Author John Grisham has often captivated many adoring readers with his thriller novels that deal with the legal system, crime and everything in between. Grisham, who holds the distinction of being one of only three authors to sell two million copies on a first printing, has already built a legacy to last through works such as The Firm, The Rainmaker and The Testament (you may notice here that the titles of Grisham’s thriller novels often begin with the word “the”). But it’s not always legal suspense that gives the former lawyer his kicks, as we find out in one of his cheerier novels, Playing for Pizza.
In Playing for Pizza, Grisham shows his passion for football (American football, not soccer) and a love for the country of Italy, including the sights, the sounds, the people and most definitely the food. The novel’s protagonist is one Rick Dockery, a third-string quarterback for an NFL outfit, the Cleveland Browns. Following a series of short, unsuccessful stints at several other teams in the league, Dockery finds himself replacing the injured regular quarterbacks in the AFC championship game and, in the short space of eleven minutes not only blows a 17-point lead, but also suffers a concussion that puts him in a hospital bed not remembering the events on the field during the game and wondering why an angry mob of die-hard Browns fans had surrounded the hospital. Dockery, now at the top of every NFL team’s blacklist, is thus forced to move as far as to Italy, more specifically Parma, in search of work. It is here in the south-central European nation that Dockery has a rather humorous (at least from the readers’ perspective) time adjusting to what is a very different and foreign culture before eventually learning to live and love the lifestyle that Italy offers him.
Life in Italy first catches Dockery by surprise and has him rushing to make sense of everything while also steering clear of any trouble. His 5-month, $20,000 deal is a big gamble taken by an ambitious (by Italian standards) team owner who would like to see his Panthers team win the Italian Super Bowl. This “blockbuster” deal, which includes housing and a modest, manual transmission car, has Dockery become the one player on the team not “playing for pizza,” a phrase that describes the passion and mindset of Dockery’s Italian teammates who all have full-time jobs and play on the weekends purely out of their love for football. Following his move to Parma, Dockery experiences many unexpected happenings that help, albeit in a fairly shocking manner, with his acclimatization to the Italian lifestyle. One challenge he constantly faces is the need to parallel-park his small car in what is often an equally small parking space found on the sides of the narrow Parma streets. Another implicit challenge for Dockery is to control his love for some of the great perks of living in Italy which, for Dockery, is the combination of food, opera and beautiful Italian women. Most notably, his encounter and short-lived pseudo-relationship with the beautiful opera singer Gabriella is one that has Dockery infatuated before leaving a bitter aftertaste.
Aside from living in a foreign country, Dockery finds issues with the footballing aspect, too. His teammates are incredibly passionate about the game, but their skills often cannot match their enthusiasm. Dockery’s only American teammates, Sly Turner and Trey Colby, leave the team mid-season due to homesickness and injury respectively, taking with them a significant portion of the talent the Panthers’ squad had. Dockery is thus forced to adapt new methods and tactics as the star quarterback to make full use of his team while also assimilating the skilled but arrogant Fabrizio into the team to give the Panthers a chance of becoming the champions.
Grisham showcases his mastery over both the pen and the football playbook in this novel. His descriptions of Parma, including its architecture, its people and the exquisite atmosphere that is unique to Italy are all delicately but thoroughly provided for the readers to enjoy. Each game that Dockery and the Panthers play becomes a memorable highlight reel played in the readers’ minds, as vivid, detailed and exciting as any ESPN television program could ever hope to be. Without giving too much away, Rick Dockery’s life is transformed by the events that take place in Playing for Pizza, and you can be sure of a happy ending for our once-beleaguered quarterback. How Grisham concludes on this feel-good finale without producing the cheesiest of tales is something that is left for the readers to discover and savor for themselves. Just as Dockery will never resort to arena football to save his career, rest assured that you won’t be disappointed by Grisham’s latest sports offering.