How do you write a book about Brett Favre? 500 interviews and no varnish
Brett Favre’s fans are advised that if they prefer not to see his image sullied in any way, they should avoid the new biography on the Packers Hall of Fame quarterback.
Favre’s exploits on the field, and raucous escapades off, are captured in Jeff Pearlman’s "Gunslinger: The Remarkable, Improbable, Iconic Life of Brett Favre."
Sure, there are tales of that incredible arm (hence, “Gunslinger” in the title) and the improbable plays that made him a superhero in Green Bay and beyond. However, Pearlman’s book also has extended passages depicting Favre in a far less heroic light as a prolific womanizer who abused alcohol and pills during the 1990s. It isn’t just Favre. Pearlman also has a somewhat negative portrayal of his late father, Irv, who wasn’t faithful to his wife.
Is it all necessary?
To know Pearlman and his previous work, the answer is an emphatic yes. He received some harsh criticism from his biography "Sweetness: The Enigmatic Life of Walter Payton." Fans of the late Bears star were outraged that Pearlman detailed some unflattering aspects of his life.
Pearlman doesn’t expect the blowback to be quite as intense from Favre’s fans in Green Bay (“They almost like him for his flaws”), but he knows there will be questions about why he had to focus so hard on his wild escapades. His reply always includes the words “comprehensive” and “complete.”
“I wanted to write the comprehensive biography of Brett Favre,” Pearlman said. “If I didn’t write about all that stuff, it wouldn’t be complete. If I just left it at ‘He is married to Deanna and has two children,’ it wouldn’t be a remotely accurate description of Brett Favre.”
Pearlman, though, admits he was somewhat conflicted about Irv. He wasn’t a public figure like his son. Why sully his memory with a passage depicting him as a womanizer?
Pearlman discussed Irv with many people. David Maraniss, author of the bestselling and definitive biography, "When Pride Still Mattered: A Life of Vince Lombardi," offered this advice: “You don’t have to include everything. It’s your definition of what definitive is.”
Ultimately, Pearlman decided he couldn’t hold back on Irv.
“Irv was so important to Brett Favre’s life,” Pearlman said. “To see how Brett ended up like him, I think that context was important. If I didn’t write that (about Irv), I would be telling an incomplete story.”
Nobody will ever accuse Pearlman about being incomplete in his reporting. His painstaking approach resulted in more than 500 interviews for the book.
This is Grunt Work 101. Pearlman started by accumulating Favre’s high school yearbooks, and college and pro media guides from all of his teams. He recorded every name, from players to cheerleaders, on a spreadsheet, along with others he assembled from Favre’s vast clip file.
Then Pearlman attempted to contact every person on that list. He said he probably made 700-800 calls to get those 500 interviews. The exercise, he says, is essential to produce a book that goes beyond a superficial look at Favre.
“There are a lot of people who say, ‘What can you possibly tell me that’s new about Brett Favre?’” Pearlman said. “The answer is that I talked to the priest who was in the room with Favre when his father died. You find these people who never have been asked about him.”
A case in point, Pearlman said, was an interview he did with a receiver who was in training camp with Favre during his one season with the Atlanta Falcons. The player, who never played a down in the NFL, detailed the extreme hazing he, Favre and the other rookies received during that camp.
“When you get new stuff, you feel really good about it,” Pearlman said.
Pearlman did land a long interview with Favre’s mother, Bonita (“Extremely gracious”), and other family members and friends. However, after Pearlman thought Favre would consent to a session, the quarterback eventually declined.
“If I wanted to tell my story, I would do it myself,” Favre said in a text to Pearlman.
If Favre does, it probably won’t be as forthcoming as Pearlman’s biography. The former Sports Illustrated writer is making a name for himself with bestselling books about iconic players and teams (“Showtime” on the ‘80s Lakers) of a more recent vintage. He already is working on his next book on the colorful but ill-fated USFL.
Pearlman said he is trying to follow the mold of Maraniss’ books on Lombardi and Roberto Clemente and Richard Ben Cramer ("Joe DiMaggio: The Hero’s Life") in portraying these men as more than just athletes. He says sports merely are “a prism to see what makes them tick.”
Readers will get a complete portrait on Favre in Pearlman’s book. The Hall of Famer is complex man, who was revered by many as a great teammate and by others as a complete jerk. Favre’s successor, Aaron Rodgers, isn’t in his fan club. Pearlman nicely details their highly uneasy relationship.
It definitely is all there. After spending more than two years reporting and writing, Pearlman has a simple goal for this book.
“You want people to say, ‘Alright, there’s no reason for anyone else to ever write a Brett Favre book,” Pearlman said.