For every superstar pro football player who makes it to NFL and pulls down multi-million dollar salaries for years, there are countless third-string journeymen who knock about the league accepting short-term contracts with any team that will have them. These are the guys who were top athletes in high school, and just good enough in college that pro teams decided to give them a look. Though they know they’ll never have a Hall of Fame career, they’re not quite willing to give up the dream yet.
Rick Dockery, the protagonist in John Grisham’s 2007 novel Playing for Pizza, is just this sort of man. His unwillingness to admit defeat after being ignominiously run out of the NFL lands him in Italy playing football for pizza, beer, and a tiny salary. Dockery’s time in Parma, and the realizations he makes about himself serve as the basic plot of Playing for Pizza.
Plot summary (with possible spoilers): Up by 17 points with 11 minutes left to play in the AFC Championship game, the Cleveland Browns are forced to turn the game over to third-string quarterback Rick Dockery for what should be little more than mop-up duty after both their first- and second-stringers were knocked out with injuries.
However, Dockery proceeded to throw three interceptions during those 11 minutes, including one that was returned for the game-winning touchdown. Never mind that Dockery was hit hard enough on that play to land him in the hospital for three days with a concussion. The monumental collapse made Dockery a marked man with the Cleveland fans, earned him the position of Biggest Goat in sports history on a columnist’s list, and turned the 28-year-old into the league pariah. The Browns released Dockery from his contract almost immediately, and no GM would return his agent Arnie’s calls.
Then one day, Arnie offers Rick the only gig he could find: a five-month contract worth 2,000 Euros per month to play for the Parma Panthers in the Italian football league. Rick has never heard of Parma, much less the Panthers, so he at first resists the offer. But when it becomes perfectly clear that the NFL isn’t going to be an option anymore, he accepts.
From there, the plot takes on a predictable aspect as Grisham combines the typical elements of classic fish-out-of-water scenarios with the expected scenes of an underdog sports team that overcomes the odds to win the big game. On the one hand, Rick encounters problems with the language, life, and culture of Parma as he learns to adjust to his new situation. On the other hand, Rick deals with misfit teammates, tries to shake off lingering demons from his NFL career, and ultimately becomes the on-field leader he has always dreamed of being.
My Reaction: This didn’t feel like a John Grisham book at all. I’m not saying that just because it’s not one of his typical legal thrillers; I can understand why he’d want to branch out every once in a while. What I mean is that there wasn’t anything distinctive about the plot or characters that made me want to keep turning the pages. It’s like Grisham outlined the story and then handed the actual composition tasks over to a ghostwriter or something. It was all very anonymous and very bland.
For one thing, the plot itself was highly predictable. There are just so many different ways a sports story can play out, you know? Grisham did the expected thing here, by making Rick come into Parma with heightened expectations surrounding him (a “real” NFL quarterback), having the team go on a losing streak as they face bigger and bigger obstacles, and then finally having them pull together to win games, turn their season around, make it into the playoffs, and win the championship.
Seriously, that plot could have been written by any student in a college writing course.
The non-football aspects of the novel weren’t much better. At first, when Rick was attending operas and starting to hit on that soprano, I was worried that this subplot would develop with Nicholas Sparks-like syrupy sweetness. Fortunately, and somewhat surprisingly, Grisham went in a different direction and gave Rick an American girl to fall for.
Overall, I thought Playing for Pizza was a subpar effort from John Grisham. He has built his reputation on writing tightly plotted books with great action and a number of twists and turns along the way. But Playing for Pizza had neither a strong plot nor strong characters, and was a big letdown in the end. The best thing I can say about the book was that it was short and made for a quick read.