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.
SJ: Indeed. Tell me about the selection of the excerpt that ran in Sports Illustrated, about six days before your book was available to the public?
JP: It was their decision. They read the book first, then they picked it. It was their call. But the thing is, to be honest with you, initially when I got the criticism, I was sort of defensive. People wanted to blame Sports Illustrated, and I don't want to say I went along. But, to be honest with you, that was a very real part of his life. He was depressed after he played. He was in pain.
These were real elements to who he was. I don't think it was negative. I think it was real. Were they going to pick an excerpt of running 275 yards, or breaking Jim Brown's record? No, they wanted something that original and gripping. And sort of unique, and unknown. The tough thing was, this was everyone's introduction to the book. Sports Illustrated had the rights. No writers had seen the book. There was no one to say, 'Wait a second.' Only me. That was the hardest part. I was screaming into the wind. When the SI excerpt came out, it was the lowest moment of my career. I was excited for the book to come out. But that was a horrible two weeks. There were a lot of emails and tweets, and comments on different blogs. 'This guy is trying to destroy Walter Payton.' I kept saying, 'Read the book, read the book.' On the flip side, over the last month, I can't tell you how many emails I've got from people apologizing.
SJ: As a parent, I felt bad for the Payton children, Jarrett and Brittney. Your a father, too. Did you?
JP: Absolutely. It's almost like the unanswerable question. Of course you feel bad. I don't even know what the solution is, except to not write a historical biography. I love Jarrett Payton. He's one of the nicest people I've met in my life. His commitment to carry on his father's legacy is beautiful. Nothing short of beautiful.
SJ: What's been the highlight for you?
JP: There's two little ego highlights. I rapped The Super Bowl Shuffle Morning Joe on MSNBC with one of the hosts. The NFL Network did a documentary on Walter Payton. I turn it on, and the first voice I heard was me. As a fan of documentaries, and as a guy who loves sports documentary, that was a thrill for me. And making the New York Times list.
SJ: That's old hat for you!
JP: There was a little vindication.
SJ: What were your goals, when we were at the Tennessean [in 1996]?
JP: It's not something I ever thought of [writing books]. My goal, when I was at the Tennessean, was to get to Sports Illustrated. Then, when I got to SI, a friend of mine, Jon Wertheim, wrote about book about Venus Williams. I thought, 'That's not a bad idea.' So an agent came up with the idea, for the '86 Mets book. I really enjoyed it. I love hunkering down at the corner of a Starbucks, and finding their stories. I love traveling. I love going to Mississippi, and finding all these people from [Payton's] life. It's really riveting.
SJ: Why have you waited so long to come to Chicago?
JP: My publisher prints out postcards about the book. Then I go to a stadium and hand them out. They printed it for the Payton book. It was a weekend. Then the excerpt came out, and the reaction was so negative - so negative - my publishing company said, 'This doesn't sound like a good idea, to send you to Soldier Field.' I was disappointed, but I had to agree with them. It didn't seem logical. I didn't reel like getting my head bashed in with a pipe. Now, people have read it.
Pearlman will be appearing at Anderson's Bookshop, 123 W. Jefferson Ave., Naperville, Monday at 7 p.m.
Then, on Wednesday, Pearlman will discuss his book at 7:30 p.m. at KAM Isaiah Israel
Congregation, 1100 E. Hyde Park Boulevard, Chicago. The event is free and open
to the public.