Book Review: Taking Flak
First, a disclaimer or two. While I am a fan of the Tennessee Titans and have been since their days as the Houston Oilers (I moved first), the Luv Ya Blue teams of the end of the 1970’s have no hold on my imagination or childhood memories; I’m a bit too young for that, and those teams never won a division. While they did make it to the AFC title game in consecutive seasons, they weren’t obviously in hindsight one of the best teams in the league. Take, for instance, the 1978 incarnation; they didn’t win a single game in the regular season by more than 7 points and were in fact outscored over the course of the year. Looking back, their greatness, such as it was, is hard to capture. That they were beloved wasn’t a surprise when you consider how inept the franchise was earlier in the decade, when they went 1-13 in consecutive seasons and were pretty much just that bad.
Further, for one reason or another, biography, of the auto- sort or otherwise, has never really been my favorite genre of book. The exceptions are typically if the person had a particularly important life and the biography is well-done, or if the person’s life was particularly interesting (Churchill 1874-1932 great; Churchill 1932-1940 rather dull for this Anglophilephobiac). An NFL quarterback does not fall into the former category (unless they do something post-playing that falls into the category), so we’re stuck relying on the latter category. Thankfully, then, Dan Pastorini did lead a fairly interesting life.
Of course, even leading an interesting life doesn’t mean an autobiography like Taking Flak: My Life in the Fast Lane, co-written with longtime Houston sports journalist John P. Lopez, is necessarily interesting. Too many jock bios are written to capitalize on a moment, without much participation from the subjects, and without any of the interesting or controversial details that make life more interesting. As I noted in my review of Illegal Procedure, you have to be out of the scene to write anything like a tell-all. Thankfully again, then, Dan Pastorini is long-removed from his playing days and willing to speak relatively frankly about his various adventures and misadventures.
Time and again while reading Taking Flak, I had the feeling “Did I really just read what I thought I read?” Pastorini was apparently well-regarded as a quarterback prospect, but ended up playing at Santa Clara, passing up Pac-X offers to play for a school a buddy attended close to where he went to high school in San Jose. At Santa Clara, he missed large chunks of his sophomore, junior, and senior seasons, but recovered enough to play in the postseason all-star games. The Oilers were impressed enough to take him third overall in the 1971 draft, behind Jim Plunkett and Archie Manning. Who knows where he would have gone if he’d started even ten games for the Broncos. (The Oilers weren’t obviously unaware of Pastorini’s injury history, as they spent their next pick, in the third round, on another quarterback, Lynn Dickey.)
Pastorini’s career as Oilers quarterback was typically eventful. He was affianced as a rookie, at least until his fiancee unexpectedly showed up in Houston to find his current squeeze at his residence. Winning their final three games that season (to finish 4-9-1) wasn’t enough to save the job of head coach Ed Hughes, and Pastorini express his displeasure to the media, an act for which Bud Adams had him apologize. (I haven’t yet found a book where Adams comes off particularly well, and doubt I will unless I read his autobiography. Taking Flak is no exception, as Pastorini writes about feeling shown off like a piece of meat to Bud’s River Oaks friends, plus a stereotypical Bottom Line Bud anecdote about Bud offering Pastorini use of his plane to fly him to visit his sick father, then sending him a bill for $5,000. Of course, he’d also later sign Pastorini to a particularly rich contract. Like the late Dollar Bill Wirtz, Bud has been a strange combination of both cheap and profligate.)
Another particularly surreal moment was seeing Pastorini write about his experience racing speed boats during the NFL offseason. My mind had trouble fathoming that, and it’s not hard to see why when Pastorini writes about his experiences. A direct competitor lost his life in a race, and Pastorini was involved in an accident where he walked away basically intact but two spectators lost their lives. The lawsuits that followed were just one of the financial troubles that plagued Pastorini; these also included getting ripped off by his sister and brother in law, a number of expensive divorces, Al Davis stiffing him on his contract, trying to run a drag-racing team after his football playing days were over, and not paying the IRS (pro-tip: pay the IRS first).
As is normally the case even in disaster bios, Pastorini has more or less conquered his demons, especially his occasional problems when having a drink or ten, by the end of the book, and sworn off marriage after going 0-for-5, plus built some semblance of a relationship with the daughter that really didn’t care for him.
I noticed the occasional typo or other infelicity in Taking Flak, but nothing too serious. It’s by no means great literature or the kind of book that will change your life, but at $3.49 for the Kindle version, I found more than enough entertainment and amusement (and there are a number of stories I haven’t recounted here) to get my money’s worth.