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Making It to the End Zone

Books: Kerry Madden-Lunsford had a hard time fitting into a football family as a kid. But now she's all grown up with children of her own and has turned her teenage angst into a successful novel.

November 28, 1996|DENISE HAMILTON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

For some kids, it might have been a dream come true to have a father who coached college football in towns where the pigskin ruled supreme.

After all, a coach's family commanded seats on the 50-yard line all season long. They hobnobbed with star players. And they inspired the envy of snowbound classmates by jetting off to sunny New Orleans in winter to watch Daddy's team whup the competition in the Sugar Bowl.

But as Kerry Madden-Lunsford recounts in her hilarious and at times painful first novel about coming of age in a red-blooded football family, life was often profoundly alienating for a bookish young girl who preferred Jane Austen to Vince Lombardi, much to her father's horror.

Aptly titled "Offsides," and released this fall by William Morrow & Co., the novel steals liberally from Madden-Lunsford's childhood to recount the story of Liz Donegal, the eldest daughter of a profane and peripatetic football coach.

A tall, gangly girl who keeps a journal, makes up stories and casts her younger siblings in elaborate plays of her own devising, Liz is perpetually "offsides" from the sports mania unfolding all around her. On top of that, she loathes leaving hard-won school friends each time her father gets a job in a new city.

While smearing on suntan lotion at the pool one summer in Leavenworth, Kan., Liz explains the harsh facts of football life to her younger sister, Peaches:

Women who want "to belong to the hallowed inner sanctum of football . . . have three choices. You can be a bubbly coach's wife, a cheerleader or grow a penis. Otherwise there's no place for you . . . [and] you could end up like me. . . . Lurking around the edges of locker rooms, trying to figure out your place, until it dawns on you, you have no role . . . even if you are related by blood."

It took 20 years for the raw nerves of adolescence to transform into droll literary anecdote.

"I was very aware that I didn't fit into this world of football," the author recalls. "I knew there had to be a bigger world out there, but I just didn't know how to get to it, so I escaped into books."

These days, Madden-Lunsford is blithely navigating that larger world. Her book is one of only a handful of literary novels that Morrow published this fall. And already, it has attracted interest from Hollywood.

Diane Keaton, who calls "Offsides" "a tremendously funny and touching book," has committed to direct a movie based on the novel with screenwriter Rama Stagner, whose script "Blue Sky" netted an Oscar for Jessica Lange. A proposal is now circulating at 13 studios.

"I loved it," Keaton says about the book. "It's rare you see characters written with such poignancy and humor."

Stagner, known for writing strong female roles, says she was drawn to the book because it reminded her of her own youth as an Army brat.

"I found myself laughing out loud; it was like listening to a friend talk over a bottle of wine, and she did it so effortlessly. I loved the honesty of her writing, her description of feeling so ugly and awkward at that age."

"Offsides" doesn't shy away from heavy topics. Liz's beloved aunt is institutionalized and given shock treatments for alcoholism. Her favorite uncle commits suicide because he is unable to find acceptance for his homosexuality in the macho Irish Catholic family.

Madden-Lunsford also has an accurate eye for the unique subculture of football outside the locker room, especially the coacheswives, who keep the families together while their men are off recruiting.

Mary Lynn Majors, wife of the head coach at the University of Pittsburgh and inspiration for the effervescent character Mary Martha Mac, says Madden-Lunsford captured the loneliness and intensity of living in a coaching family.

Love it or hate it, football is the leitmotif of the novel. Each chapter starts with a diagramed football play that serves as a metaphor for the action of the story. Madden-Lunsford says she turned to her father for help on these technical matters.

"We had fun writing them. We sat around the living room and read playbooks. I must have had 15 of them stacked up," says Joe Madden (no relation to former pro coach and now commentator John Madden), now retired from football and living in San Diego, where he develops golf courses. "Her mother, Janis, said, 'Isn't it ironic that Kerry finally had to sit down and learn a little more about football?' "

At 34, Madden-Lunsford is done feuding with her father but still remembers the tomboy bookworm who lived in eight states before she graduated from high school in Knoxville, Tenn.

She stayed put for college, earning a master of fine arts in playwriting from the University of Tennessee. It was there she met her husband, Kiffen Lunsford, when he auditioned for a role in one of her plays.

He also cooked for her and walked her dog.

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