There’s obviously something about washed-up pro athletes in search of redemption that appeals to John Grisham. “The Innocent Man,” Grisham’s 2006 nonfiction debut, told the gripping story of a former pro baseball player named Ron Williamson who’s wrongly convicted of murder. Ultimately, DNA evidence proved Williamson’s innocence, but he’d already spent years in prison.
With “Playing for Pizza,” Grisham returns to fiction, but focuses again on an athlete who’s seen better days. Rick Dockery’s career as a third-string NFL quarterback has all the elements of tragedy, but what Grisham delivers instead is a delightfully comic tale of redemption. The story’s opening should resonate with any Red Sox fan. Like Bill Buckner in the 1986 World Series, Dockery’s epically bad performance has cost his team a chance to win a championship.
Dockery wakes up in a Cleveland hospital bed on the Monday morning after the AFC title game. Due to a concussion, he remembers nothing about his performance, but his agent Arnie soon arrives to fill him in. With the Browns winning big, Dockery had thrown three interceptions in the final quarter, allowing the Denver Broncos to come back and win. The Cleveland media is up in arms, and fans riot in front of the hospital hoping to get their clutches on Dockery. In short, Grisham’s protagonist has hit rock bottom.
The Browns cut Dockery, and no other NFL team is willing to consider signing him. Grisham knows the mindsets of professional athletes enough to understand that Dockery can’t quit. He asks his agent to find him a job somewhere, anywhere. Hence the comedy begins.