John Feinstein has written 28 nonfiction books, covering all the major sports. His most recent football book, The Quarterback, has recently been published in paperback and follows five NFL quarterbacks through the ups and downs of a single season.
The Quarterback came out in paperback in September. Tell me a little bit about how that book came about.
I was talking to my editor, Jason Kaufman at Doubleday. He was rattling on about Eli Manning and how much longer he would play for the Giants, was he a Hall of Famer, and so on. And it occurred to me as we were talking, the fascination that football fans have with those who play the quarterback position. We’ve actually changed the title for the paperback, because I think I was conservative in calling it ‘the most important position in the NFL’. I think it’s probably the most important position in all of professional sports.
When I hung up the phone with him, I thought, “Why not do a book on playing quarterback in the NFL?” That simple. Usually when I propose an idea, he will say, “That sounds intriguing. Let me run it by my boss, let me run it by our sales people.” Because everything is about sales numbers nowadays, not whether it’s a good story or not. And he didn’t do any of that. He just said, “That’s a great idea”. And we went from there.
Did you have the idea at that point that you would get the perspective of several different quarterbacks, or did that come later?
We talked it out later. We didn’t want it to be too broad and cover all 32 starting quarterbacks. I did not have a specific number that I was married to. When I eventually settled on the five that I did, some of it was because I thought they were all intriguing people, and that they were likely to be good storytellers. And to be honest, there were a couple other people I would’ve loved to have who turned me down.
Aaron Rogers turned me down. I think it had a lot more to do with his personal life and his relationship with his parents than anything else. The Manning brothers both turned me down, because basically the Manning brothers don’t do anything unless you’re paying them. And Cam Newton turned me down cold. I couldn’t even talk to him directly. His agent said Cam had no interest in the project. I doubt if Cam ever heard about it, to be honest. So these are the five that I eventually thought would be good storytellers and who were willing to cooperate with me.
And they all are pretty eloquent. Do you think that’s unusual or do quarterbacks have to be a bit more thoughtful than other positions?
I think it’s generally a high football IQ position, but also a high IQ position, period. Some guys are less articulate than others but can still be very effective quarterbacks. Although, the best storytellers in a locker room tend to be offensive linemen. When I did my book on the Ravens in 2004, there were a lot of stories about them because they were such good storytellers.
But quarterbacks have to be able to communicate with their teammates to be successful. And they also become very experienced at talking to the media. As I pointed out in the book, the two guys who have to speak to the media after every game are the head coach and the quarterback. The challenge was to get past those interview room quotes, because they really don’t tell stories.
Luck said, “John, if I had known I wasn’t going to play all season, I wouldn’t have agreed to be in this book.”
Right. I’m a Ravens fan, so it was interesting that Joe Flacco was very different to how he is in those press conferences. In press conferences, he doesn’t give anything away. And I got much more of a sense, in the book, of how he’s incredibly aware of what’s happening. He just has no interest in conveying that in a press conference environment.
Right. And I don’t think that’s unique to Joe, but certainly true of Joe. You’re right. I think, for example, when they lost early in that season, 44-7 in London to Jacksonville, you were probably there…
I was there, unfortunately.
Yeah, it was pretty awful. The offensive line had a terrible day. There were some drops early in the game. But when he and I sat down a couple of days later, he said, “Well, what good does it do me to throw my offensive line under the bus in public, or my receivers?” They had the worst receivers in the NFL that year. Every time he threw to Perriman, the best-case scenario was going to be an incomplete pass. More likely, the ball was going to hit him in the hands and be intercepted. Joe wasn’t going to say that publicly.
One of the things that’s great about doing a book is that you have a chance to develop trust. When I cover golf and go out on the range, I might have a notebook in my back pocket, but I never take it out. I’ll just stand there and talk to guys about their family, last night’s basketball game, that week’s golf course, whatever it might be. That way they come to see you as a person, not just as a reporter.
If you’re always walking around with a notebook or a tape recorder, you’re a reporter all the time. In the sessions that I had with the quarterbacks, we would sit down somewhere and talk for 15, 20 minutes before I even asked a question. I think that helped them trust me because they saw me as more human.
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Joe Flacco gets the ball away versus the Jaguars
It was interesting to hear Flacco talk about draft night when Lamar Jackson was chosen. It struck me that, obviously, going into the season, you didn’t know what you were going to get. What came up in the book where you were left thinking, ‘I’m so glad that happened because it gave me some amazing stories’?
Yeah, that’s a good point because people always ask what surprised me in my research and my answer is usually nothing, because I don’t go into a book anticipating a guy to be a certain way or certain things to happen. I try to have an open mind. I wasn’t expecting Lamar Jackson to be drafted that night, any more than Joe was. So that was one example of what you’re talking about.
I think that Andrew Luck’s injury and the way the season played out for him [was another]. Our first long session together during was mini camps, and he was certain he was going to be ready for training camp. The thought that he wasn’t going to play that season never crossed his mind. In fact, he said to me right after he came back from Europe, “John, if I had known I wasn’t going to play all season, I wouldn’t have agreed to be in this book.” And I said to him, “Andrew, if I’d known you weren’t going to play this season, I wouldn’t have asked you!”
But from my point of view, obviously not his, it worked out fine because injuries are so much a part of football. And how you deal with those injuries and the frustration… his story was unique, because of how physically and emotionally painful the year was for him. And I didn’t anticipate that that would be one of the storylines in the book.
When Alex Smith first agreed to be part of the book, it was before the draft. And Patrick Mahomes getting chosen changed everything. Alex knew he was on a short leash. He knew that it was almost certainly his last year in Kansas City. And that brought a poignancy to the ups and the downs they went through.
‘By the time the frustrations of that season were becoming evident, I was just part of the furniture‘
Oh, absolutely. That sense of not knowing what you’re going to get comes through in Next Man Up as well, where you go in hoping to chronicle a team that would make a run through the playoffs. Is it disappointing as a writer when you realise the big season you were hoping for has gone off the rails?
It’s interesting you ask, because my very first book was A Season on the Brink, about Bob Knight, the basketball coach. I was with Indiana’s basketball team the 1985-86 season, and they lost in the first round of the NCAA tournament that year to Cleveland State. And I remember sitting on press row as that game wound down and it became apparent Indiana was going to lose. And Jackie MacMullan, who was working for the Boston Globe and now works for ESPN, turned to me and said, “John, I’m so sorry. I know how hard you worked all winter.”
And honestly, my thought was, “It doesn’t matter. I’ve got a great story here.” I knew I’d gotten access that nobody had ever had to Bob Knight and I thought the stories would carry the book.
And the book ended up being the best-selling sports book of all time, back then. What that showed me was if you’ve got a good story to tell, the success of the team shouldn’t really affect the success of the book. To some degree it does. I think if the Ravens had made the playoff run that year, the book certainly would have sold more in Baltimore. But it was on the bestseller list. It did well. The reviews were good and, because of the access that I had, there were still stories to tell. Would I have loved for them to go to the Super Bowl? Yes, for two reasons. One, it probably would’ve sold more books and two, when you spend that much time around people and you come to like them, you want to see them succeed.
They had some injury struggles, and lots went wrong that season. I could imagine them being frustrated all of the time.
Well that’s a good word. It was frustrating. It was pretty apparent by the end that [offensive coordinator] Matt Cavanaugh was going to be the fall guy and was going to get fired. And Matt’s a really good guy. Jim Colletto, the offensive line coach, got fired too.
But it didn’t really affect my reporting because I started getting to know that team in April and May. Again, hanging out when you’re not interviewing them, going to dinner with guys, sitting at the training table and stuff like that. By the time you got to the point where those frustrations you’re talking about were becoming evident, I was just part of the furniture. Which is always my goal in those situations.
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‘I’d like to know what Bill Belichick really thinks of the world’
It’s interesting how those behind the scenes books have changed. In the ’60s, with George Plimpton’s Paper Lion, he’s literally on the field as a player. A decade later, in Three Bricks Shy of a Load, Roy Blount is drinking and partying with the players, who they seem unaware that they’re talking to someone who’s going to write all this down, just kind of naive. By the time you went to the Ravens, did you get the sense of a greater professionalism, in that these guys know how the game is played?
My sense, with Three Bricks Shy of a Load, was that he didn’t take a lot of notes. Like you said, he was drinking with them or partying with them and had a good enough memory that he didn’t have to write everything down. I was sort of in the middle. I did long interviews with all the major characters and many minor ones. But I also spent a good deal of time with them when I was not taking notes. I would sit around in [head coach Brian] Billick’s office and we would argue about politics. I would talk to Cavanaugh about his playing days, especially his college days with Tony Dorsett.
That’s the trust factor; they understand. Take Cavanaugh, for example. He was going through a divorce. He was dating Billick’s assistant, but he knew I wasn’t going to write about that because it didn’t matter. That stuff happens in every walk of life. I would only write about something like that if it affected the team, or Cavanaugh’s ability to do his job. I want them to know I’m a reporter. I don’t want them to think I’m their buddy. But on the other hand, I want them to feel comfortable with me too.
Tell me a little about your process, because you’re incredibly prolific.
I was lucky because the first book sold as well as it did. For the most part I’ve been able to pick and choose my subjects, rather than having some editor say, “Do this, because it’ll make money.” And that’s made my work more enjoyable. I’m a newspaper guy at heart. I started in the newspaper business. I still write regularly for the Washington Post. And because of that, I got used to writing on deadline. When I’m in writing mode, I can sit down and, fairly easily, write 2,000 words on a given day. I start my day by editing what I wrote the day before. I got in that habit with my first book, and it’s worked pretty well for me.
And I’m lucky. I like what I do. I’ve written nonfiction… well, I’ve written a bunch of young adult mysteries, but in nonfiction, I’ve written 28 books now and I can honestly say I probably enjoyed the process in 25 of them. Pretty good percentage.
I remember vividly George Plimpton’s description of Bob Whitlow looking at him ‘like a cow about to be milked’
Is there a football book that hasn’t been written that you’d like to read?
Yeah, I’d like to know what Bill Belichick really thinks of the world. I’ve talked to him about doing a book because I have a decent relationship with him. Not close, but decent. I think he’s as smart as anybody in the sport. He has only rarely opened up and then only on certain topics. I don’t think he’s ever really talked about who he is and how his father shaped him. Why he comes across as such a grump when I know just from fairly limited experience that he can be very funny. I’ve read enough about Brady to know that I don’t think he’s very interesting but Bill Belichick, definitely.
I think he’ll do it when he retires. I don’t see him doing it right away. But I think at some point he’ll sit down with somebody and put all of those thoughts on paper somewhere. I certainly hope so.
Yeah, me too. What are your favourite football books, and why?
Well, Paper Lion was one of the first books I read as a kid and I thought it was great. There are still lines that I remember vividly. Plimpton’s description of the coaches showing him how to put his hands under centre, and saying that the centre, Bob Whitlow was looking at him “like a cow about to be milked”.
Then Three Bricks Shy of a Load, you already brought up two of my favourite football books. David Maraniss, his book on Lombardi [When Pride Still Mattered]. I might be a little biased because David’s a close friend, but I thought it was brilliant. All David’s books are really good. What other books come to mind? Michael Holley’s book, Patriot Reign. Again, the access was key. And Michael did a good job with it.
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Joe Namath at the line of scrimmage in Kansas City, 1969
Joe Namath’s book [All The Way], because Joe Namath was one of my sports heroes as a kid. You couldn’t get into Giants games when I was a kid, so I would go to the Jets’ offices at 57th and Madison with a buddy of mine every Monday, when they had a home game. We’d get there after school, and buy standing tickets for $3. Then, usually by the second quarter, we could sneak into pretty good seats, somewhere in the lower deck of Shea Stadium.
Is there a book that comes to mind as an overlooked gem?
I should have mentioned Instant Replay, the famous Jerry Kramer book, earlier, but he did another book years later, called Distant Replay. He wrote it with Dick Schaap, who he wrote the first book with. And I sort of like Distant Replay better than Instant Replay.
The final thing I want to ask you, turning to non-football books. What are the five books you would take to a desert island?
All the President’s Men, because that was the book that inspired me to want to be in journalism. Just about anything David Halberstam wrote, but particularly a book called Breaks of the Game, which he embedded with the Portland trailblazers for a season. And again, it was not a championship season. He’s such an amazing reporter that it was a great book.
There’s a thriller writer named Dan Silva, and he has this character named Gabriel Allon, an Israeli spy. He’s probably written 15 Gabriel Allon books. His latest just came out and I’ve got to go get it. He knows how to write a thriller. I’d take any of his books with me to a desert island.
Just to kind of cast around in my brain here… Oh, David McCullough’s biography of John Adams. He’s written other great biographies, but the Adams one, I would take that with me. And then I’d probably try to take something light too. So what could I take that was light? Well, I would take my collection of Chip Hilton books with me. They’re a series of 24 books, written by a great coach named Clair Bee, a basketball coach. They’re about Chip Hilton, an All-American boy who plays football, basketball, and baseball. The series starts when he’s in high school and ends when he’s a senior in college. I read those books, I still have them all, voraciously as a kid. They turned me on to reading. Them and the Hardy Boys.