In our latest Notable Narrative, “The People V. Football,” Jeanne Marie Laskas follows former NFL linebacker Fred McNeill into the abyss of his ruined life. Touching intermittently on the larger conversation about brain-damaged players and their short-circuited lives, Laskas returns relentlessly to what existence is like for the injured McNeill.

Laskas brings together two classic narrative strategies to impressive effect: she tackles big issues though attention to tiny details and tells her story largely through dialogue. The story opens and closes with extended conversations between McNeill and his wife, Tia, who left him in 2007 but still coordinates much of his care. In between, we get comments from an online message board, a discussion between commentators on “Monday Night Football,” and interactions between Fred and those who document his diminishing mental capacity.

The dialogues with McNeill are doubly useful. As with any story, they reveal his character and let us see him engage with others. In this case, they also allow us to watch his mind sliding down the slope from intellectual prowess – he was an accomplished lawyer who graduated at the top of his class at law school – to utter dementia. Even in his current state, occasional lucidity allows him to carefully outline the challenge facing the NFL.

Laskas’ most striking accomplishment here is a subtlety with humor that scores big. She will not let the reader off with pity alone but deepens the connection by going for ironic and rueful moments that humanize everyone involved. McNeill’s wife is grateful that he has a girlfriend who takes him to karaoke during the week, relieved that someone else is also looking out for him. The end of the story provides a particularly comic moment between Tia and her husband, one that turns heartbreaking as it foreshadows what will happen in the long run. If “The People V. Football,” is an indictment, Fred McNeill is Exhibit A for the prosecution.

Scanned image courtesy GQ; photograph by Robert Maxwell.

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