Monday, July 28, 2008

Summer Reading: Playing for Pizza

When was the last time you really embarrassed yourself in front of a lot of people? Remember? How bad was it?

It probably wasn't as bad as what Grisham's lead man Rick Dockery did at the beginning of Playing for Pizza. With 3 minutes left in the AFC championships, Browns leading the Broncos 17-0, third-string quarterback Dockery throws the game away as he throws out of control passes that end up as interceptions. Probably the worst single performance in the history of the NFL. The crushing sack of the last play knocks him out and puts him in hospital. The next day an angry mob of 50 radical Browns fans tries to break in to the hospital and give him their worst, but the police and hospital security hold them off.

How do you overcome a public failure like that? The first thing Rick does when he gets out of the hospital is pack his bags and head for the golf courses in Florida. He's gotten pretty good at signing short term leases and renting furniture over the past 7 years, bouncing around from one NFL franchise to another. No roots, no relationships, just a dream driving him on. And now that dream has died.

With the help of his agent, he winds up in Parma, Italy (home of parmesan cheese). What is he doing there, of all places? Playing football americano in the land of "soccer", eating and drinking more than seems humanly possible, lusting after Italian women, learning to enjoy opera and figuring out how to parallel-park a manual-transmission Fiat. This is where the story of his redemption begins.

I was expecting Rick to grow up a bit more than he does, but he makes some significant strides toward manhood. After one episode of pre-game partying that resulted in a humiliating defeat, he learns a little responsibility as a team leader. Through the course of the season he chooses to make some personal sacrifices for the benefit of his Italian teammates who play for the love of the game. He even learns how to have a relationship with a woman that is more than a one-night-stand.

Playing for Pizza starts strong in the theme of human failure and public embarrassment. There is a funny revenge scene between Rick and a hateful sports writer who won't let the world forget about how Rick lost it all for his beloved Browns. The characters who make up the Parma Panthers team are charming and inspiring. In time, Rick learns to get outside of himself and appreciate Italian culture and make friends with many people. Maybe I'm asking too much, but I would have liked to see Rick take a few more steps away from selfishness and toward real manhood, especially as his "relationships" with women.

Maybe Playing for Pizza will be made into a movie like Skipping Christmas (one of Grisham's other non-legal-thriller books that became Tim Allen's Christmas with the Krank's). I'd give it a PG-13 rating because it contains descriptions of a lot of extra-marital sex. Grisham certainly knows how to put together a page-turner. Fun summer reading. And it's true that there is hope for all of us who make some big mistakes while a lot of people are watching.

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