36 Finalists Blog: Danny Spewak

Danny Spewak, author of From the Gridiron to the Battlefield: Minnesota’s March to a College Football Title and into World War II 

Emilie Buchwald Award for Minnesota Nonfiction, sponsored by Bookmobile

Each week leading up to the 34th annual Minnesota Book Awards Ceremony, we are featuring exclusive interviews with our 36 finalists. You can also watch the authors in conversation with their fellow category finalists here.

Would you tell us one or two things about your finalist book that you are particularly proud of, and why?

My grandfather was a member of the 1941 University of Minnesota freshman football team, so I have a strong personal connection to my book’s topic. For that reason, I’m proud that the book is able to preserve the memories of such an important era in Minnesota history, through the eyes of young Golden Gopher athletes on the brink of World War II. As a child, I often heard tales of the war, but researching and writing this book helped bring those stories to life in a very tangible way. As we lose more and more members of that generation, I think it’s important to document these stories and I’m proud that the book plays a part in doing just that. 

What do you hope that your audience learns or takes away from your book?

I hope that my book can give readers a better understanding of what daily life might have felt like in the state of Minnesota before, during, and after World War II, particularly for the young people tasked with fighting the war. It’s hard to imagine being a college student during the fall of 1941, a period marked by so much uncertainty and ever-changing newspaper headlines about the war overseas. These were difficult times in America, and they would only become more difficult after Pearl Harbor.   

The 1941 University of Minnesota football team provides an interesting lens into this era. Many of the players expressed grave concerns throughout the season about their futures beyond graduation, and while none could have predicted the attack on Pearl Harbor, that event changed the course of all their lives. I was struck by how quickly these players transitioned into the war effort, at such a young age.   

I also hope that readers will be able to appreciate the central role the Gopher football team played in Minnesota society all those years ago. Without major pro sports in the state, the Gophers were incredibly popular and incredibly dominant on the gridiron. From 1934 to 1941, the team won five national championships and played games in front of millions of American radio listeners on a weekly basis. You should see the newspapers from those days; they devoted pages and pages of Sunday sports sections to Gopher football pictures, game recaps and play-by-play analysis! The program under coach Bernie Bierman was nationally famous and, in some ways, helped put Minnesota on the map. It was very fun to learn about the “Golden Era” of Minnesota football and I hope that readers will enjoy a trip back in time. 

What advice would you give to an aspiring writer with an interest in your category? 

I would say that persistence is key! When I first started researching and writing, I felt overwhelmed, and at times I didn’t know if I would be able to complete a whole book. I just kept plugging away, kept writing and rewriting, and eventually I had a completed manuscript! To any aspiring non-fiction writer, I would say that it’s important to accept you’ll have good days and bad days, and to not get too discouraged when things seem tough. Eventually, after enough rewrites, you’ll get there and it will all be worth it. 

Tell us something about yourself that is not widely known.

I’m the second of four brothers. That’s the only interesting fact I can come up with at the moment! 

Minnesota enjoys a reputation as a place that values literature and reading. If this sentiment rings true for you, what about our home state makes it such a welcoming and conducive place for writers? 

I think being surrounded by such talented writers fosters creativity and pushes you to create an even better product. I know that while I was writing, I constantly tried to read other Minnesota writers to learn about their styles and see what they did well. Of course, there are many talented writers all across the world, but Minnesota is definitely a place that encourages and supports its literary community! 

Since the onset of the pandemic in early 2020, virtually everything about our lives has changed in some way. Has COVID-19 (and its fallout) impacted your writing habits and preferences? Has the unique zeitgeist of the past two years influenced your writing output in any other ways that you can pinpoint? 

It’s hard to say, but I think the pandemic disrupted some of my writing habits, in the same way that it has disrupted so many aspects of our lives over the past few years. Oddly, I will say that writing and reading about history has proved therapeutic, in the sense that it’s made me remember that the world has seen difficult times before and has always persevered. 

Danny Spewak has a decade of experience as a news reporter at local television affiliates in Minneapolis-St. Paul, Buffalo, and mid-Missouri. Spewak was inspired to write this book through the story of his own grandfather, Jack Spewak, who was a member of the Gophers’ freshman football team in 1941 and an Army Air Corps veteran.