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Ralph Stayer

This month we feature two books about two different sports—golf and football. These are very different athletic pursuits, obviously, but they do have one thing in common: Every story in sports is about the people who play the sport or coach it. 

We start with Rick Reilly’s So Help Me Golf. Reilly has been a sportswriter most of his life, and wrote the back page of Sports Illustrated for 16 years until he retired. He covered all sports, but golf is the love of his athletic life. He hated golf as a young boy. His father would come home from golfing on Saturdays dead drunk and beat up his mother and anyone else with whom he came in contact in the house. Reilly connected golf with his drunken father, and he was unable to disassociate the two until he was a teenager. His hatred quickly morphed into a life-long love affair with the game. As they say, converts become the more ardent believers.

You don’t have to be a golf fan to enjoy this book. It is filled with stories about people you know; Reilly’s work as a sportswriter has brought him up close to fame, reporting on and golfing with Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson and Presidents Bush, Clinton and Trump. Their stories are in this book, along with many other A-list people. These heretofore unknown stories include interesting insights into the character of these people. Golf is a very difficult sport that requires hard work to gain just a modicum of proficiency. It can be very frustrating. We have a saying back in Wisconsin: “If you want to know about a person, go on

 a three-day fishing trip with that person.” The corollary to this saying could be, “Would I go on a three-day golf trip with this person?” It is all in here. Make your own judgments.

This is a very entertaining book that will bring bursts of laughter at times and tears to your eyes at others. It is so good that I have ordered two of Reilly’s other books, Commander in Cheat and Who’s Your Caddy?

In 1953, Paul “Bear” Bryant accepted the head coaching assignment for Texas A&M. He left behind a very successful eight-year career as head coach of the Kentucky football team, but the program he found at A&M filled him with despair. The ingrained losing mentality he discovered there was only exceeded by an extreme lack of talent. Junction Boys by Jim Dent is the story of what Bryant did to develop a core of players who would walk through hell to win. And hell it was, and win they did.

Bryant loaded up two buses full of players and coaches and headed 150 miles south to the little town of Junction, Texas, for 10 days of practice to prepare for his first season. That part of Texas was in the midst of a three-year drought, and the heat was over 100 degrees every day. The practices were brutal. The field had no grass; it was pure dirt covered with nettles that stuck to exposed hands, arms and legs. The practices were two to three hours long in the hot sun, with no drinking water allowed. His practices may have been based on the model used by the Navy SEALS training, which is designed to select people who will not give up. The difference is the Navy knows what it is doing. Any coach today caught doing what Bryant did would be fired and arrested—it is only through the grace of God that no one died. 

Bryant announced at the start of training that anyone who wanted to quit would be given bus fare home and driven to the bus station. Two buses of players went to Junction. Ten days later, only a half of a bus of players returned. Bryant went on to develop a conference championship team and move on to Alabama, where he became a legend. This book is an interesting study of psychology—and a curious twist on Stockholm Syndrome. Those players who stuck it out revered Bryant. They went on to successful careers, but Bryant felt guilty about what he had done to those boys for the rest of his life. He always said he would “croak in a week” if he quit coaching. He died 28 days after his final game. It’s definitely not an instruction manual, but Junction Boys is a fascinating read. 

Ralph Stayer, an avid reader and owner/CEO of Johnsonville Sausage, leads a book club in Naples with about a dozen other high-power friends. The group only reads non-fiction as a way to keep learning and sharpening the mind. Every month, Stayer shares the latest page-turners earning a permanent spot on his ever-expanding bookshelves.

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