Chuck Noll: His life’s Work by Michael MacCambridge. (Biography, 2016).
For my money, a truly involving and compelling sports biography like this is among the rarest of rare literary birds. I say this although I personally enjoy watching pro football (among many other things) and particularly follow the Pittsburgh Steelers. In my experience, famous and successful coaches, even more than the best of their players, are often so obsessed with perfecting their given area of endeavor that there’s very little of interest about them (and hence for me as a reader) beyond the playing field. But as MacCambridge notes in quoting Dan Rooney, Chuck Noll was one who had a definite “off switch.”
Yes, Noll was very single-minded about success in his profession–but only when he was on duty. Away from the gridiron, the practice field or the stadium, this was a man of varied interests and intense intellect–one who could and would discuss a myriad of subjects (and actually showed very little interest in dwelling on his day job). He would much rather spend his time discussing fine wines, gourmet cooking, piloting his private plane, sail-boating, wildlife photography, current events and much more.
This was a man who studied law and seriously considered going into medicine or teaching school. And in fact, he saw himself as a coach as more an instructor or teacher–the polar opposite, in fact, of the ‘rah-rah’ type of coaching cliche. His recurrent theme and watch-word, adopted from exposure to coach Paul Brown in his playing days yet also absolutely key to understanding his own mindset, serves as the subtitle to this book. Playing football should only be a stepping stone, he felt–a preparation for a one’s true “Life’s Work.”
And indeed, this book is about a lot more than football. Detailed and insightful, exhaustively researched (just check the chapter notes at the back of the book), MacCambridge paints a meaty and full picture of the man and his time, his family and friends, and especially the great love of his life, Marianne.
Noll was also an extremely private man in a very public field. Except for those who witnessed one of his seizures, how many people even had a clue that he’d suffered from epilepsy in the first half of his life? I sure didn’t!
I found his childhood experiences at once instructive as to the grownup he became and intriguing in its own right. I’d say the same about his college and pro playing career, his rise through the ranks of assistant coaches in the 1960s–especially how it sometimes mirrored yet often contrasted with what happened off-the-field.
The book’s concluding chapter, appropriately entitled “Brave and Honest Deeds,” details the most private of all of Chuck’s struggles–his decline and eventual death from Alzheimer’s Disease. This affliction his beloved wife and immediate family kept a closely guarded secret till the very end. In a deeply moving, understated manner, the author notes that Noll was able to keep one last promise to Marianne: that no matter what else would happen, he never quite forgot HER.
Real tear-jerking stuff, for sure. Yet absolutely sincere and genuine.
Raised in a working class neighborhood in Cleveland during the Great Depression, he was a product of an Old School, stiff-upper-lip environment where men were expected to repress emotion. That, plus his highly intelligent and analytical nature made him seem distant, even cold to many of the people he worked with.
Is it really any wonder that a highly emotional (and yes, often immature) person like Terry Bradshaw had such difficulty understanding the man?
Ah, this is a fine book–a heartfelt and honest portrait of a life, a person–and so much more than the overachieving athlete and the steady coach who built what had been a pathetic band of misfits into one of their sports’ greatest teams.
In sum: This is a fascinating and beautifully written account of a complex man. Certainly if you’re a football fan, and in particular a Steeler fan, this volume will appeal enormously to you. But even if you’re not, the experience in learning of “His Life’s Work” (in multiple senses) is well worth your time.