Jeff Pearlman writes about sports really well. Author of the definitive Walter Payton bio Sweetness, it was his book Showtime, about the 1980s Lakers that drew me to his work. He doesn’t hew to the tropes of sports writing and finds a unique way to tell a story that adds to the discourse, even with subjects like Magic Johnson or Payton with well-known stories.
Pearlman’s newest book is Gunslinger, a biography of legendary quarterback Brett Favre. Recently, I sent Pearlman a bunch of questions about Gunslinger, his writing approach and style and his next project, a history of the defunct USFL.
So, why write about Brett Favre?
Well, he’s in that special little nook category—famous, iconic, larger than life, yet not really that much known about him beyond the cliches, and there’s never been a definitive biography written on the man. I don’t want to write the 40th Babe Ruth book, or the 12th Gretzky bio. I look for people who are ripe for a definitive dig. That was Favre. Plus, enough time has passed since his 128th retirement that the fatigue seems to be gone. I (gulp) hope.
It’s interesting to me. Seeing the ad for his book made me remember how much I enjoyed watching him play football and the way he did it. But 5-7 years ago, when he was a Jet and a Viking, I don’t think I felt that way. How do you think retirement has changed perspective on him and his legacy?
Well, it’s a pretty standard pattern. We tire of guys at the end of their careers; we questions whether their legacies have been soiled or tarnished; whether Patrick Ewing playing for Orlando or Ronnie Lott as a Jet or Favre as a Viking damages something. And we feel badly about it for a spell—and then we pretty much forget it ever happened and embrace the joy and good times. As it should be.
What was the trickiest part of writing Gunslinger? Easiest?
Well, the trickiest was the amount of time he played in Green Bay, and the easy slippage into repetition that must be avoided. Seasons tend to have pretty familiar narratives, especially when there’s a ton of 10-6, 10-6, 11-5, 10-6. The trap is getting too caught up in the day-to-day narrative and just being overly repetitive. The easiest was the absolute wealth of material. He’s an amazing guy, and he’s from Mississippi. That state alone has carried many a book.
Where do you rank him all-time as a QB?
Hmm … well, for me it’s Brady, Unitas, Montana, Manning, Marino, Elway, Fouts, Staubach … then maybe Favre. That’s top of the head. But—and this is a big but—that’s not what matters. Was he the greatest ever? No. Top 10? Debatable. But he was the greatest entertaining quarterback ever. No one put on a better show. Ever. Never ever. Ultimately, sports in entertainment.
Are there players today that you think still embody the QB-as-gunslinger mentality? What, if anything makes Favre unique in that role?
Hmm … not like he did. I mean, Michael Vick had it going for a little while. So did Colin Kaepernick. The thing is, it’s v-e-r-y hard to maintain, because your body takes a beating and new coaches inevitable come in and tell you to stay in the pocket, work on your mechanics, etc … etc. People don’t want gunslingers, because they usually wind up getting a coach fired.
What did you learn about Favre that you didn’t really know going into writing the book?
Too much to fill a single answer. A big one was his high school career, which really was a whole lot of nothing. I mean, missed his sophomore year with mono, started as a junior and senior but mostly handed the ball off. No scouts were interested. No scouts even knew who he was, to be interested. He just got lucky that Mark McHale of Southern Miss was desperate, and saw the big arm. Otherwise, he’s one of America’s 100,000 CPAs. Or HR directors. Or … something.
Have your feelings on him changed from starting the project to completing it?
I find him MUCH more fascinating, and likeable. Like most everyone, the retire-unretire thing sucked. Just got old and tired. So I had my own Favre fatigue. But this project introduced me to an amazingly fascinating guy.
What do you hope the reader gets out of Gunslinger?
Entertainment. A break from the regular world. Maybe some knowledge. This isn’t rocket science, or global warming, or Trump-Hillary. It’s a book, and the primary purpose is enjoyment, entertainment, and maybe putting a historic figure in proper context.
How do you pick the topics to write about?
Three things: 1. Has a definitive bio been done? 2. Can I spend two-to-three years researching this and not have my brain decay?; 3. Does it have a chance of selling well? If I hit all three, I’m game.
Your next book is about the USFL. What drew you into that?
Grew up absolutely loving it; have always thought it lended itself to a great book. Amazing untold stories, characters; a threat to the NFL; Trump being an asshole; Reggie White and Steve Young and Jim Kelly. On and on and on. It’s the absolute best subject ever. Hopefully I won’t butcher it.
I was born in 1985, so I have little-to-no knowledge on the USFL besides random articles, ESPN features, etc. Just how big was the USFL, and how successful do you think it could have been?
It was big enough that the NFL was scared shitless, but not big enough to sell out stadiums with any regularity. Think wild wild west—and that’s the league.
How big a role does Trump play in this book?
Hard to say. Still reporting, to be honest.
Football seems to have a relatively conservative fanbase (at least on social media). Any worries that your totally valid criticisms of Trump will affect the reception of Gunslinger or shade your insights into the USFL (even if it’s roundly acknowledged he was instrumental in the league’s demise)?
Yes. But I’m an American and a human before I’m a book salesman. Trump terrifies me. T-e-r-r-i-f-i-e-s. If speaking out convinces people (even a few) that he’s unworthy of their vote, but I lose sales, I can comfortably live with that.
Any sport you don’t really have an interest writing about? Any ideas on the backburner for after the USFL book?
Dream book is a Tupac Shakur bio. Would never write about hockey. Great sport, but not my thing.
Gunslinger by Jeff Pearlman is available at pretty much every bookstore you’ve ever heard of, and probably the ones you haven’t, as well. Buy it.