Author of new Brett Favre book talks process, surprises and Rodgers backlash
Arguably no athlete in history has captured the unending interest and imagination of Wisconsin sports fans the way Brett Favre did during his time in Green Bay.
The Packers' Hall of Fame quarterback had a unique, exciting, freewheeling, chance-taking and polarizing style of play that helped him win a Super Bowl and set numerous NFL passing records. And he had a one-of-a-kind personality off the field, at once larger-than-life but immediately relatable – real, raw, charismatic and endearing, but also tormented and certainly not without vice.
In his new book, "Gunslinger: The Remarkable, Improbable, Iconic Life of Brett Favre," best-selling author Jeff Pearlman examines it all – good, bad, ugly and other – in a fascinating biography that tells the story of No. 4 for the first time. Though Favre himself declined to be interviewed, Pearlman spoke with 500 sources from the quarterback's life for the nearly 400-page book.
On Tuesday at 6:30 p.m., Pearlman will be at the Elm Grove Library, 13600 Juneau Blvd., to speak and read from his book, which is already making waves among local and national sports fans. Before his appearance in Wisconsin, we spoke with Pearlman to discuss the process of writing the book, why he wrote it and what he learned that surprised him, the expectation of backlash and Aaron Rodgers' high-profile repudiation of one anecdote and just what made the captivating and polarizing Favre so popular.
OnMilwaukee: When you do something of this scope, talking to 500 people and writing a 400-page book, what do you personally come away with? You've covered sports for a long time, knew some of the people involved and probably had some preconceived notions, but what do you come away with that you're most surprised about, intrigued by or you learned that you didn't know going in?
Jeff Pearlman: The thing about doing a book is you start with this base knowledge and then you learn everything. It's actually a funny question that you get asked a lot when you promote a book which is, what did you learn that surprised you? And it's almost like, what did I learn that didn't surprise me? The reason you call so many people is you get all these stories behind the stories, and you find out things that you never knew, like ... I can name a million different ones.
I didn't know that Brett Favre knew all the words to "Rapper's Delight." I didn't know that Brett Favre missed his sophomore year of high school because of mono. I didn't know that Brett Favre, when he was little, made his little brother drink a concoction of his own pee and mud. I didn't know the relationship with his mother. I didn't know the details of his father's life.
There's so many things you learn about them. That's the whole reason ... I never understand someone who does a biography and interviews 20 people. It doesn't make sense. The whole fun isn't digging through the clips; I mean there's some satisfaction to that. The fun is finding all these unique ... finding the priest who was with Favre right after his father died and is kneeling by his side. That stuff is amazing. Talking to the people who were there right after his car accident when he almost died and can tell you what it was like and what they were thinking at the time, and seeing Brett lying there and not knowing if he's going to live or die. That's kind of why I do it all. That's what I enjoy about it at least.
In this genre, books about iconic athletes and teams, fans often already know the good things – the on-field accomplishments, and with Favre, his toughness and larger-than-life persona. Do you think it's inevitable the new stuff that comes up seems to be more negative, digging up things subjects don't want dug up, like Favre's demons?
I don't actually, but I think what happens is, like ... so you end up doing some excerpts, or the publishing company will hand out a list of points from the book, and it's never going to be like – and I'm not blaming the publishing company; I mean, it's business, it's marketing – but it's rarely going to be like, "Hear about the time Brett Favre had an amazing game against whoever!"
Like, the excerpt in Bleacher Report was a Rodgers-Favre relationship. They requested that. The excerpt in Sport Illustrated was about Favre's year getting drunk in Atlanta. But I think people who read the books ... When I read really good biographies, I don't stop and think 'Wow, that's really great.' If you read a really good book, it's just all enjoyable, you're taking it all in. Then, hopefully you're good enough (as a writer) that you can put someone sort of – it sounds corny – but on the field with him when he's entering the game, his first college game. Like, he entered his first college game and on the sidelines he threw up Schlitz. He drank a case and a half of Schlitz. To me, that's the kind of detail I freaking love. Right?
And it's not going to generate headlines, it's not going to have people saying, "Hey, how dare you write this?" But that's almost the point. You read it and a book should be a pretty seamless – it should be so seamless that the stuff you learn that's new, that's worthwhile, people don't even … they don't stop to think about because it's just a seamless thing. Like, "Oh my God, I'm reading about this game. This game is amazing. Holy cow. Hey Betty, did you know that Brett Favre's first game, he threw up Schlitz on the sidelines?"
I'm not sure if that makes sense but like, it's not all negative. It's actually all these details cobbled together to be a narrative, and most of them are actually positive and exciting and enlightening, but the ones we tend to notice the most are the negative, I agree with that.
When you finish your manuscripts, but before the book really starts circulating with people, do you already expect criticism and steel yourself against it? Green Bay can be pretty provincial, and Packers fans are very protective of their sports heroes; do you prepare for some backlash?
I do. I hate it. I always hate it. I hate it. That's my least favorite part of the whole experience because these books are exhausting. Also, the other thing is you're relying a lot on memories of people for a lot of these experiences. You really are. That's a fact. I wish everything were documented – although I don't because then you wouldn't have anything new – but you are relying on the memories of people.
You interview someone ... I'll give you the perfect example. I'm going to have to talk about; I'll talk to you about it: the whole Aaron Rodgers and Brett Favre. The "good morning, Grandpa." You've heard about this, right?
Yes, I was definitely going to ask you about that (Rodgers has refuted an anecdote in Pearlman's book that he called Favre "Grandpa" on the first day of Packers organized team activities).
Yeah, I didn't even talk about it that much, but I'm so prepared, I know I'm going to get asked about it a hundred times. To me, you should always just be as honest and upfront as humanly possible. I was told by about a gazillion people to interview Craig Nall, who is a great guy and he was the backup quarterback that year, a couple years that he was there, and he was awesome and there wasn't one thing he told me that did not check out. He was great. He told me the story of Favre and Rodgers.
As soon as this thing came out, I went back and looked at my transcript of my interview with Craig, and it was clear: It was the first day, blah, blah, blah, the first time they met, blah, blah, blah, then this all comes out, and I'm like, I have the transcript, I know this is verified. I know he hated being called Grandpa – that I got verified. I know he didn't feel good about Rodgers. All that's there, and I have the timing from Craig Nall, who was one of his closest friends on the team. But it comes out, and then Craig kind of reaches out to me – I don't know exactly how it happened; I think it was a DM on Twitter – and says it wasn't their first meeting in OTAs, it was their first meeting in training camp.
And like, here's what kills me about that. I'm being serious about it. Everything about that story actually still holds up. Aaron Rodgers reports to training camp, it's his first day of training camp, he walks in the cafeteria, he says, "Good morning, Grandpa," Favre is incredulous that this guy would say that.
It's all there. I just happen to have it on the wrong date. I had it a month earlier than it actually happened, and all of a sudden it allows people to be like, "Well, how could you get that wrong?" Even though I reported it really well and, like, it actually pains me because I know how much time I put into this. I know Rodgers, he said it. He knows he said it. But he's able to cast doubt on it because I had the wrong date. So, that sucks.
And I beat myself up over this sh*t. I truly do. And I thought about this one a lot because I asked myself, like, were I an editor, what would I say to the writer? I honestly would say that is almost as inconsequential a mistake as you could make. The context is still there, it was said and "blah, blah, blah." But it still is the first excerpt on Bleacher Report and it's sort of how the book was introduced to the country.
What can you do? I don't know. Does it undermine the book? I hope not. If it does and some people decide not to read it, there's not really much I can do about it.
The main thing is, I feel like my track record ... I'm not saying I'm David Halberstam. But I do think after seven books, my track record on reporting, it kind of speaks for itself. My track record is strong, you know? I think it's strong. I'm not a guy who gets sued for books. I'm not a guy who has had an issue with any apologies. I'd say my track record is strong, and something like this comes along, especially in a town that is as rightly, understandably provincial about their football team, it makes it kind of ... it can be harsh. But you make a mistake, that's a problem. Page 1 of 2 (view all on one page)
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