Adam Lazarus is a sportswriter and author of three football books. Super Bowl Monday told the story of Super Bowl XXV, which was played as Operation Desert Storm got underway in the Gulf. He followed that with Best of Rivals, which examined the tension between 49ers quarterbacks Joe Montana and Steve Young. His most recent book, Hail to the Redskins, is about the Joe Gibbs-era Washington Redskins. Preceding all those was his first book, Chasing Greatness, about the 1973 US Open.
The football books that you’ve written so far all focus on broadly the same era – the 80s and early 90s. What is it about that era that keeps you returning to it?
I grew up during that era and it’s when I started to become a fan of the NFL. Many of the key figures in my books were the stars of the late 1980s and early 1990s. So people like Steve Young, Darrell Green, Lawrence Taylor, and others were some of the first football giants that I ever knew. And even decades later, several of those people still seemed larger than life and memorable to me. Things are always magnified from your childhood so when racking my brain for book topics I think I kept coming back to that pool of players and figures. I knew a bit about them growing up but was curious to learn more. Being an author afforded me that opportunity.
Because you’ve focused on a particular era, the teams that have been your main subjects – the 49ers, Giants, Bills, and Redskins – were all rivals. Has that been useful as you’ve written each subsequent book?
I didn’t consciously choose the subjects because of the previous research and books I had done but I certainly gained a greater appreciation for them as a result. It is amazing how there was so much intersection between those teams, especially the NFC clubs and I think that’s another reason the books were fun to do.
There are a lot of stories in football, what does a story need to make you want to turn it into a book?
Iconic plays like “Wide Right” and John Riggins’ fourth-quarter touchdown run in Super Bowl XVII or roller coaster seasons like the 1990 New York Giants are definitely a part of what makes a book compelling or eye-catching. But more than that are the personalities and backstories of the men who made those plays or turned in those seasons. For example, Joe Montana authored some of the most famous plays in history and several of the greatest playoff performances of all time. But it was his cool, unflappable, almost carefree demeanor–coupled with his fun-loving, jokester antics–that I found fascinating because he was also such a tireless competitor. I loved the contrast there, the juxtaposition.
Doug Williams, who was a major figure in “Hail to the Redskins”, was another star football player, but his strength in the face of bigotry and tragedy somehow eclipse his MVP performance in Super Bowl XXII. And the story of Scott Norwood missing that field goal in Super Bowl XXV explains how the Bills lost that game but the way his teammates stood up for him in the aftermath was just as heroic as if he’d made that 47-yard field goal. In short, without the human elements supplementing the football, a book on the NFL or any sport can be pretty dull.
Do you have a favourite anecdote from the books you’ve written so far?
The Prologue to “Best of Rivals,” my book on Joe Montana and Steve Young, about their first meeting just days after Young had been traded to the 49ers in May 1987. Young was asked to come to the team’s facilities and workout for Bill Walsh but he forgot to bring a pair of cleats, having just flown in town. He told the team’s equipment manager, Bronco Hinek, what size he wore and Hinek said to just borrow a pair from the locker of Joe Montana, who was not present. Young did so, completed his workout, then came back to the locker room, where he unexpectedly ran into the two-time Super Bowl MVP. They chatted for a while and as Joe left, he told Steve “when you’re finished just throw the shoes back in my locker.” The layers of symbolism and the foreshadowing in that anecdote is extraordinary.
What’s been the most memorable interview you’ve done for a book, and why?
After nearly a year of trying I finally secured an interview with Joe Gibbs. I was told it would probably be brief but I still made a four-hour drive out to his NASCAR team’s headquarters to do the interview. When I got there, a member of his staff told me Coach Gibbs was running late but he’d try to get to me for a few minutes. I waited alone in a cubicle for about four or five hours with no assurances that he’d meet me. Finally, nearing 5pm (and what I figured would be my cue to leave the team’s offices) we sat down for the brief interview. For whatever reason, he didn’t cut me off to say “our time is up,” not even when his assistant told him he was half an hour late for a public appearance he was scheduled to make. So I kept asking him questions for over two hours. The interview was essential to my book and made for an unforgettable day.
How long does it generally take you to write a book and what’s your writing process like? Also, what are the parts you most like and most dislike about the process?
I researched and wrote each of my NFL books in about 12-15 months. Each time there was something of an internal struggle in formulating my “process”, and that was which part took precedence: the writing or the research. I always had a map for how the book would look, chapter by chapter, but it was often an ever-changing process because of the research I did. Sometimes, because of the research I was doing, elements of the book that I planned to be brief would balloon to dozens of pages or even a whole chapter. And the opposite was also true: after doing enough research I realized that some elements of the book that I’d planned to take up large sections or even an entire chapter needed to be much smaller.
I’ve always debated whether the research should dictate the writing or whether the writing should dictate the research. In the end, it was a combination of both, so for the most part I did research (newspapers, magazines, other books, etc), interviews, and writing simultaneously. As far as things I liked, in-person interviews were by far my favourite aspect. Getting a person to talk about something from two or three decades earlier is a challenge, but when they eventually let their guard down and share memories – and not the same old stories they’ve been telling on television for years – it’s a real thrill.
And to answer the second part: there is nothing I dislike about book writing: it’s the greatest job imaginable.
Thinking of football books in general, what was the first one you remember reading?
“About Three Bricks Shy of a Load” by Roy Blount Jr.
What’s your favourite football book?
“Johnny U: The Life and Times of John Unitas” by Tom Callahan.
When it comes to football books, is there one you would consider an overlooked or forgotten gem?
“Lombardi and Landry” by Ernie Palladino, who sadly just passed away. That material should be required reading for any NFL History 101 class.
Without giving away any ideas you might be saving for yourself, is there a particular football book you’d like to read that hasn’t been written?
The definitive Tom Brady biography – whoever writes it – will be fascinating, but I hope it’s written well after he retires, not the next year.
Finally, thinking about books generally – not necessarily sport books – if you could take five books to a desert island, what would they be?
“The Boys of Summer” by Roger Khan, “I Never Had It Made” by Jackie Robinson, “The Naked Truth” by Leslie Nielsen, “Jurassic Park” by Michael Crichton, and “The Count of Monte Cristo” by Alexandre Dumas….those last two should help me deal with the perils of being stranded on an island with more than a few complications.