Back from Behind Like Patrick Mahomes: A Reading List of Comeback Stories
Mark Dent and Rustin Dodd Recommend Eli Saslow, Michelle Zauner, Andre Agassi, and More
At halftime of this year’s Super Bowl, the marquee game of the NFL season, the Kansas City Chiefs trailed the Philadelphia Eagles 24-14 in Glendale, Arizona. What transpired next was the latest remarkable comeback in the career of Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes, one of the most compelling athletes in sports…and the NFL’s modern comeback master.
Mahomes performed brilliantly on an injured ankle. The Chiefs won 38-35 in one of the most thrilling Super Bowls ever. Cue the stirring music and the “I’m going to DisneyLand!” soundbite.
Our book Kingdom Quarterback tells the story of Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs—a budding dynasty in America’s most popular sport—and it tells the story of Kansas City, a heartland metropolis that boomed more than a century ago before it became defined by segregation, suburbanization, redlining, and the ills that plague all of America’s cities.
It’s also a book about comebacks. The ones that Mahomes engineers on the football field can feel transcendent. He makes them look so easy. But what does it mean for a city to mount a comeback? And why does it feel so difficult? Our book helps explain why.
Whether it’s sports, business, or politics, American life is full of captivating comebacks. We root for them (or against them). We sit transfixed by them. They help us make sense of the world. The books below are our favorite “comeback” books.
This is the story of Derek Black—the so-called prince of the white nationalist movement in the United States. Saslow poignantly chronicles the transformation of an enthusiastic college student who arrives on campus in Florida, maintains his role as the host of a racist radio show, meets a group of close friends, and ultimately chooses to renounce his family’s past and his belief system.
Through detailed reporting and spare prose, the book offers a gripping portrait of a young person that you cannot put down. One of the reasons this “comeback” story is so illuminating is that it’s not neat and tidy—it’s complicated…but ultimately hopeful.
Margot Lee Shetterly, Hidden Figures
On some level, all comebacks are about resilience, and there aren’t many recent non-fiction books that better capture that than Hidden Figures, which offers the historical accounts of Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson, three Black women and mathematicians who quietly helped NASA vault ahead in the space race. More detailed (and historically accurate) than the acclaimed film version of the same name, Hidden Figures is a sprawling history about a collection of characters who were doubted, then forged the science equivalent of a terrific sports comeback.
Andre Agassi, Open: An Autobiography
Andre Agassi’s tennis career felt like one big comeback. He was a flamboyant prodigy raised by an overbearing father who could not break through and win a grand slam title. He finally did at an unlikely place: Wimbledon in 1992. But he saved his best comeback for later in his career, when he became perhaps the best player in the world for a stretch in late 1999 and early 2000.
Agassi employed the ghost writer J.R. Moehringer, an award-winning journalist and sometimes sports writer who wrote The Tender Bar (and later served as the ghost writer for Prince Harry’s autobiography, Spare). Agassi read The Tender Bar and loved it, which caused him to reach out to Moeringer. What followed was one of the most honest autobiographies from a superstar athlete we’ve ever seen.
Babb, a sportswriter at The Washington Post, spent the 2019 season with the high school football team at Edna Karr High School in the Algiers neighborhood of New Orleans. As such, the book follows the familiar structure of a sports book. But this isn’t a comeback story concerned with winning more football games. It’s a deeply reported story of a truly American neighborhood, an against-all-odds tale that invites the reader to meet a group of boys and young men who are trying to avoid the gun violence and poverty that is plaguing their community.
You won’t be able to stop thinking about the players in this book. And you’ll leave with a deep appreciation for what they overcome each day.
Michelle Zauner, Crying in H Mart
Shortly after musician Zauner graduated from college—and while her band Little Big League struggled to gain a following — her mother was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. They had a tumultuous relationship during Zauner’s high school years, but she moved from Philadelphia to Oregon to care for her during her final months.
While H Mart is a book about death and mourning—it opens with Zauner explaining how she cries at the sight of seafood noodles and rice cakes at the Korean grocery chain named in the book’s title—it’s also about resilience, familial and romantic love, and comebacks. In addition to repairing her relationship with her mother, Zauner connects with her Korean culture through cooking and beats the odds to make it as a musician. She also connects these narratives together with mesmerizing detail.
As a bonus, H Mart pairs well with the excellent Psychopomp, Zauner’s comeback album (under the performing name Japanese Breakfast) inspired by her mother.
Pat Conroy, My Losing Season
Can you have a comeback if you keep losing? As Pat Conroy writes in this memoir of his years playing college basketball for The Citadel, losing “tears along the seam of your own image of yourself.” But as anyone who’s ever played a sport knows, the seam heals, producing a stronger image, even if it takes years to realize what you’ve learned.
Conroy’s self-described mediocre skills as a point guard (he was actually very good) gave him the only outlet for connection to an abusive father and an escape from The Citadel’s hellish hazing system. My Losing Season is also perhaps the only book that accurately portrays how meeting NBA legend Jerry West at a basketball camp and stumbling past Tennessee Williams’s house in New Orleans can both be religious experiences.
Kara Goucher and Mary Pilon, The Longest Race: Inside the Secret World of Abuse, Doping, and Deception on Nike’s Elite Running Team
Athletes wow us all the time with comebacks on the court, field, and track. They face challenges outside of the games, too, which Goucher, writing with Pilon, openly shares in this memoir. Goucher turned a surprisingly successful college distance running career into an even more surprising and successful professional career, winning a silver medal in the 10,000 Meter Run at the 2007 World Outdoor Championships, the first time an American woman had medaled in that event.
Goucher, who trained with famed runner Alberto Salazar’s Nike Oregon Project, was on top of the world. But then she faced a tougher challenge shared by many women distance runners, who contend with a system riddled with abuse, body shaming, and cheating. Ultimately, Goucher achieves a greater comeback than anything she did in a race: triumphing over Salazar to hold him—and Nike—accountable.
Kingdom Quarterback by Mark Dent and Rustin Dodd is available from Dutton.