Jeff Pearlman, author of several sports books including Sweetness: The Enigmatic Life of Walter Payton and Gunslinger: The Remarkable, Improbable, Iconic Life of Brett Favre, took a few minutes to answer some questions about his new book Football for a Buck: The Crazy Rise and Crazier Demise of the USFL.
80sFootballCards: What do you remember about the USFL as a kid, did you go to any games? When did you get the idea to write a book on the league?
Jeff Pearlman: Never went to any games because I was raised by parents who knew nothing about sports and didn't really show much interest in attending (to be clear, Stan and Joan Pearlman were fantastic in all other areas). But I would watch the USFL religiously, read about it religiously. I initially wrote about the USFL back in 1990, when I was a senior at Mahopac High and my AP English teacher, Mr. Height, assigned us a final paper that had to be 20 pages in length. I did the USFL—and wrote 40 pages. I can't say I thought of making it a book at age 18 ... but the bug was in my ear.
80sFootballCards: You mentioned on Twitter that you “scratched and clawed and fought my ass off for a USFL book deal”, can you talk about the process you went through to make this happen?
Jeff Pearlman: Well, it was a bear. My agent—who is fantastic—told me after my 908,543rd whine that, "Jeff, nobody wants a fucking USFL book." Well, that wasn't what I wanted to hear. At the time I was pitching "Gunslinger," my Brett Favre bio. I had a couple of offers, so I went to Houghton Mifflin and said, "If you give me less money for Favre, but pay me to do USFL, I'm in." They did. I wound up writing and reporting "Football for a Buck" in a year—an insanely short amount of time for a project that required a ton of digging and 400-plus interviews. But I wanted this book, desperately.
80sFootballCards: How different was researching and putting this book together compared to your others like Sweetness and Gunslinger? I would think it would be a lot tougher because you're writing about a whole league rather than focusing on one player. Was there a specific aspect of the USFL that you wanted to focus on?
Jeff Pearlman: Yeah, it was tricky. Most books come with a pretty standard order. In the case of Sweetness, his birth-growth-career-aftermath-demise. Same with Favre, minus death. They're not easy, but they're easy to map out. This was totally different—very narrow time span, but all over the map. It was dizzying and irksome and unruly. But the challenge is also the joy; figuring it out was like a 60,000-piece jigsaw puzzle.
Also, I wasn't looking for one area. I wanted the whole burrito.
80sFootballCards: Did you do all your research before trying to contact players/coaches/management for interviews, or did you do them both together? Can you talk about the process of how you tracked them down and what type of interviews you did, phone, email, in-person?
Jeff Pearlman: Simultaneous. I just didn't have the luxury of time with this book. I only gave myself one year, because of the crappy pay. So I did it all. It helps that I really know the USFL well. So it wasn't like, say, Walter Payton's childhood, where I needed to learn something from scratch. As for people—it's a LOT of googling, nexis digging, calling colleges and pro teams. And mainly phone, though my son Emmett and I drove six hours to track down a defensive lineman named Greg Fields. He punched his coach in the face upon being released. Seemed worthwhile of tracking.
80sFootballCards: Who were some of your favorite players to interview and can you share any of your favorite stories?
Jeff Pearlman: I love Steve Young, because he loves the USFL. It's his frat party. Or, really, it's a frat party mixed with a terrifying flight. He told me, when the LA Express was limping along on half a leg, the team was driving to a game when the bus driver stopped, stood and said, "Give me my money, or we don't go another foot!" A trainer had to cash his check. There was also the guy we found, Greg Fields, who was certifiable. He punched his coach after being released, and the team (Los Angeles) hired away Liberace's security guard to track him and follow him around. We would be up sitting with Greg in a Sacramento mall food court, eating Cold Stone and telling stories. When he played in San Antonio, the owner stopped paying players. So Greg* followed him to his house with a baseball bat to get his dough. It worked.
Oh, one time a Gunslingers player (not Greg) was placed on the injured list because his penis was slammed in a trunk. True story.
*note: Greg was 6'7 265 according to his 1985 Topps USFL card.
80sFootballCards: Let’s pretend Trump never got involved with the league so there was never a push to move to the Fall or out of control spending on player salaries. As a result, teams were a little more stable financially and the Stars, Panthers, Maulers and Breakers didn’t have to move, merge or fold. Do you think the USFL and Spring football would have worked long term or even still been around today?
Jeff Pearlman: I mean, a lot would have had to go right and these notoriously impatient men would have had to exercise tremendous patience. The more likely ending is the NFL absorbs the Baltimore Stars, the Jacksonville Bulls, the Memphis Showboats, the New Jersey Generals (placed in New York) and maybe the Oakland Invaders. That definitely could have happened.
80sFootballCards: Do you have any USFL memorabilia or any of the Topps cards that came out back then?
Jeff Pearlman: My son and I are addicted to 503-sports. Addicted. He owns a Doug Williams Outlaws jersey, an Ed Luther Bulls jersey and a Vince Evans Blitz jersey. I still have my original USFL trading card set from 1984. If you look at my website, it's sitting on the desk.
80sFootballCards: Ok, so we’re going back in time to the 80s and starting the USFL over from scratch: You get to pick any franchise to own, you get to hire any head coach, and you get to choose players from any of the 3 seasons. What team would like to call your own? Who’s your coach? And who are your first 5 picks?
Jeff Pearlman: LOVE this question. I'm going New Jersey Generals, because it's my home turf and if I'm owning the team that means President Embarrassment isn't. I'm getting Jim Mora as coach, and I'm drafting Herschel Walker, Reggie White, Jim Kelly, Kelvin Bryant and John Corker. And I'm winning a shitload of games.
Football for a Buck: The Crazy Rise and Even Crazier Demise of the USFL releases September 11, 2018.
Check out Jeff's other books at his website JeffPearlman.com.