The QB: alone at the top of the world

Much of the hoopla surrounding Super Duper Bowl weekend revolves around the two opposing quarterbacks – one of whom, the New England Patriots’ Tom Brady, is trying to perpetuate a dynasty; the other of whom, the Seattle Seahawks’ Russell Wilson, is trying to start one.

Both are featured in the superb new coffee-table book, “Sports Illustrated NFL QB: The Greatest Position in Sports” ($29.95), a tome you’ll want to tackle again and again.  It’s one I particularly love poring over as I prepare my novel about a gay, biracial quarterback’s quest for acceptance in the NFL, “The Penalty for Holding.”

“NFL QB” takes you down to the field and past the locker room into the mind, body, heart and soul of the quarterback, who more than any other player on the world stage represents the quintessence of masculinity. Walter Iooss Jr.’s double-page photograph of New York Jet Joe Namath – shirtless and hirsute, casting an appreciative leer at two ladies of a certain vintage as he sits on the beach surrounded by equally admiring males – says everything you need to know about the QB:  He’s the big man on the campus of life.

But being special cuts both way, and both Tim Layden’s introduction and former Cincinnati Bengals’ QB Boomer Esiason’s foreword do much to capture the aloneness, pain and vomit-inducing terror of a job on which cities as well as teams rise and fall.

As in Sports Illustrated itself – from which most of the words and images were taken – the words and images here serve as a counterpoint as they chart the course from the blocker of the single-wing formation to the QB taking the snap from center in the T formation; from the pocket passer (Brady, Peyton Manning) to the running QB (Wilson, Colin Kaepernick, Cam Newton, Robert Griffin III); and, perhaps most important of all, from sideshow to icon.

While “NFL QB” captures the glamour – what a babe Peyton Manning was on the September 1997 cover of Esquire – what lingers is the grit (brother Eli bloodied yet unbowed in a local showdown between the New York Giants and Jets in 2010).

More than anything else, “NFL QB” crystallizes the brutal, balletic beauty of the sport in images that echo the exquisite agony of Renaissance sculpture – the San Francisco 49ers’ Aldon Smith taking down the New Orleans Saints’ Drew Brees, both landing on their heads; the Pittsburgh Steelers’ Ben Roethlisberger assuming the tuck position under 550 pounds of the Bengals’ Manny Lawson and Domata Peko; the Niners’ Steve Young grimacing as he strains to hold on to the ball, and his equilibrium, while the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ Warren Sapp buries his bulk in Young’s side.

There’s a tortuous, torturous dynamism to these images.  Still, one of the best pix in the book – but then, if you’re a reader of this blog, you know I’m prejudiced – is a masterwork of taut repose.  It’s of the Niners’ current QB, Colin Kaepernick, shirtless and leaning into the camera with the intensity of a tattooed warrior.

For me, it’s a shot worth the price of the book.

Russell Wilson, hoisting the Lombardi Trophy last year, and Tom Brady are both featured in the superb new “Sports Illustrated NFL QB.”   Brady photograph by Jeffrey Beall

Russell Wilson, hoisting the Lombardi Trophy last year, and Tom Brady are both featured in the superb new “Sports Illustrated NFL QB.” Brady photograph by Jeffrey Beall