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  • Budd Bailey

Book Review: Head On

Updated: Sep 29, 2023

Review by Budd Bailey

Remember fullbacks?

More to the point, remember when they actually ran the ball once in a while?

As football has evolved over the years, the passing game has become more important. That means that teams often use only one running back in the backfield, mostly to get another fast wide receiver on the line of scrimmage. When a fullback does come into the game, his main chore usually is to block for the featured running back.

But kids, it wasn’t always that way. Fullbacks started to disappear in the 1980s, more or less. Before that, teams used a fullback and a halfback in their regular lineup. The former pounded the opposing defense, while the latter ran away from it. (If you want to go back to a more distant time, there were three running backs who joined the quarterback in the backfield … but that idea finally died when the wishbone offense faded away from college football in the 1970s.)

Take it from someone who was there, Larry Csonka was a pounder. He hit defenses, as opposed to waiting for them to hit him. Larry was good, and he was tough. That combination got him into the College Football Hall of Fame, and the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

It’s almost always interesting to read autobiographies of Hall of Famers in sports, and Csonka – or, if you prefer, “Zonk” – finally gets to tell his story with “Head On.” Yes, the title describes his playing style nicely.

Csonka played college football in the 1960s and moved smoothly into the pros to have a long career in the 1960s and 1970s. You might be wondering at this point what took him so long to get around to finishing the book. It sounds like it was put on the shelf for periods of time, and that he needed a little motivation to finish it.

That motivation came when the approach of the fall of 2022. It’s the 50th anniversary of the Miami Dolphins’ perfect 17-0 season. It had never been done before, and it still hasn’t been duplicated. Csonka might have been the face of that team, at least on the playing field. The man most closely associated with that perfect team probably is its coach, Don Shula.

Somewhat surprisingly, Csonka takes his time in the book to getting around to that 1972 squad. In fact, Larry isn’t in a big hurry to get anywhere. The story jumps around a bit in subject matter. That can be a risky literary tactic, but Csonka manages to pull it off quite well as he goes from one part of his life to the next. It’s something like a conversation with him; one moment from his life reminds him of something from the more distant past.

The story starts outside of Akron, Ohio, where Csonka was a classic unsophisticated farmboy. He got big and strong the old-fashioned way – doing chores around the farm. It took him a while to realize that football was a good outlet for his energy, with some coaches giving him some needed extra attention along the way. Larry was good enough to attract attention from college recruiters, and he was willing to go to Syracuse as long as he received the chance to be a running back at some point instead of a lineman.

Ben Schwartzwalder was willing to do that. The veteran coach of the Orangemen (as they were known at the time) loved his running game … and why not? When you have running backs such as Jim Brown, Ernie Davis, Jim Nance and Floyd Little, you’d hand the ball off as well. Csonka became part of that tradition.

The stories about Schwartzwalder were quite interesting, at least to this Syracuse grad. There’s a story here about his World War II exploits that was passed along to Csonka by an assistant coach. Supposedly he personally gunned down some German prisoners in order to collect American soldiers for a mission elsewhere. While Schwartzwalder did collect a group of medals during the war, this episode sounds a little too close to a war crime to be anything but a little apocryphal.

Schwartzwalder gets some credit from Csonka here for being color-blind in an era when that was a little difficult. Csonka even was assigned a black roommate as a sophomore, which was a little ahead of its time in such matters. The future star points out that African Americans had thrived in Syracuse for more than a decade by the time he was an Orangeman, and that Schwartzwalder deserved the credit. The interesting part of that story is that in 1970, a group of eight African American players boycotted spring practice due to long-standing grievances with the lack of a black assistant coach. That sent Syracuse’s football program on a downward spiral that lasted for more than a decade, damaging Schwartzwalder’s reputation in the process. As usual, there’s more to the tale than meets the eye.

After college, Csonka was drafted by the Miami Dolphins in 1967, a relatively new team that had growing pains. It slowly accumulated talent, and then lured Shula from Baltimore as head coach in 1970. It didn’t take long for the Dolphins to emerge as a power. Shula and the scouting department put the pieces together quickly, and it was climaxed by the 1972 perfect season. Miami won the Super Bowl the next year too, and came close in 1974.

Then Csonka and teammates Jim Kiick and Paul Warfield jumped to the World Football League. They made big money by the standards of the time, but the league quickly collapsed and their careers never reached those heights set in Miami again. Csonka ended up with the New York Giants for a while, and then returned to the Dolphins for a brief encore. Larry doesn’t spend a great deal of time review life after football; he’s spent a lot of those years in Alaska with his beloved great outdoors.

There’s no co-author listed on the cover of the book, although he did have some help along the way. That makes the readability of the publication a nice surprise. It can be read – and enjoyed – in a couple of days, flowing through 334 pages in short order.

Admittedly, “Head On” will have more appeal to those who are old enough to remember Csonka’s powerful presence on a football field. But there are enough good stories to make it an enjoyable – if not memorable – read for anyone who follows football.

(Follow Budd on Twitter @WDX2BB)

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