The B/R Interview: Jeff Pearlman
This week’s interview is with Jeff Pearlman, a columnist for ESPN.com’s Page 2 and author of the new book Boys Will Be Boys: The Glory Days and Party Nights of the Dallas Cowboys Dynasty.
In his new book, Pearlman delves deep into the on-and-off-field issues that surrounded America’s team during the '90s. His coverage of the Cowboys through countless interviews with players and personnel intimately documents the achievements and controversy surrounding the team that won three Super Bowls in four years.
With an emphasis on Michael Irvin, the relationships between owner Jerry Jones and head coaches Jimmy Johnson and Barry Switzer, and a variety of eccentric and bizarre stories, Boys Will Be Boys is one of the most entertaining sports books I have ever read and one that will have you re-reading passages in disbelief of what you just read.
Pearlman is also the author of the New York Times Bestseller The Bad Guys Won! which documents the ’86 Mets, as well as Love Me, Hate Me, a book about Barry Bonds. To learn more about Jeff Pearlman you can visit his Web site, where you can find more information about his works, links to articles, and his blog.
Enjoy the interview!
MT: Hi Jeff, thanks for speaking with me today.
JP: Hey how’s it going? Thanks for having me.
MT: To start out could you give us a bit about your background, where you grew up, went to college, what you majored in, how you got into journalism?
JP: I was born in Mahopac, NY, which is about an hour north of the City. My first journalism experience was as the sports editor of my high school newspaper, The Beaverton. And as a track and cross country geek, I saw it as a way to get a little attention. I wrote stories like “Cheerleading is Stupid” because I knew the cheerleaders would yell at me, and that was as close as I could get.
Actually I have a true story from high school; it’s really embarrassing but I like telling it. There was a girl that I had a huge crush on who was the keyboardist for a rock band at my high school. So I told the editor that I should do a huge profile on her for the paper.
I remember being really nervous when I called her up. I think I was a Senior in high school at the time, and I’d never kissed a girl, never went on a date, you know, just a geek.
Anyways, I called her up and lied to her. I told her that my Dad gave me money for having a big story, her profile story, in the student newspaper, and that I needed her to go out with me for the story. And she uh, she totally shot me down.
MT: [laughs] No way, you’re kidding me!?! That is cold!
JP: The funny thing is that I did a story a couple years ago, it never ran anywhere, about tracking down girls I had crushes on to find out if I could have acted any differently so that I would have gotten better results.
I found the girl and invited her to go apple picking. We’re both married with kids, so both our families went apple picking together. And that day I asked her, “Did I have any shot at all?” And she goes, “Absolutely zero.”
MT: [laughs] Well at least she was honest...
JP: [laughs] Yeah right. Anyways, that was high school. From there, I went to the University of Delaware and I wrote for my college paper, as sports editor and then editor.
MT: And what did you major in while at UDel?
JP: I was a History major with a minor in Sociology. We had a really good college paper, and I was pretty much the standard controversial college-student columnist that would write stuff to piss off the fraternities and rip the administration, stuff like that. It was a great experience, and I had a couple of internships during my college summers.
After college, I was hired as a food and fashion writer for The Tennessean. That was my first job. I didn’t know anything about food or fashion, but I had interned there, and I guess they liked me and that was the only thing they had, so that was my first job.
MT: So you started in food and fashion and then how did you transition to sports?
JP: Well, basically, I was a chronic f@#*-up at the Tennessean. I would always get dates wrong and there were errors in my stories all the time. I was the worst reporter—cocky, arrogant, and a real asshole—someone I would never want to work with today.
I came out of college and I thought I was sort of "the Man," hired at a pretty good paper at a young age. I was terrible, just the worst. I hate looking back at myself.
But while there, the best thing to happen to me was that my editor forced me to go on the cops beat. She basically said that I was either going to get fired or go on the cops beat. So I went to the cops beat, and it was a great experience for me because it showed me how to check facts. It really wasn’t about writing; it was about getting all the correct details in there.
MT: I’m sorry, your editor put you on what exactly?
JP: The cops beat, or the police beat. I was the guy listening to the scanner at two in the morning. And it was great. It really forced me to focus on getting the facts and details right. It’s wasn’t about being a snazzy writer.
That was a real eye-opener for me. It was a wake-up call to cut the attitude and just focus on my job. And really, it taught me about reporting—how to report things and write a certain way, how to make the extra call and be dogged. I really needed that in my life.
MT: I think you bring up a good distinction there. That, while it’s important to be confident in your writing, you have to be careful not to come off as arrogant. It seems like this humbling experience helped you to lose that arrogance while at the same time become more focused and confident in your work.
JP: Well there’s never an excuse to be arrogant. That’s why I’m really bothered by it, and it bothers me when I see it in other people today. Whether you’re Michael Phelps or some writer or plumber or the President, there’s no reason to be arrogant.
You can be confident in yourself without telling other people about it all the time or talking shit about other people. I was the worst, I really was. It’s embarrassing because at the end of the day, we’re all going to die one day, so it’s important to be a better person after all. That’s kind of how I look at it.
MT: A learning experience nonetheless...
JP: Yeah, it was, and I needed it. So when I got off the cops beat, I got the highly-coveted high school wrestling beat. That was a great experience because I had a terrific sports editor in Neal Scarborough, who kind of guided me through and let me do some different things.
MT: And from there you went on to Sports Illustrated?
JP: Yeah, well during all this I kept applying to Sports Illustrated, which was my dream job. I wrote a freelance piece for them, which kind of got my name out there a little bit, and then I was hired as reporter in 1996, where I was kind of like a fact-checker. And I worked my way up to become a Senior Writer there.
MT: As you were working towards your dream job as an SI writer, were there writers who you looked up to and/or consistently read who influenced you?
JP: Oh yeah, I had a wide range of writers who I sort of tried to emulate. One of these guys was Steve Buckley, from the Boston Herald, who, when I was in college, wrote me this six-page letter critiquing my clips, which was invaluable. I still have it.
MT: Very cool, did he reach out to you with that?
JP: Well, I had applied for an internship and the guy replied with this six-page critique to all my clips that were in my portfolio, it was amazing. I try and do the same now whenever I receive writer’s pieces.
MT: I guess Buckley must have seen potential in your writing...
JP: Yeah, and I always remember he wrote in his comments, “I have a feeling you’ll be a player in this game one day.” That made me feel so good.
Also Mike Freeman, who’s now at CBS Sportsline and used to be at the New York Times. He was also a Delaware Blue Hen like me, so I always read everything he wrote and studied his work. He was another guy who really helped me out, analyzed what I wrote, and gave me advice.
He was one of these guys who said, “Listen, don’t be cocky because once you’re here, once you’re writing for real, it doesn’t do you much good.”
And one other guy is Greg Orlando, who was a writer at Xbox Nation. I’m not a big video game guy, but someone turned me onto this guy, and he is one of the best writers I’ve ever read in my life, nobody knows who he is.
I also read a lot of Sports Illustrated growing up. But I never read Sports Illustrated just to read it. I would study the transitions and how writers constructed phrases and different approaches they took. So that had a big influence on my writing as well.
MT: Cool, very interesting stuff. Now, to talk about your writing, it’s clear that a ton of research and fact checking has gone into your new book. Do you have a template or a specific writing process that you go through, or does it change from piece to piece?
JP: I pretty much have a template that I use. I don’t know if it’s the best way, I just started doing it this way.
Basically what I do, and I’ll use my book on the Cowboys as an example, is that I find copies of the team’s yearbooks from the dates I’m covering. So, for the Cowboys, that was from 1989 to 1996.
Then, I make a Microsoft Word file for any player who played for them during that time period, and I go about finding each of them. That’s basically through whitepages.com, or whatever it takes to find them.
Then I call each and every one of them, and at the same time I’m doing that, I do a Lexis search for any article that has the words Dallas Cowboys in either the headline or the lead during the time period.
So, right now, I’m literally staring at three huge cardboard boxes with over 10,000 articles about the Dallas Cowboys between 1989 and 1996.
MT: Wow, that really shows the thoroughness of your research.
JP: Well, you have to be. I like the books that are thorough in detail because you never know what you might come across.
For instance, I didn’t talk to Troy Aikman. Troy Aikman wouldn’t talk to me for this book. And the instant reaction is, “How can you write a book on the Dallas Cowboys without talking to Aikman?”
But I don’t see it that way, I actually like the minutia more than the bigs. I’m a fan of finding small, little obscure guys, small, little obscure facts, the things you wouldn’t have otherwise known.
If you do the sort of day-by-day article search about the Dallas Cowboys, you will inevitably stumble across an article about Nate Newton judging an apple pie eating contest in Savannah, GA or something like that. And those are the articles that are golden, so that’s why you have to be so thorough.
MT: And I imagine that most times, the bigger-named players will give you their biased opinion in an effort to make themselves look good, where as the smaller-named players are more likely to give you the real-life facts about what actually happened.
JP: Right, it’s true, the smaller the guy, the better off you are. So I always go for the kickers and the equipment guys and the clubhouse managers and the backup offensive linemen. They are much more important than the Emmitt Smiths or the Troy Aikmans or the Michael Irvins.
MT: How did you approach your interviews with the players so that they would have confidence divulging information to you about the team?
JP: Actually, it wasn’t that hard. I make it clear to them that I’m not trying to kill them. I’m not trying to write a kill the Cowboys book. I just approached it basically saying that I wanted to talk about their memories as a Cowboy.
And for most of these guys, to be honest, it was the greatest time of their lives, so they’re pretty willing to talk about it. It’s like talking about your old frat days, you know like, “I hooked up with this girl, it was awesome!” So they are pretty happy to talk about it because this is really the equivalent of old college stories for most of these players.
MT: Let’s talk about the book now. It’s a great read, and I flew through it. Your voice and how you portray the Cowboys team throughout it makes it incredibly entertaining.
JP: Thank you, I appreciate that.
MT: Coincidentally, many of the themes you talk about in the book seem to be mirroring themselves with the current Dallas Cowboys. How would you compare these Cowboys to the '90s team you wrote about in the book?
JP: Well, they are not as good. That’s first and foremost. People who compare the two teams are missing one huge difference, which is that those Cowboys of the '90s were insanely talented, and the current Cowboys are not; they’re just very good. So when you’re insanely talented and winning, you can deal with a lot of distractions.
But the owner is the same, and he’s always been a risk taker and a swashbuckler, and sometimes the risks he’s taken have really paid off well. You can’t really argue with the Terrell Owens signing at this point. But I just think the one thing Jerry [Jones] has forgotten over time is that he built the '90s team off of draft picks and cagey smaller trades, getting obscure guys, free agents.
And now he’s trying to build with big blockbusters. Just look at Daniel Snyder when he brought in Bruce Smith, Deion [Sanders], and all those guys, it just doesn’t work.
To me, he [Jones] was doing it right for a few years. He got the Cowboys to the right place last year, they disappointed at the end, but they still had a hell of a team. And I think he’s made the mistake of panicking a little bit right now. He almost needs a Jimmy Johnson type guy there to say, “Listen man, calm the f#@* down, this is football, it’ll be okay, stay the course.” I don’t think he’s willing to stay the course.
MT: You mentioned Jimmy Johnson, and a large part of the book is devoted to exploring the relationships between Jerry Jones and his two coaches: Johnson and Switzer. Can you talk about that a little?
JP: Jimmy [Johnson] ran that team, it wasn’t Jerry [Jones] doing it, it wasn’t Aikman or Emmitt [Smith], it was Jimmy’s team. And Jerry was at his best, his smartest, when he let Johnson call the shots, dictate the drafts and the player moves, while he hung back and handled the finances.
That’s when the Cowboys were at their best. The problem was that Jerry [Jones] didn’t want that. He wanted to be more involved. He saw himself as a smart football guy, even though he wasn’t. He saw himself as "the Man," but he wasn’t really "the Man" at that point.
So basically, when he brought Barry [Switzer] in, he found a guy that would listen to his every word. The problem was that Switzer wasn’t a very good pro-football coach. And Jerry [Jones] has done that ever since; he’s never hired a great, in his prime, other than Parcells, football coach, and I think the reason that is, is because he doesn’t want to play second fiddle. He wants to be the top guy. He wants to be the guy the cameras come to after the football game.
MT: The book starts and ends with Michael Irvin; can you talk about him and how he contributed to the book?
JP: I tracked him down at his Hall of Fame Induction, and we talked for about an hour, hour and a half. He’s great, he’s my favorite character I’ve ever written about. He’s ying and yang, either the best guy in the world or your worst nightmare. He was the hardest worker on that team, and it’s very profound that your best player is your hardest worker; it has a major impact.
On the other hand, he was out until three, four in the morning. He used drugs, he cheated on his wife incessantly, and he was addicted to women. Irvin was a double-edge sword who was an indispensable member of the Cowboys.
MT: Would you compare him to any other player now, T.O. for instance?
JP: Well, Owens is a great player and he has charisma, but Michael Irvin would never throw a teammate under a bus the way T.O. has with Donovan McNabb or Jeff Garcia. Irvin would never do that, he considered his team to be his family. So no, there’s nobody like Michael Irvin, he’s the most unique sports figure I’ve ever come across.
MT: To finish up here, what advice could you give to the writers at Bleacher Report, many of whom aspire to break into the sports-writing profession?
JP: Go to law school…
MT: Law school, really!?!
JP: No, I’m just kidding. No. 1: The best way to separate yourself seems to me is to be able to report the hell out of everything. Don’t just think you can write your way out of it all, or don’t just think your words will get you by. Report the hell out of absolutely everything. Report, Report, Report!
And I would say be as aggressive as possible. Make the extra call, find unique ways to look at something. When you cover a game, don’t just go to the pitcher who won, go to the backup catcher and ask him about the pitcher’s background. Find different people to talk to. Think outside the box. There are millions of people trying to do this job, so think as uniquely as possible.
MT: That’s great, I think that is some really great advice.
Okay, we’ll finish up on these last couple questions: Favorite Hall & Oates song?
JP: "Rich Girl"
MT: And if Irvin is your favorite Cowboy, who’s your favorite Met?
JP: George Foster...
MT: All right, Jeff, it has been an absolute pleasure talking with you and thank you for lending your time to Bleacher Report.
JP: You got it, thanks Max.
Guess what B/R Members…
Jeff Pearlman has joined B/R! You can find a link to his website as well as other content on his member page. If you have any questions or comments about his new book or his writing, become his fan and ask him!
Hope you enjoyed the interview and stay tuned for next week’s B/R Interview with ESPN.com Page 2 writer LZ Granderson…
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