During college, I was fortunate to intern at some outstanding newspapers and work alongside some remarkably talented sportswriters and editors.
One of the most talented was Jeff Pearlman.
I was at the Tennessean in Nashville, during the summer of 1996, when the Olympics were in Atlanta. At the time, Pearlman was a preps reporter. But he had the opportunity to write a long profile on Tennessee star quarterback Peyton Manning, and he completely rocked the story. In no time, Pearlman was headed to Sports Illustrated.
He's written books about the 1986 New York Mets, the 1990s Dallas Cowboys, as well as Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens.
He's one of the most gifted writers I know, blessed with a delicate touch, cursed with tremendous pride.
He's got a few local book signings this week, so he and I chatted for the first time in a few years.
Here are highlights of our conversation.
SJ: Some of my fondest memories were on the hard courts in Nashville. How's your game?
JP: If you recall, which I recall very well, when you were an intern, you told me you never lost a one-on-one basketball game, and I took you to the woodshed.
I'm almost 40, and my game is still pretty strong. I'm one of the better players on my block - but there's only two of us.
SJ: Do you still play?
JP: play in a Thursday night league. I love basketball.
SJ: But you're not a huge NBA fan, right?
JP: I'm a total nostalgia guy. I have two kids, and I spend a lot of time writing books. So when it comes to free time, I don't choose to sit down and watch a game. I try to play with my kids, or take a run. But I love nostalgia. I love watching old USFL. If there were a USFL marathon, I'd watch it all day.
SJ: What drew you to Walter Payton?
JP: Two main reasons. No. 1, I like writing about iconic figures, and iconic teams. But in the world of books, they're really hard to find. Here's Payton, who everyone knows, but I don't know everyone knows much bout. As a guy who loves nostalgia, when I think of 80s football, when I was a kid, Payton is one of the four or five guys who entered my mind. His poster was on my wall. So it was a natural idea for a book.
SJ: How long did this book take you to write?
JP: All told, it was about two and a half years. Initially, when the excerpt came out, people were like, 'He's a guy trying to make a buck.' If I was trying to make a buck, I would have done it in a year. I was barely doing any freelance. I was obsessive, about this book. Most people write and research at same time. But I do all the research first, then write. So two years of research, then six months of writing.
My goal was to write 1,000 a words a day.
SJ: Was this the most personal book for you?
JP: First and foremost, it's about someone who is deceased. There's something sort of haunting about it. Also, to be honest, I really wanted this to be my sort of great book. I really did.
I wanted this to be my great book. The most detailed. I learned from the other books. But I wanted this to be the one. People say, 'You have such thin skin.' It's not about taking it personal. It's about pouring yourself into it. I came to love what Walter Payton represented. Why is it wrong that someone is human? Why is that such a crime? We all have shortcomings. Even Sean Jensen.