The Library of America, a nonprofit publisher committed to preserving the best writing this country has ever produced, has just singled out for recognition a story that celebrates LSU football.
The Library of America typically publishes definitive editions of works by classic authors like John Steinbeck, Mark Twain and Herman Melville. But earlier this year, recognizing that some of the best American prose has been inspired by the gridiron, LOA released a handsome paperback anthology called “Football: Great Writing About the National Sport.” The book includes, among other memorable entries, “The Best Years of His Life,” former LSU offensive center John Ed Bradley’s celebrated Sports Illustrated reminiscence of his college football career. The Library of America is now featuring Bradley’s article in “Story of the Week,” its online feature that regularly offers choice excerpts from the work it has republished. Readers can check it out for themselves at storyoftheweek.loa.org.
Bradley’s college football days ended in 1979, and his writing career began after that. “The Best Years of His Life” first appeared in Sports Illustrated in 1982, and although the Internet had not yet come of age, the piece became what we would today call a viral phenomenon.
“I heard from a lot of players from around the country that said, ‘Hey, that’s my story.’ ... When I do book signings, a lot of people will come and they’ll buy the book or they’ll buy 10 copies but they have that old magazine article,” Bradley told The New York Times. “You’ll see an old farmer, with a tobacco hat on his head and an old blue jean shirt, and he’ll have a Xerox copy of the article and I’ll wonder why does that matter to him. And I’ll ask him and he’ll say, ‘I was second-team all district in football and I had to give it up and I’ve never gotten over it.’ ”
Bradley’s story is about coming to the end of his time as a football player and realizing that it’s over, a chapter of his life closed for good. In a larger sense — and this is why the story is so appealing — it’s about the life passages that all of us face: that sense of time marching on, even when we’d like it to move more slowly.
“I was only 21 years old, yet I believed that nothing I did for the rest of my life would rise up to those days when I wore the Purple and Gold,” Bradley writes in his story. “I might go on to a satisfying career and make a lot of money, I might marry a beautiful woman and fill a house with perfect kids, I might make a mark that would be of some significance in other people’s eyes. But I would never have it better than when I was playing football for LSU.”
What Bradley is mourning here, more than the passing of a football season, is the passing of youth itself, something from which no star athlete — or no human being, for that matter — is ever immune.