thriller, Grisham promises another come the first of the year. In the meantime enjoy the culatello.

I know. I know. But look it up.

Tom Chaney can be found telling stories, planning his next meal, and occasionally selling books at
Box 73 / 111 Water Street
Horse Cave, Kentucky 42749
Email: Tom Chaney

This story was posted on 2012-10-14 05:55:31
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Life in Holler: Fall is spectacular

2012-10-15 - The Hollow, Old Clearsprings Road, Columbia, KY - Photo by Shamarie Claiborne.
It was like the Master pulled a switch over the weekend and we went from green to this. Fall is my favorite season of the year. The color is just a bonus. I like the invigorating cool crisp air, when every sense is heightened. The air is clearer and we can see farther. Smells of woodsmoke and bacon frying make eating a joy and woods music is so clear, so pure. - Shamarie Claiborne.

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