Seth Wickersham is a senior writer at ESPN, where he has worked for more than two decades. His award winning writing includes profiles of some of the biggest names in football, including Bill Belichick, Tom Brady and Peyton Manning, and investigative stories about the Spygate and Deflategate controversies, NFL franchise relocation, and more. His first book, published in 2021, is It’s Better To Be Feared: The New England Patriots Dynasty and the Pursuit of Greatness.
A lot of books that have been written about Belichick and Brady but you get to close the story with Brady leaving. What else did you see the opportunity to add?
When W.W. Norton approached me with the idea in late 2019, I was nervous. Then I thought, ‘I’ve been covering these guys my entire professional life’. One of my very first features for ESPN magazine – I was hired there out of school – was a story on this guy who was filling in well for Drew Bledsoe, named Tom Brady. We were in the old Foxboro Stadium. We both graduated from college in 2000 and it felt a bit like we were the same species. We were young men, very ambitious, getting our career breaks at the same time. Gillette Stadium was under construction next door and Brady looked out and said, ‘Oh, it’s gorgeous, huh? I hope I get to play in it’.
If there’s a journalism lesson here, it’s never throw away a notebook or transcript because you never know when you might need it. When you write a magazine story, you use a fraction of the stuff that you get. I realized I was sitting on a mound of material that looked different with time, like that anecdote about the stadium.
So, in January 2020, I signed a book deal, thinking ‘I’m going to go to all these games. I’m going to hang out in locker rooms. I’m going to be the last person out’. There was a trigger in the contract that the manuscript was due a year after either Brady left the team or retired, or Belichick left the team or retired. In March 2020 Covid hits, then a week later, Brady leaves and I’m on the clock suddenly. What am I going to do? The landscape for reporting was different than I anticipated. I did end up taking trips. I live in Connecticut so I could drive to visit New England coaches and we could sit six feet apart and chat. The final version ended up more chronological than I anticipated. I originally thought it would have more of the 2020 season in it, but I wasn’t there to witness those scenes.
Review: It’s Better To Be Feared
So, not only were you on the clock but it’s now global chaos.
Yeah, but it worked out. One of the things I’ve learned about books is just write what you can write every day. Even if you know it’s not working, or you have to redo it, or there are holes in it, just do it because those building blocks add up. If you wait till the end to start writing, you’re going to be under this mountain of information that you may not be able to scale. Even though it wasn’t by design, the way the book played out taught me a lot about the process.
What can you tell me about the next book?
I’m doing a book on quarterbacks and the unique American job that it is, beginning in high school and ending when you’re a retired Hall of Famer. I’ll let you know when I narrow it down from there!
One big challenge for the NFL is how to keep a 32-team league competitive when everybody needs an amazing quarterback and not everyone can have one.
Yeah, I think that’s become more obvious in the NFL now, but to a certain extent it’s been true for a long time. The washout rate for quarterbacks has always been huge. You think about the great class of 83: Todd Blackledge, who was my colleague at ESPN for all those years, was never able to get his career off the ground; Tony Eason, who was drafted ahead of Jim Kelly and Dan Marino, helped the Patriots get to a Super Bowl but he was never a superstar. Why are there so many quarterbacks who, despite all these physical gifts, are unable to play in the NFL? There’s just no way to figure it out.
I do think a hint, and this is something you can’t know until they’re in the NFL, is accuracy. College accuracy is just different than NFL accuracy, where there are smaller windows. But who can throw under those conditions is a mystery. Kurt Warner can do it, and he comes out of nowhere, but Zach Wilson can’t. Why? It’s just confounding.
What would you say your favorite football books are and why?
There are so many. I don’t want to limit them. Football is interesting, especially the NFL, because it’s the sport fans care about the most and know the least about. A book has to have the element of surprise, where you take people deep into the game. My friend Ian O’Connor’s book, Belichick (2018), was terrific. The Courting of Marcus Dupree (Willie Morris, 1983) – that’s not an NFL book exactly, but that’s on my Mount Rushmore of football books.
I know that you ask people about overlooked titles and my friend Rick Telander wrote a book called Joe Namath and the Other Guys (1976). Everyone remembers him for two books: Heaven is a Playground (1977), and The Hundred Yard Lie (1990), which is a terrific football book also. But I loved Joe Namath and The Other Guys because he had access to Namath during his last year with the Jets and witnessed so much about a fading icon at the end of his career. You know, Rick was such a talented athlete that at times he was running routes in practice! People didn’t know if he was actually a player. Namath got benched that year for breaking team rules and Rick just walked right into the head coach’s office and talked to him about it. That was a great book because it took you inside in a way that so few have.
My friend Bruce Feldman has written a lot of good books, but The QB (2015 – Full review), which was about this industry of quarterback gurus, was interesting because they’re kind of trying to deliver a version of the American dream. It’s similar to American Idol or something. He took you inside that industry in a fascinating way. Then he wrote a book on the Miami Hurricanes football team, called Cane Mutiny (2004), about how that team, beginning in the late 80s and going into the early part of the 21st century, really changed college sports and college football in ways that were both fascinating and very X-rated.
What’s the first football book you remember reading?
I think it might have been Bo Jackson’s book with Dick Schaap (Bo Knows Bo, 1990), when I was maybe in late elementary school. I read Jim Kelly’s book (Armed and Dangerous, 1992) also – it was an ‘as told to’. I think they might have been the first real football books I read.
Thinking about books in general, what are the five books you’d want with you on a desert island?
Something that would tell me how to get off the desert island! In no particular order, What It Takes (1992) by Richard Ben Cramer. That book is an incredible study about men trying to achieve something transcendent and the pitfalls along the way. I think it was six characters that he followed in the 1988 presidential primary, and he was able to take each character and write in their voice. Each chapter, the tone of the book changes. Bob Dole’s voice is different than Michael Dukakis, and that’s different than George Bush’s voice.
The Fight (1975) by Norman Mailer. That’s one of the best sports books ever written. He combined access with his Norman Mailer persona and it was a fantastic read. All the President’s Men (1974), probably Born to Run (2016), Springsteen’s autobiography, and maybe Pappyland (2020) by Wright Thompson. He’s my best friend. The book is about a lot of things, but he writes about our friendship a lot in it so if I was on a desert island, at least I’d imagine back when we were hanging out in college and surrounded by civilization.