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Interview: Jeff Pearlman

Jeff Pearlman is the author of eight books – four of which are about football. Boys Will Be Boys (2009) lifted the lid on the craziness of the 1990s Dallas Cowboys, Sweetness (2011) offered a frank portrait of legendary Bears running back Walter Payton, while Gunslinger (2016) was about the life and career of Brett Favre. His latest book, Football for a Buck tells the story of the “crazy rise and crazier demise” of the short-lived United States Football League.

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Herschel Walker in action with the New Jersey Generals.

You’ve described the USFL as your favourite football league. What was it that made it so special?
Well, a big part is that I was just a kid when it started. And when you’re 10, 11, 12 everything seems bigger, brighter, bolder than it probably is. So that was my beginning—Herschel Walker on the cover of SI in a Generals uniform, looking… revolutionary. And that was meaningful to me. Then they started grabbing players from all spots. From the NFL. From top college programs. And, were that not enough, the uniforms kicked serious ass.

Do you think there was an inevitability to the USFL’s downfall or could it have flourished, had things gone differently?
Not inevitable at all. The initial idea was great—spring league, keep payrolls in check, regional drafts to cultivate local followings, slow growth. It was, truly, a smart, wise idea. And then… they got greedy. They panicked. They followed Donald Trump, not stopping to realise he didn’t care about the USFL, or spring football. Had they stayed the course, it could have worked. Doesn’t mean it definitely would have worked. But might have.

The figure of Donald Trump looms large throughout the book, of course. Do you think the league might have survived had he not been involved?
Yes. His goal was to get an NFL franchise—period. Everything he did was toward that goal.

To what extent did his behaviour in the USFL foreshadow his Presidency?
A million ways. Truly, a million.

In 1985, Trump signed Doug Flutie to quarterback his Generals. It was pure ego—the team already had a quality signal caller in Brian Sipe. But Flutie had just won the Heisman Trophy, and Trump’s ego demanded the little QB with the big heart and neon name come to New Jersey. So they agreed to terms, held a press conference… and Trump, being Trump, told his people that the other owners would help pay Flutie’s contract. Read that again: He told people—without knowing how or why—that the other owners would pay a portion of Flutie’s contract.

If you’re not seeing this clearly, it’s Mexico wall, pre-Mexico wall.
They will pay!
Um, no they won’t.
Yes, they will!
That seems unlikely.
Just watch!

The owners never paid a cent for Flutie. Mexico will likely never pay a cent for a wall.

Here’s another gem—if the USFL had a singular enemy, it was the NFL. The old league did not merely want the USFL to fail; it actively sought to bring it down. Sooooo… it was a bit odd that, without informing any of his fellow owners, Trump arranged a private meeting in a Manhattan hotel suite with Pete Rozelle, NFL commissioner. The topic? How could Trump ditch the USFL and land a New York-based NFL franchise. (This is not speculation, for the record. Or a guess. I’ve interviewed well over 400 people for the project. It’s also a subject Trump later discussed under oath—and lied about). Rozelle could not have been less interested in having a business relationship with Trump, much as Vladimir Putin likely feels about him now. But if he could use Trump to the NFL’s advantage… well, that would be, ahem, nice.

Last thing for today: The USFL wound up suing the NFL. Trump took charge, and hired Harvey Myerson as the league attorney. Trump told everyone Myerson was the best, the best, the best. He was the lawyer they needed. He couldn’t go wrong. He wouldn’t go wrong. With Myerson, the USFL would win big! Big! Big!

Myerson was a complete disaster, as was the lawsuit.

The USFL died, in large part because Donald Trump’s competence didn’t match his bluster. It’s a familiar story of a conman asked to produce. Worth noting.

How did the USFL change the NFL?
Many ways. Truly, many. Instant replay, two-point conversion, underclassmen being eligible, blowing up of salaries. Also, the run ‘n’ shoot offense, African-Americans being allowed to play quarterback. The influx of four future Hall of Famers (Steve Young, Reggie White, Jim Kelly, Gary Zimmerman) and nearly 200 players total. It changed the NFL.

Would you say that the process of writing the book gave you new insights into how the USFL story unfolded? If so, what were they?
Sure. Really, the craziness of it all. That’s what struck me. Drugs, booze, women, hookers, a guy being placed on the injured list because his penis got stuck in a trunk. Teams being traded for other teams, owners just dumping their franchises.

Do you have a favourite anecdote from writing the book?
I do. My son Emmett is 11. He’s my sidekick. There’s this guy named Greg Fields who is a key part of the book. He punched his coach, he pulled a baseball bat on a team owner. Big character. I had two addresses in San Francisco, no phone number. So Emmett and I drove seven hours north to try and find him. We spent a day walking the city, thru some really bad areas, trying to get to the address. Finally did–no one was there, house abandoned. We were both disappointed. The other address was in the projects. Knocked, got Greg Fields’ sister. She said she’d pass my number. “OK, thanks.” Thought it would go nowhere. Twenty minutes later he calls. The next morning, Greg Fields, Emmett and I are in the food court of a Sacramento shopping mall, eating Cold Stone. It was amazing. And I’ll always have that with the boy. Who, by the way, owns a Greg Fields Express jersey.

Without giving away your plans, is there a football story that hasn’t been written, that you would like to read?
I’m fascinated by Earl Campbell’s time as a Saint.

There are a lot of stories in football, what does a story need to make you want to turn it into a book?
It has to have not been done well, it needs engrossing characters, it needs to be something I would want to read.

Do you have a favourite anecdote from the books you’ve written so far?
Well, once you write about Charles Haley masturbating in a Dallas Cowboy team meeting, it’s sorta hard to think of anything else.

What’s been the most memorable interview you’ve done for a book, and why?
Walter Payton. I interviewed him in 1999, a few months before he died. He was faded, weak. It was crushing. I didn’t actually know I was interviewing him for a book. But I was.

How long does it generally take you to write a book and what’s your writing process like? Are you someone who relishes the interviews but finds the writing a chore? Do you sweat over every comma or are you quite relaxed? What do you most like and most dislike about the process?
Usually takes 2 to 2 1/2 years, though I was paid so little for the USFL book that I did it all in one. I’m big into interviewing as many humans as possible. My guiding principle is called the Dave Fleming Theory. When I was in high school my up-the-street neighbor was Dave Fleming, at the time Mahopac High’s star athlete. Dave went on to pitch for the Seattle Mariners, and I always remember—vividly—the one conversation we ever had. That’s why I try and interview everyone from free agents to guys in camp for a week. Because we always remember our time in the presence of fame.

Thinking of football books in general, what was the first one you remember reading?
Maybe “I am Third,” Gale Sayers’ book

What’s your favourite football book?
“Namath” by Mark Kriegel

When it comes to football books, is there one you would consider an overlooked or forgotten gem?
Any of the Complete Handbooks from the Zander Hollander collection. I love those things. Also, “The Yucks” by Jason Vuic is terrific.

And thinking about books in general – what are the five books you’d want with you on a desert island (assume I’m throwing in Raft Building for Beginners.)
Autobiography of Malcolm X, The Sisters Brothers, Confederates in the Attic, Ignore It!, Conquering the Corporate Career.

You can buy Football for a Buck from Amazon US, Amazon UK and at all good bookshops. Jeff Pearlman can be found on Twitter and at his website.

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