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10 great books about California football, from the 49ers to Cal and De La Salle

10 great books about California football, from the 49ers to Cal and De La Salle

Ah, football season — the time of year when Americans spend countless hours observing super-sized men pummel each other on the gridiron.

But, hey, we all need something to do while we’re not watching the sport. Why not read about it?

We’ve tracked down some of the best football books with a Northern California bent. For the sake of conciseness (and our sanity), we have, for the most part, avoided single-subject biographies (there are a million of them) and X’s-and-O’s instructionals.

Instead, the following books are more focused on capturing the history, passion, glory, craziness and drama of the game.

10 great books about California football, from the 49ers to Cal, De La Salle and more. (Publisher) 

‘Five Laterals and a Trombone: Cal, Stanford, and the Wildest Finish in College Football History’  by Tyler Bridges

In the immortal — and breathless — words of radio sportscaster Joe Starkey, it was “the most amazing, sensational, dramatic, heartrending, exciting finish in the history of college football!”

By now, one would think that college football junkies would know everything there is to know about the last-second kickoff return that Cal deployed to stun Stanford in the 1982 Big Game: The ecstasy, the controversy, the musical accomplices (“The band is on the field!”).

But Bridges, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and Stanford grad, has a great nose for detail. And he deftly taps into an ultra wide range of perspectives to deliver the most thorough exploration of the madcap game and its aftermath ever written.

Included: Fun nuggets like the hare-brained (and botched) plot by four Stanford sore losers who tried to vandalize the Cal field the day after the game.

‘San Francisco 49ers: From Kezar to Levi’s Stadium’ by Brian Murphy

10 great books about California football, from the 49ers to Cal, De La Salle and more. (Publisher) 

The only true coffee table book on our list, this bulky volume is packed with more than 300 photographs and 70 years of history. When not perusing its 250 pages, you can use it to do arm curls.

Murphy, the host of KNBR’s popular morning radio show and former 49ers beat writer, enthusiastically ushers readers across the 49ers timeline — from their first season at rough and rowdy Kezar Stadium, through the dynastic years at windswept Candlestick Park, to the move into new, high-tech digs in Santa Clara. Along the way, he provides vivid insights into the teams, players and games that have defined the legacy of one of the NFL’s most storied franchises.

The book features a forward by Jerry Rice and an introduction by 49ers CEO Jed York.

‘Goodbye Oakland: Winning, Wanderlust, and a Sports Town’s Fight for Survival” by Dave Newhouse, Andy Dolich

“Oakland is America’s most abused sports city, and there is no close second,” claim the authors of this mournful, but timely tome that explores how and why grass-is-greener team owners continue to find reasons to ditch the East Bay.

10 great books about California football, from the 49ers to Cal, De La Salle and more. (Publisher) 

As the title implies, “Goodbye Oakland” covers much more than football — with the recent battle over the A’s proposed move to Las Vegas a prime topic. If the A’s do flee, Newhouse and Dolich point out, it would represent an unprecedented “hat trick” of departures.

But, of course, Oakland is the only U.S. city to be abandoned twice by the same team, and so the nomadic Raiders draw plenty of attention — and plenty of ire. Al and Mark Davis are described as a “traitorous father and son duo — Benedict Arnold and Benedict Arnold Jr.”

Fortunately, it’s not all greed and grimness. Also recalled are Oakland’s glory days, when the city was home to championship teams and shining stars. An entire chapter, for example, is devoted to Raiders’ legend Jim Otto, “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 reside in Sin City, but it’s a good bet they will never throttle foes and seize imaginations quite the way they did under Madden in Oakland.

Led by their excitable coach, those 1970s-era Raiders not only won with regularity — and captured Super Bowl XI — but pulled it off with a rowdy cast of colorful characters, or “lovable rogues,” as quarterback Ken “The Snake” Stabler described them.

No team, writes Richmond, “was so routinely dominant as the Raiders. Or so unusual. Or so damned fun and entertaining to watch.”

Richmond provides a highlight reel of fantastic silver-and-black moments, along with ribald tales of off-the-field shenanigans. Even better: He crisscrossed the country, going directly to the sources, rather than rely on second-hand rehashing. Now that we’ve lost several members of those old Oakland Raiders, including Madden and Stabler, his book — first published in 2011 — takes on extra weight as a treasured keepsake.

‘Paradise Found: A High School Football Team’s Rise from the Ashes’ by Bill Plaschke

One of the best things about sports is its power to inspire. This profoundly moving story, described by a reviewer as “‘Friday Night Lights” meets ‘Unbroken,’” does exactly that.

Plaschke, a Los Angeles Times columnist, follows the Paradise High Bobcats through an extremely trying season after the deadly 2018 Camp Fire ravaged their tiny foothill town. Consider the tremendous obstacles: Most of the team’s players lost their homes and had to scramble to find makeshift living quarters. The varsity roster was down from 76 to 22 kids, many of them severely traumatized. Their equipment had melted, their uniforms burned. The early practices were held on a field strewn with rocks, glass and potholes.

Still, their passionate coach, Rick Prinz, fervently believed that football could help the town recover and provide some hope. What ensued was a rousing demonstration of human resilience.

10 great books about California football, from the 49ers to Cal, De La Salle and more. (Publisher)

10 great books about California football, from the 49ers to Cal, De La Salle and more. (Publisher)

10 great books about California football, from the 49ers to Cal, De La Salle and more. (Publisher)

10 great books about California football, from the 49ers to Cal, De La Salle and more. (Publisher)

10 great books about California football, from the 49ers to Cal, De La Salle and more. (Publisher)

10 great books about California football, from the 49ers to Cal, De La Salle and more. (Publisher)

10 great books about California football, from the 49ers to Cal, De La Salle and more. (Publisher)

10 great books about California football, from the 49ers to Cal, De La Salle and more. (Publisher)

10 great books about California football, from the 49ers to Cal, De La Salle and more. (Publisher)

10 great books about California football, from the 49ers to Cal, De La Salle and more. (Publisher)

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‘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 might not know that the University of San Francisco once had a football program. And the school’s best season by far came in 1951, when the Dons compiled a 9-0 record and outscored opponents by a total of 338 points to 86.

Yet, despite that dominance, they weren’t invited to play in the Orange Bowl because two of their players — Ollie Matson and Burl Toler — were Black. The team was offered the chance to compete without Matson and Toler, but they unanimously refused on principle.

Clark, a USF grad, brings that legendary squad back to life. The ’51 Dons, once proclaimed as “the best team you never heard of,” have gained more attention in recent years, thanks to 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 — Matson, Bob St. Clair, Gino Marchetti and Dick Stanfel — are in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

‘The Incredible Slip Madigan: The Flamboyant Coach Who Modernized Football’ by Dave Newhouse

They also used to play football at tiny St. Mary’s College in Moraga. That’s where, in the 1920s and ’30s, the P.T. Barnum-like Madigan built the Galloping Gaels into a national power and made a name for himself.

Edward Patrick (“Slip”) Madigan, who had played for Knute Rockne at Notre Dame, was a visionary, raconteur and entrepreneur. His Gaels were the first West Coast team to travel to Hawaii and the East Coast. They drew record crowds and used imaginative strategy to knock off bigger, more prestigious colleges. He dressed his teams in flashy silk jerseys and wisely worked out a deal to take a percentage of ticket sales.

All the while, Madigan courted the media and Hollywood stars. Yet, he’s a largely forgotten figure.

Enter Newhouse, the former Oakland Tribune and Contra Costa Times sports columnist who specializes in unearthing discarded history. Readers of this colorful tale will be grateful he did.

‘If These Walls Could Talk: San Francisco 49ers: Stories from the San Francisco 49ers Sideline, Locker Room, and Press Box’ by Matt Barrows

Beat writers — the reporters paid to spend endless days and nights shadowing their teams — are often the best sources of inside intel.

Barrows, who has covered the 49ers since 2003, is a senior writer for The Athletic. Here, he takes us behind the scenes through  the team’s highs and lows and periods of reinvention. One chapter, for example, covers the scouting logic that went into the 49ers’ controversial decision to draft quarterback Alex Smith over Cal standout Aaron Rodgers in 2005.

Readers should be aware that the book doesn’t backtrack all the way to the Super Bowl triumphs of the 1980s and early ‘90s. As former offensive lineman Joe Staley points out in his foreword, “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’ by Roger Craig, Matt Maiocco, Daniel Brown

Here’s one more collection of 49ers memories, produced with the help of an ace beat writer (Maiocco). These concise “tales” are presented through the eyes of standout running back Roger Craig, who played under Bill Walsh and alongside all the Super Bowl greats, including Joe Montana, Steve Young, Jerry Rice and Ronnie Lott.

Craig commendably doesn’t take a self-centered approach — spreading the love around. But, of course, he has plenty to say about his own career, including how it was affected by Walsh’s departure.  “When he retired, a part of me died,” he writes. “I wasn’t the same running back after he stepped down.”

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‘When the Game Stands Tall: The Story of the De La Salle Spartans and Football’s Longest Winning Streak’ by Neil Hayes

The historic 151-game winning streak compiled by the Concord powerhouse between 1992 and 2004 under coach Bob Ladouceur is the stuff of legend. No high school football squad has come close to even sniffing that record. The Spartans’ success even drew the attention — and respect — of luminaries in professional sports.

Hayes had unrestricted access to the DLS program while writing his book, first published in 2003. He then caught up with the lives of the principals for a revised edition in 2014 that accompanied a movie based on the story. It remains an exceptional read — one that isn’t merely a rote rundown of gridiron invincibility, or how-to coaching tactics, but a riveting coming-of-age story full of life lessons and unexpected turns.