Title: Backfield Boys – A Football Mystery in Black and White
Author: John Feinstein
Publisher: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux
Hardcover: 368 pages
Summary: (taken from Goodreads)
Sportswriting powerhouse John Feinstein’s young adult novel Backfield Boys follows best friends and football stars Jason Roddin and Tom Jefferson, a perfect, though unconventional, pair: Jason, the Jewish kid, is lightning fast and a natural wide-receiver, while African-American Tom has an amazing arm and a quarterback’s feel for the game. After summer football camp at an elite sports-focused boarding school, the boys are thrilled to enroll on scholarship for their freshman year–despite their mothers’ fears of injury and especially CTE.
On day one, they’re stunned when the coaches make Tom a receiver and Jason a quarterback, a complete contradiction to their skill sets and training. They soon suspect this is a racial issue. The boys speak out, risking both their scholarships and their chance to play. But when Jason gets a concussion in the first game of the season, he and Tom must decide how much they’re willing to lose in their quest to expose the ugly remnants of a racist past that still linger in contemporary jock culture.
*I received a free copy of this book from the publisher through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.*
Overall Rating: 4 out of 5
I was kind of nervous about this one. I thought it could go either way quite easily with its description. I even kind of rolled my eyes after reading the prologue. But man was I pleasantly surprised by this book.
As a quick aside, it doesn’t come up very much here but I am a huge football (particularly college) fan. When I hit August, I start hankering for football really badly. I read previews for the season, I watch documentaries about past teams, and I’ll often watch old games just because I need to try to stave off the craving for it.
This book hit the spot. It actually got to the point where it was talking about coaches and IMG Academy and other football things that made me wonder if it was a little too inside baseball for the average reader (upon further consideration I actually think that the author did a great job explaining things like IMG Academy so it would be accessible). The actual knowledge of college football really helped me speed through it and hooked me.
All of this is kind of burying the lead though, since more than anything else this is a book about discrimination. What I think this book does incredibly well is set up a situation that seems completely realistic to me in modern day America. Tom is an African American who is an amazing quarterback and his best friend Jason is a Jewish wide receiver. Their positions are switched when they arrive at their new boarding school, which confuses them quite a bit. Along the way, they and their roommates uncover the discrimination (subtle and otherwise) at the school.
I think two of the things the book does really well is provide a variety of characters from different backgrounds. It would have been very easy to write a book where all the southerners were racist or all the Christians were super judgmental (more on that later), but the book did not do this. The other thing I think it did really well was nail the standards the media needs to meet when doing investigative journalism. A lot of times throughout the book, there are instances where the boys think they have enough evidence to prove their case and two reporters they work with show how what they have come up with is just circumstantial. I think this is really important since a lot of scandals (in sports or otherwise) are grey areas because there is no way to fully prove the situation one way or the other, and this consideration is something that I thought was well done.
The last thing that I really appreciated about this was how faith is woven into sports (particularly football). I watch Last Chance U on Netflix as another way to try to get myself to football season and something that really struck me was how much Christianity is used by coaches. It honestly kind of creeped me out because of how the school also bills itself as the way to turn around students with a difficult past, and it feels almost forced upon students. This was the same way in the book and was a point of contention for both main characters, but particularly Jason since he was Jewish. I think that this was something that is probably not thought about as much when it comes to discrimination in football (or at least I know I haven’t thought about it as much as I should have).
I think this book is a great read and should definitely be checked out. My one concern is that a lot of references are very contemporary and I’m not sure how well they will age, however, even with that, I think the story itself will endure.