Back when I was at The University of Alabama, I used to go this little used book shop. I can’t remember the shop’s name, but it was run by an elderly lady out of her home. She had a bunch of birds that smelled awful – and she also had a ton of old books.
One day, while rummaging in her store, I found an old paperback copy of Peter Gent’s North Dallas Forty. The book was so old that the white cover had started to yellow, but it was in decent shape otherwise. I bought it, took it back to my little student apartment, and read it. The book was terrific and it seems somehow appropriate that I read it in Tuscaloosa – perhaps the most football-mad place on earth.
It was very sad to read the other day that Peter Gent had passed away at age 69. The obituaries that I read said that he had “a pulmonary illness” and that he died in the town where he grew up, Bangor, Michigan. (I had to find Bangor on the map; it’s in the southwest corner of the state). Perhaps the most-surprising thing about Gent was that he never played college football; he was on Michigan State’s basketball team and then made the Dallas Cowboys after a long-shot tryout. Gent stayed with the Cowboys for five years (1964-1968) and used his experiences as the basis for North Dallas Forty.
More than anything, I think that North Dallas Forty became a hit because it came along at the right time (1973). That time we call “The ‘60s” seemed to run from about 1964-1974 and Gent’s tell-all novel perfectly caught the spirit of the times. For me, North Dallas Forty gave a great idea of what it must be like to play in the NFL.
Many reviews of the novel focused on the similarities in Gent’s novel and many of the real-life, 1960s Dallas Cowboys (including quarterback Don Meredith and coach Tom Landry). I enjoyed the gossipy aspects of the book, but let’s not forget that it is also a fine novel. At least one reviewer noted that Gent was a novelist who happened to play pro football, not a pro football player who happened to write novel. I couldn’t have said it better.
Gent later wrote a sequel titled North Dallas After Forty. I owned a copy for a while, but I never read it. I’m sure that the loss was mine and I have hazy plans to track down a copy in the future. For fans interested in the “inside scoop” on life in big-time, 1960s football, I also recommend Out of Their League by Dave Meggyesy (a St. Louis Cardinals’ linebacker) and Meat on the Hoof by Gary Shaw (who played at the University of Texas). One big difference in North Dallas Forty and those other two (nonfiction) accounts is that Gent always said that he loved football – in spite of its rotten aspects – while Meggyesy and Shaw clearly do not share that feeling.
I hope that Gent is in a better place today. He was a talented man who left behind a wonderful novel in North Dallas Forty.