Grisham: Out of court, onto the gridiron

The Baltimore Sun

Playing for Pizza

By John Grisham

Doubleday/ 272 pages/ $21.95

In Playing for Pizza, John Grisham leaves the confines of the courtroom for the NFL locker room. The pairing of the master of the legal thriller and America's most popular professional sports league would seem to be a marriage made in bestseller heaven.

Perhaps he'd craft a potboiler about a star quarterback involved in illegal dog-fighting and gambling. Or a story about a retired Hall of Fame running back who'd beaten double-murder charges only later to becharged with armed robbery. Maybe the plot would revolve around the genius head coach who broke league rules by stealing the defensive signals of the opposition. Playing for Pizza, however, is Grisham without the legal machinations. Instead, we meet Cleveland Browns third-string quarterback Rick Dockery, who is lying in his hospital bed unconscious from a severe concussion. Rick, it seems, took the field at the end of an all-but-sewn-up game that would have propelled the long-suffering Browns into the Super Bowl.

With Cleveland about to go bonkers, Rick throws three interceptions in the final quarter - the last resulting in the traumatic hit that sends him to the hospital and gives the game-winning touchdown to the Denver Broncos.

Remember last season's goof by Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo, who bobbled the snap for the go-ahead field goal at the end of his team's playoff loss to the Seattle Seahawks? That's poor Rick, but add injury to insult. When he wakes up, he's the outcast of Cleveland - could anything be worse? - and the laughingstock of the National Football League.

At a career crossroad, Rick takes the only job his smarmy agent can scrounge: starting quarterback for the Parma Panthers, in the football-mad country of ... Italy. Well, it is the home of the ancestors of Vince Lombardi and Joe Paterno, and every Pittsburgh Steelers fan waving a Terrible Towel knows that Franco Harris is half-Italian.

Far removed from ESPN's endless replays of his gaffe, Rick regains his quarterbacking mojo and some redemption. He rallies the scrappy Panthers on offense and - warning: spoiler alert - leads Parma to greater glory.

In such books as The Firm and The Pelican Brief, Grisham displays bravado and a familiarity with his terrain. His courtroom scenes crackle with page-turning tension; he layers his plots just as a lawyer builds a case.

In Playing for Pizza, Grisham is content to keep it light. The fish-out-of-water premise often devolves into stereotypes - Italians like to eat amazing food and drink amazing wines - while Rick's transformations and the outcome of the Panthers season are predictable.

And Grisham avoids tackling perhaps the ultimate challenge for a sports novelist or screenwriter: writing an original halftime tongue-lashing by a coach. Instead, he merely describes the coach's speech.

It's a missed opportunity. The football novel didn't hit its stride until the late 1960s and early 1970s, when the sport began to overtake baseball as our national obsession. Not coincidentally, the quartet of works that still dominates the pantheon - Dan Jenkins' Semi-Tough, Peter Gent's North Dallas Forty, Frederick Exley's A Fan's Notes and Don DeLillo's End Zone - reflects the anti-establishment chaos of Vietnam War-era America. In these funny and passionate novels, football serves as backdrop to stories of friendship, loss and obsession.

Today, the influence of contemporary football - at the high school, collegiate and professional levels - exceeds every other sport in America. The South shuts down on Saturdays for college games. Super Bowl Sunday serves as a secular holiday; even the commercials for the big game are hotly debated.

Football's favored status may well explain why the Michael Vick dog-fighting story as well as O.J. Simpson's ongoing saga and Bill Belichick's nefarious spy games are equally compelling.

Grisham, by setting his novel in Italy, where U.S. football has little impact or fan support, avoids all this craziness but also all of its potential. Football may be at the center of Playing for Pizza, but this isn't a football novel. It reads like part Frances Mayes' Under the Tuscan Sun, part Mario Batali culinary diary and part Fodor guidebook.

David Davis is a contributing writer to "Los Angeles" magazine. A version of this review appeared in the Los Angeles Times.

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