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Dave Wood's Book Report, Dec. 27, 2006

Here's a book to settle down in and read while the fire crackles at your side. It's "Dean Acheson: A Life in the Cold War," by Robert Beisner (Oxford University Press, $35).

I grew up reading about Truman's Secretary of State and always like his mustache. He was a natty guy, like his boss, only nattier. Beisner's new book is fascinating because he goes behind the scenes to show how this east coast aristocrat got along with Truman, the ploughjckey from Missouri.

It's a fascinating story, full of the accomplishments and mistakes of both men as they tried to figure out what was gong on behind the Iron Curtain and how the U.S. should respond to the threat. It's a book for history buffs, for sure, but also anyone who wants to understand the basis of the Cold War.

Too many books about football legends are cut and paste jobs and I tire of even skimming them. Not so "Vagabond Halfback: The Life and Times of Johnny Blood McNally," by Denis J. Gullickson (Trails Books, $18.95 paper). As a Wisconsinite, I grew up hearing tales of "Johnny Blood," the great Green Bay Packer tailback from New Richmond, Wisconsin. Author Gullickson in his new book separates fact from fiction and it turns out some of the more outrageous legends aren't true or only partially so.

That doesn't mean that Johnny Blood's story is a boring one. This guy personified The Roaring Twenties with his deeds off and on the field. Like the poet Edna St. Vincent Millay, Blood burned the candle at both ends, drinking, womanizing, fighting with his coaches, first Knute Rockne at Notre Dame and finally Curly Lambeau in Green Bay.

Born in 1903 to wealthy parents in New Richmond (His mother's family owned the Minneapolis Tribune, his father's family owned the New Richmond rolling mills that became Doughboy Feeds), John McNally graduated from New Richmond High School at age 14. His lifelong interest in economics and philosophy first brought him to River Falls Teacher's College, where his mother had graduated years before. John was 16 and paid little attention to studies, concentrating instead on girls and illicit moonshine. He left in disgrace, read for the law in New Richmond with Wisconsin governor-to-be Warren Knowles, got bored. Then it was on to St. John's in Collegeville where he played intramural football. After some success he moved on to Notre Dame, where Rockne switched him to tackle which sent the mercurial kid packing.

He ended up in Minneapolis, working for his uncle's newspaper. He worked hard, but, as usual, got bored, even turning down his uncle's offer of preparing him to take over the newspaper in time. It was in Minneapolis that he and his St. John's pal answered an ad from a semi-pro team, the East 26th St. Liberties. On their way to practice, they agreed to give false names to preserve their years of eligibility as college players. But what to name themselves? At that moment they drove past a movie marquee, announcing Rudolph Valentino in "Blood and Sand."

"I'll be Blood," said Johnny, "And you be Sand." The dye was cast. Blood went on to play for the Duluth Eskimos, the Packers, the Pittsburgh Pirates, whom he also coached. He served as a code breaker during World War II, returned home to several bouts with the bottle and a brief tenure as economics professor and football coach at St. John's University, where he said just because the Benedictines took a vow of poverty, that didn't mean coaches should follow suit.

He married twice, returned to New Richmond often, where he was known to walk downtown in his pajamas. When a reporter asked him what he had been doing for the past few years, he replied that he "had been researching the effects of alcohol consumption. He died in 1985, but his memory lives on. Gullickson has done a remarkable job of preserving that memory.

Dave Wood is a past vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle and a former book review editor of the Minneapolis Star Tribune.