Now for something a little different, with Super Bowl weekend upon us. Sports novels for young readers often have the same virtues as sports themselves: an emphasis on team effort, fair play, self-discipline, and doing your best. Real-life sports don’t always measure up to that ideal of course, but there’s enough virtue in them to inspire great stories.
Sweat matted the player’s long blond hair and beard. Blood ran down his face, but a light shone in his eyes. Ghosts of steam curled up from his bare arms in the chilly night air. Skin slick with sweat stretched tight over bulging muscles.
That’s about all Harrison Johnson knows of football: clandestine glances at the TV over the shoulder of his foster dad. It doesn’t seem like life could get any worse for Harrison, a kid too big for his age and now on his fourth foster home—actually a Dickensian workhouse disguised as a dairy farm. His one dream is to play football, but there’s no way that will happen—until a dramatic turn of events puts him back in the foster-parent market, and a sympathetic social worker takes a special interest in him.
Harrison is placed with the ideal mom and dad for a kid with gridiron dreams: Mrs. Wilson is a lawyer and Mr. Wilson is a teacher at the local high school . . . as well as the Junior Varsity football coach. Harrison as much a dream-come-true for the coach as the other way around: a natural athlete with years of suppressed rage longing for legitimate expression. He finds it on the playing field and under the Thursday-night lights—but his career has barely begun when a grudge hit by a resentful teammate leads to a knee X-ray and a terrible discovery: Harrison has bone cancer.
Tim Green, an adopted child and former defensive end for the Atlanta Falcons, has enjoyed a varied post-season career as lawyer, radio commentator, TV host, and writer of fiction and non-fiction. His sports novels are top choices with middle-grade boys everywhere, but Unstoppable is a departure for him–inspired, as he explains in the afterward, by his wife’s cancer diagnosis. Her journey to wellness, with the hospitals, the chemo, the countless painful adjustments in the life of their family, led Green to contemplate a new kind of courage and sportsmanship: one that doesn’t bask in bright lights but inches forward in thousands of deliberate choices.
Coach is good at teaching controlled aggression on the field but is at a loss when it comes to hospital beds and rehab. That’s why he calls in his best friend the Major, an amputee from the Gulf War. Harrison doesn’t climb steadily out of this deep pit, and anger and depression continually take the upper hand. So much a reader might want to say, “Get over it!” But then he’d have to wonder if he would handle it any better. Probably not. I like the way we’re not told what to think of Coach Wilson’s tough-guy coaching methods or Mrs. Wilson’s motherly objections, and I like that it’s unclear at the end whether Harrison will reach his goal of playing football again. That’s because his character matters more than football.
The drawback is that God doesn’t play much of a role. The family prays at mealtimes and goes to church, but God is a cheerleader on the sidelines rather than an anchor to cling to in the stormy gale. Not a Christian novel, but as long as that’s understood (and it would be worthwhile to ask young readers what would make it a “Christian novel”), Unstoppable is an affecting story of what it means to “man up.”
- Worldview/moral value: 4 (out of 5)
- Literary value: 3.5