Many of us spend our childhoods hoping to become professional athletes before, for one reason or another, we set those dreams aside. Yet as spectators we still imagine ourselves in the place of our favorite athletes and sometimes think we could do better. For this month’s health-centric edition of Bookshelf, I hope to introduce you not to just a book or two, but to a genre that really lays bare the sheer level of physical fitness required to be a professional athlete.

Over the years, a few intrepid writers have tried to bridge the yawning chasm between civilians and athletes by attempting to play for professional sports teams. If told with the right narrative touch, these accounts can be entertaining fish-out-of-water stories that also teach us about the unglamorous, unseen work that goes into our favorite sports.

The architect of this genre is George Plimpton, who made a career out of enmeshing himself as a complete amateur in the upper echelons of sports. He fought with top boxers, pitched to MLB’s best hitters and spent a month on the PGA Tour. Most notably, he tried to play quarterback for the Detroit Lions in 1963 as depicted in his book “Paper Lion.” Generally, as a random, out-of-shape guy, he failed miserably. But he believed there were truths about the “secret world” of the NFL huddle, as he put it in a 1998 interview, that could only be understood from within.

Later efforts have proved him right. Jeff Foley’s 2001 book “War on the Floor” depicts his struggles to adjust to the unusual everyday life of an Arena Football League wide receiver. Stefan Fatsis followed “Word Freak,” a chronicle of his transformation into a competitive Scrabble player, with an ambitious effort in Denver Broncos training camp entitled “A Few Seconds of Panic” (and subtitled “A 170-Pound, 43-Year-Old Sportswriter Plays in the NFL), one of the defining examples of the genre.

In short, if you want to imagine what it would be like if you, a non-athlete sitting in your living room, were out on the field, imagine no longer and read one of these books.

Reporter Henry Greenstein can be reached at 661-395-7374. Follow him on Twitter: @HenryGreenstein.