Jeff Pearlman

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The 25 best players in USFL history: No. 24—Chuck Clanton

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I am counting down the top 25 players in USFL history, concluding with the announcement of the No. 1 guy on Sept. 10—the eve of the release date for Football for a Buck.

The list comes after years of writing and researching my book, as well as a lifetime of loving the long, lost spring football league.

There have been books throughout my career that were written because the moment was right. There have been books throughout my career that felt like pure labor (sorry, Roger Clemens). But Football for a Buck is pure passion. Everything about the USFL spoke to me. The colors. The uniforms. The nicknames. The stars. The scrubs. It felt real and gritty and authentic.

Hence, the book.

Hence, the list.

Also, a quick point: This has 0 to do with what the players later became. NFL accomplishments are insignificant here. It’s all about the USFL.

So, with no further ado …

No. 24: Chuck Clanton


Birmingham Stallions (1984 and 1985)

Clanton is one of those guys who made the USFL the USFL. A ball-hawking defensive back at Auburn, Clanton was kicked off the team for multiple disciplinary infractions. He actually spent his final fall at the school playing flag football with a fraternity team.

When he heard about the USFL, Clanton decided to drive to tryouts with the Stallions in Birmingham. En route a trucker agreed to attach his small car to the 18-wheeler in exchange for a gaggle of tickets should he make the team. Clanton couldn’t resist, and he spent the drive sleeping and drinking Budweiser.

In 1985 Clanton set a professional football record by intercepting 16 passes in 18 games. This came after he picked off 10 as a rookie in ’84. That season was shortened after his live-in girlfriend—infuriated after Chuck brought her mediocre Burger King grub when she was hungry—stabbed him in the hand with a kitchen knife.

Chuck played one season with the Green Bay Packers, then left the game.

From Football for a Buck

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Player No. 25: Tim Spencer

Player No. 24: Chuck Clanton

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Lara Fowler

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This is gonna sound sorta weird, but while I’m not a fan of classic Hollywood, I’m a fan of fans of classic Hollywood.

What I mean is: The time period rivets me. But when I watch films from the black-and-white era, well, I sorta kinda fall asleep. I just don’t find the acting particularly convincing, the storylines particularly intriguing, the conflicts particularly realistic. Women are objects, men are dashing, villains are lame and over the top.

With this, Lara Fowler would certainly disagree.

A past winner of the CiMBA Award for Best Classic Movie Discussion, Lara is an expert on classic cinema, and as we speak she’s completing a biography of Marion Davies, the legendary actress who, ahem, I’d never heard of. She’s a film historian and author, and would gladly change her name to Happy McGill for $5 million of Celine Dion’s dollars.

You can follow Lara on Twitter here, Instagram here and visit her website here.

Lara Fowler, you’ve been Quazed …

JEFF PEARLMAN: OK, so Lara, you’re currently working on a biography of Marion Davies, the actress and producer who died 57 years ago. And, if I’m being honest, I’d never heard of Davies before. Which leads me to think most people haven’t heard of Davis before. Which leads me to think, for you, this is first and foremost a labor of love. So … why a book on Marion Davies? And what’s the goal?

LARA FOWLER: You’re certainly not alone in not having heard of her. Nowadays, if people know her at all, they know her as the mistress of William Randolph Hearst or “the woman from Citizen Kane.” If you’ve ever seen Citizen Kane, there’s a perception that Kane’s wife, Susan Alexander, is based on Marion Davies. It’s far more complicated than that–the character is a composite–but the perception has ruined Marion’s reputation in the general public. Susan Alexander is a no-talent hack opera singer whose career is pushed along by Kane, and she really has nothing to go on. That couldn’t be further from the truth about Marion Davies. Marion was a silent film actress (she also made it in sound films, but her peak was in the silent era) who was under contract to Cosmopolitan Studios, run by Hearst, who was also her real life romantic companion. She spent most of her early career weighed down in very heavy costume dramas, because Hearst wanted the public to see her as he saw her–as a saintly, otherworldly angel. She was good in these dramas, but the truth was that she was a phenomenally gifted comedienne. Everyone saw it, including Hearst, but he couldn’t bring himself to cast her in comedies.

Finally, in the late 1920s, he did–and the results were spectacular. She was doing screwball comedy before anyone else was, and when you watch her comedy work, she’s clearly the comedic predecessor to people like Carole Lombard, Lucille Ball, and Carol Burnett. It’s fascinating to watch. I want to bring her back into the public consciousness, because in addition to her comedic significance, she was a woman who charted her own path and lived her life her way. She was a modern, progressive woman.

I began the process of writing the book in 2013, when I realized how much I loved the research and writing process that went into my blog. An interview with Barbara Stanwyck biographer Victoria Wilson about her research spurred me to begin, and when I began thinking about subjects…Marion Davies kept coming up. She had been on my mind since I was 13 years old and first learned about her, I always found her fascinating. I would try to expand my list of potential subjects, but I just couldn’t think of anyone as fascinating as Marion Davies. I took it as a sign, started my research, and the puzzle pieces started to come together very quickly. It’s been 5 years now.

The goal is to restore Marion Davies’ reputation from the Citizen Kane realm and back to her rightful place in film history. I’ve been lucky to be able to talk to many important people in Marion’s life–people tell me you make your own luck, but the fact that multiple important people are still alive, some pushing 100 years old, really is pure chance. I’ve been able to talk about Marion at Hearst Castle, the Annenberg Community Beach House, UCLA, and at the TCM Classic Film Festival, and my research has taken me all over the world. It’s a wild adventure and she’s brought me so much joy. I couldn’t have chosen a better subject, and she’s such a pleasant person to write about. Everyone loved her. Biographers have to live with their subjects 24/7, and she’s just such a positive “presence.”

J.P.: So you’ve written a ton about classic Hollywood, which makes me wonder—how do you feel about modern Hollywood? About the 785th superhero movie? About the 300th film staring an animated dog of some sort? Where are we, quality-wise, in 2018 cinema?

L.F.: That’s a fascinating question with many facets to it. Hollywood has never existed in a vacuum, it has always reflected the trends and social issues of the outside world.The popularization of television in the 1950s led movie studios and theaters to experiment with new techniques to get people into the seats, and that’s how 3-D movies came into the mainstream. The fall of the Motion Picture Production Code in 1968 allowed studios to really make the kinds of movies that reflected the social movements of the 1960s, which got people into the theaters. Now, with the internet and the fact that people can stream movies at home for free, Hollywood has to come up with new and exciting things that will get people out of the house. The thought process really hasn’t changed that much. I see Hollywood today as reflective of our time. They recycle what clearly works, financially and otherwise, just like they always have. Think of all the Andy Hardy movies that were made during WWII. All the Lassie movies, the Rin Tin Tin movies…the list goes on. We’re creatures of habit.

In terms of quality, I think there was a loss in creativity that came with the fall of the Motion Picture Production Code. The MPPC, while it was basically censorship (it dictated what could be shown in movies coming out of Hollywood) and censorship is never a positive thing for a society, it brought the most talented and creative writers and production people to the industry. The studios were going to make the movies that they wanted–they just had to make sure that these innuendos and suggestive references flew under the radar of the censors. So that necessitated the best of the best–and from those creatives, we got brilliantly suggestive movies that said everything they needed to say…without saying much at all. Now, everything is shown to us and there’s very little left to the imagination.

With the late Maureen O’Hara in Ireland.

With the late Maureen O’Hara in Ireland.

J.P.: What’s your all-time favorite film? And, specifically, why? What takes it from here all the way to up there for you?

L.F.: Ah, the dreaded “favorite movie” question! When people ask me this, I usually say It Happened One Night. To me, it’s the perfect movie. It’s got it all–humor, drama, great acting, a phenomenal script, top-notch directing–it really doesn’t get much better than that. And I’m not alone, I’m happy to say–it was the first movie to win the Big Five at the Oscars (Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Screenplay). That feat has only been matched two other times in history–with One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Silence of the Lambs.

Also, The Thin Man always makes me happy. No matter what is happening in life, I can turn on The Thin Man and I feel instantly better, it’s the best medicine. The dialogue is so modern, and the relationship between Nick and Nora shows us that a husband and wife can be friends and equals

J.P.: So I’m reading your blog, and all about Olivia de Havilland. And you have these two side-by-side photos—one of Olivia when she was young, and one of her as a senior. And maybe this sounds dumb, but is it ever jarring or sad or … whatever to write about bygone film eras, and now see the people as old or, oftentimes, dead? Do you know what I mean? You live the films and the contained emotions. Then—they’re old and crusty and … yeah.

L.F.: That doesn’t sound dumb at all. It’s a great question. I think I’m used to it–sometimes it’s jarring to think just how long ago all this was, because you essentially live in that world and it’s real to you. But to me, it’s just as real to think that in many cases, most if not all of the people in that world are dead. I enjoy learning about their lives, from the beginning to the end. The sad thing is when a member of the Hollywood “old guard” dies, which is happening more and more frequently. There are very few left now. I interviewed Joan Fontaine for the blog just a few months before she died, and her death hit me very hard. For me, Joan Fontaine as a 96-year-old woman was the same Joan Fontaine as I saw on the screen. It was just a different stage of her life. I met Olivia de Havilland in Paris at the age of 94, and had the same feeling. She was the same person–just older. I was happy to meet them both, and had no feeling of sadness at their age, just joy.

J.P.: How did this happen for you? The interest in film? The interest in classic film? Was it a childhood passion? Did a certain movie flip the switch? When did the lightbulb go off?

L.F.: My grandmother was a lifelong film aficionado. She wanted to be a film critic when she was a child, but that path was not an easy one and she ended up going to nursing school instead–but her first job out of nursing school was at Cedars of Lebanon Hospital (now Cedars Sinai) in Los Angeles, where all the movie stars went for treatment. She took care of Betty Grable, Judy Garland, Farley Granger…and she would tell me stories about what they were like. Concurrently, she would show me movies from that era that she thought I would like, starting with Lili, starring Leslie Caron. I became obsessed with Lili, wanting to rent it every time we went to the movie store–to the point where my grandmother finally said “Let’s find something else.” I’ve always felt that my grandmother would have made a great film programmer, because her next movie for me was Meet Me In St. Louis. I’ve programmed film festivals before and if I were organizing a classic movie lineup for children, I would absolutely choose Meet Me In St. Louisto follow Lili. Beautiful Technicolor, simple yet meaningful storylines, an ensemble cast. I fell in love with that one, too, and then fell in love with Judy Garland. I saw every movie she ever made by the time I was 11, and started branching out to the movies her co-stars made. It grew exponentially from there.

With Leonard Maltin after Lara introduced Show People with him at the TCM Classic Film Festival

With Leonard Maltin after Lara introduced Show People with him at the TCM Classic Film Festival

J.P.: So I used to work at Sports Illustrated, and readers would often long for the 1970s, and all these bygone writers. But when, while writing for the magazine, I started thinking the modern writing was actually better. More colorful. More intellectual. Just … better. And you might hate this, but I think film is far better now than the material I’ve seen from the 1940s and 50s. It just strikes me—at its best—as more sophisticated and developed. Tell me why I’m on crack.

L.F.: Modern writers, actors, and directors stand on the shoulders of the people who came before them. There would be something wrong if the people in the 40’s and 50’s didn’t help further the craft. Remember that in the 1940s, movies were only about 50 years old and the industry was still growing and changing. What you see as sophistication and nuance is actually a shift in the language of cinema as it has aged. The other day, a colleague brought up a fascinating idea to me–the fact that in the language of silent film, there’s something of a “rule” that if the characters don’t indicate that they hear something, that thing doesn’t make a sound. It’s the perfect setup for physical and situational comedy–but that rule faded out of the cinematic lexicon once sound came in, and now people who aren’t familiar with silent film often ask “Why didn’t the character hear that train?” Audiences have become more sophisticated as the movies have aged.

I run a classic film Meetup group, and even among my attendees, from time to time someone will start laughing at a line they consider trite. That, then, leads to a conversation about how these movies were fundamental in shaping the nuance and sophistication that we see in filmmaking today, just like the English language of the 1500s shaped the language that we use today.

But…if you want recommendations for some absolutely powerhouse movies from classic Hollywood, I would be eager to give them to you. You’d be blown away by some of the movies that were made in the pre-Code era.

J.P.: How do you research? I mean—let’s talk Davies. What’s your process? Where are you finding most of your info? How much of it is interviews vs. archives? Where do you do most of your work?

L.F.: There are several people left alive who knew Marion well, and even one who knew her when she was still working (Marion retired in 1937), so I’m extremely lucky there. I’d say about 50% of it comes from archival and scholarly research, 40% from in-person or recorded interviews, and then the remaining 10% from miscellaneous other sources. I unearthed a set of interview tapes that Marion’s previous biographer conducted in the late 1960s with many, many people who have long since died. Those tapes are extraordinary, and have given me information that I couldn’t hope to find anywhere else.

I am able to travel, which is another benefit that I have in writing this book–so I’ve been to archives all over the United States, the UK, and France. Depending on the nature of the information, I will take notes or make copies, then save them in my files. When I get home, I will review and organize them into physical or digital file folders, and begin to put the puzzle pieces together. I did solid research (no writing) for the first 2 years. Then I started the writing process from the middle out. I wrote the most compelling part of the story first, then branched out from there. Now, my manuscript is essentially complete and I’m organizing and editing to make sure everything flows properly.

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J.P.: What separates a great movie from a good one? Seriously–what are the factors? The elements? And are some films factually great? Or is it all, come day’s end, opinion?

L.F.: Good question! Some movies that are considered “great films” are just not everyone’s cup of tea. To return to Citizen Kane, for example–there’s a huge segment of the population that just doesn’t like it. That’s personal taste–even though it consistently ranks as the #1 “greatest movie” of all time. I do think much of the notion of “greatest” is based on opinion, but there are certain movies that just come together so perfectly that their greatness can’t easily be argued. Casablanca, I think is one of those. The acting, the writing, the directing, the cast, and the forward-thinking nature of the movie come together for a movie that is objectively great. If I can love on Casablanca for a second…here we are in the middle of WWII, no one actually knows whether or not the Allies will win or lose the war, and yet when the French and the Germans both sing their national anthems at Rick’s cafe and try to out-sing each other…the French win. It’s not left vague, the movie takes a bold and potentially dangerous step and essentially declares that the Allies will win the war. It’s remarkable, and gives me chills even as I write this.

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J.P.: You’re a freelance script writer. Which means … what exactly? How does that work?

L.F.: I write scripts (and do research and editing) for Turner Classic Movies. Essentially, I research a movie, then put together a script that serves as a blueprint for the host when the host goes on TV to introduce it. It’s a lot of fun, and exactly what I love to do! My passion is for working in the trenches with research and analysis of the film industry. I was asked recently if I would ever like to become a screenwriter–I don’t think so. That’s a whole different skill set that involves more creative writing than I’m doing right now–and there are people who are far more gifted with those skills than I could ever hope be.

J.P.: So I’ve had several of my books optioned for movies—and nothing ever gets done. Everyone talks a good game, everyone says who should play who, everyone tells you how great you are. Then—nothing. Lara, you’ve been around. Why so much bullshit in Hollywood?

L.F.: I’m sorry that’s happened to you. I know that they were sincere with you, that they loved and saw movie potential in your work, or else they wouldn’t have spent the money to option your books. Options are tricky things, because if they’re going to invest this much money in something, they want it to be as perfect as they can be. If they can’t get the exact right actor to play the lead (perhaps he’s asking too much money, perhaps he’s busy with other projects), the costumes are going to be too expensive, or the stars (so to speak) don’t align in exactly the right way at the right time, nothing happens. It all comes down to money, and it always has. But maybe you’ll get that long-awaited phone call sometime in the near future!

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• Five all-time best Marion Davies films: Show People, The Patsy, Blondie of the Follies, Little Old New York, Five and Ten

• One question you would ask Marvis Frazier were he here right now: Did you feel burdened growing up in the shadow of your father?

• Rank in order (favorite to least): Raymond Hatton, Billy Waddy, palm trees, the pandas at the zoo, “China Seas,” “Deadpool,” chocolate cherry milk shakes, OutKast, Trident gum: You’re going to make me rank pandas at the zoo? Don’t make me choose between Jean Harlow and pandas! 1. I feel guilty not putting the pandas first; China Seas. Jean Harlow is a personal favorite; 3 Raymond Hatton because I really like the 1923 version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame; 4. Trident gum is good; 5. Palm trees are great but the fronds are hard to clean up; 6. Chocolate cherry milkshakes. I’d like them better without the cherries; 7. I never got into OutKast, I was the middle school weirdo listening to Billie Holiday on my walkman; 8. Deadpool, because I didn’t see it so I can’t really have a valid opinion; 9. Billy Waddy is down here because I don’t do the sports thing.

• In exactly 20 words, tell me how you feel about the film, “Titanic.”: It’s a childhood pleasure. I love Kate Winslet and she’s good in it, though I hear she doesn’t think so.

• Six greatest actors of your lifetime: Kate Winslet, Meryl Streep, Viola Davis, Daniel Day-Lewis, Jack Nicholson, Gary Oldman

• What’s the last dream you remember?: I was speaking to someone, used a word incorrectly and she laughed at me.

• Three memories from your senior prom: 1. The prom king was a kid who beatboxed in class all day, and the prom queen was a girl who wore a leather motorcycle jacket to prom; 2. I lost my glasses (yes, I was that much of a nerd even then); 3. I eventually took off my shoes.

• On a scale of 1 to 100, how afraid are you of death?: I’d probably have to give it a neutral 50. I make a reasonable effort not to die, but I don’t live my life afraid I’m going to be killed.

• You’re offered $5 million to write Celine Dion’s biography. However, you have to move to Las Vegas for two years, sleep on her floor, bark in public and permanently change your name to Happy McGill. You in?: If she’d do the same.

• What’s your all-time favorite movie line?: This requires some context for anyone who hasn’t seen Some Like It Hot. “Daphne” is actually Jerry, and has been posing as a woman throughout the whole movie. Osgood has fallen in love with “Daphne” and proposed marriage. I’ll bold the line that’s the kicker.

Osgood: I called Mama. She was so happy she cried! She wants you to have her wedding gown. It’s white lace.

Daphne: Yeah, Osgood. I can’t get married in your mother’s dress. Ha ha. That-she and I, we are not built the same way.

Osgood: We can have it altered.

Daphne: Oh no you don’t! Osgood, I’m gonna level with you. We can’t get married at all.

Osgood: Why not?

Daphne: Well, in the first place, I’m not a natural blonde.

Osgood: Doesn’t matter.

Daphne: I smoke! I smoke all the time!

Osgood: I don’t care.

Daphne: Well, I have a terrible past. For three years now, I’ve been living with a saxophone player.

Osgood: I forgive you.

Daphne[Tragically] I can never have children!

Osgood: We can adopt some.

Daphne/Jerry: But you don’t understand, Osgood! [Whips off his wig, exasperated, and changes to a manly voice] Uhhh, I’m a man!

OsgoodWell, nobody’s perfect!

The 25 best players in USFL history: No. 25—Tim Spencer

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Beginning today, I will be counting down the top 25 players in USFL history, concluding with the announcement of the No. 1 guy on Sept. 10—the eve of the release date for Football for a Buck.

The list comes after years of writing and researching my book, as well as a lifetime of loving the long, lost spring football league.

There have been books throughout my career that were written because the moment was right. There have been books throughout my career that felt like pure labor (sorry, Roger Clemens). But Football for a Buck is pure passion. Everything about the USFL spoke to me. The colors. The uniforms. The nicknames. The stars. The scrubs. It felt real and gritty and authentic.

Hence, the book.

Hence, the list.

Also, a quick point: This has 0 to do with what the players later became. NFL accomplishments are insignificant here. It’s all about the USFL.

So, with no further ado …

No. 25: Tim Spencer

Running back.

Chicago Blitz (1983), Arizona Wranglers (1984), Memphis Showboats (1985)

Spencer was was No. 2 overall pick in the 1983 USFL Draft, directly behind Dan Marino (who, obviously, didn’t sign with the Los Angeles Express). Because Ohio State has produced a solid 8 million NFL halfbacks, people tend to forget about Spencer’s glory days in Columbus, where he twice cleared 1,000 yards rushing and was a second-team All-American.

Entering the pros, Spencer was a clear-cut NFL first-rounder. But the Blitz drafted him, then pursued him hard. George Allen, the team’s veteran head coach, promised big money—and delivered. He also promised him a starting job—and delivered, too. Spencer rushed for 1,157 yards as a rookie, and the following year joined the Wranglers when (and this is too weird for words) the Arizona and Chicago franchises were swapped for one another. Spencer galloped for 1,212 yards on 227 carries, and scored 17 touchdowns, as the Wranglers reached the USFL title game. His third, and final, season was spent with the Showboats, and injuries limited him to 789 yards on 198 carries.

Spencer is the USFL’s third all-time leading rusher. He went on to play six moderate seasons with the Chargers, then retired.

From Football for a Buck …

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When the book arrives

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Writing a book is a nightmare.

I’ve included that sentence in the Acknowledgments section of all eight of my releases, and the words are no joke. While authorship is certainly one of the greatest gigs of all time, there’s a lot of isolation, a lot of heavy lifting, a lot of self mutilation, pain, suffering, anguish. Plus, when I was suffering through health anxiety, the loneliness of writing a book convinced me I had every possible disease.

All that being said, the euphoria of a book arrival is cocaine-level stuff.

And today, my book arrived. In Hawaii.

That’s right—in Hawaii. We’re celebrating my parents’ 50th wedding anniversary here in Maui, and Megan Wilson—Houghton Mifflin’s amazing publicist/all-around wonderful person—wanted me to have a first copy. So she UPSed it here, out of pure decency. And holding it … man. It’s something. It really is. All the long hours, the hundreds of interviews, the chasing of facts and nuggets. Feeling and seeing the actual book brings it all together. It really does.

“Football for a Buck” was the hardest project I ever worked on, in that I was given one year. Nobody (literally nobody) thought the USFL warranted a book. But I pushed it and pushed it and pushed it … and now it’s in my hands.

The best feeling.

The absolute best.

How the Rayshawn Jenkins profile came to be


Not sure how people folks here subscribe to The Athletic (you should—it’s awesome), but today the site ran my lengthy piece on Rayshawn Jenkins, the Los Angeles Chargers’ second-year safety.

Thought I’d take a vacation break to explain some of the nooks and crannies.

So, first, I’d never heard of Rayshawn until last summer, when my son Emmett and I attended a Chargers’ training camp day. We didn’t know much about the team, so we scanned the roster and I told the boy to pick a player to root for. We both thought the name “Rayshawn” was cool. Plus, Emmett dug his hair. Hence, this …

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We paid attention to Rayshawn’s rookie season. Not a ton, but enough to know that he was resigned primarily to special teams, and that he was one of 18 siblings. In the months that passed I started working for The Athletic, so a few weeks ago I figured, “Well, why not profile Rayshawn and his huge family?” I proceeded to reach out to the Chargers, who kindly told me to come out to a workout and meet with their (now) starting free safety after a practice.

So I did.

I introduced myself, told Rayshawn about my son and the above Tweet. He remembered. We were sitting to the side of the field. Rayshawn was still in his blue jersey, sweat covering his forehead. I asked about the size of his family. Specifically, whether he could name all his siblings in order. It actually reminded me of the scene from “Good Will Hunting,” when Minnie Driver’s character asks Matt Damon to list his nine brothers in order. Only those siblings were not real. These are.

The names rolled off Rayshawn’s tongue, and I was going to ask all about it. But then, he started talking. And talking. And talking. About playing Ding Dong Ditch and kicking in doors for the pure sadistic joy of kicking in doors. About being kicked out of six elementary schools—two for throwing chairs are teachers. He told me about his mother—a woman he truly loves—spending three years in prison. He was refreshingly open and candid, and what a journalist does in these sort of settings is, well. very little. You listen, absorb, digest. You ask follow-ups.

You also realize, silently, that the story you thought you’d be telling isn’t the one that winds up on the screen.

Unfortunately, the interview was cut short. So that night I met Rayshawn at the Marriott in Irvine—the Chargers’ team hotel. I had nothing to do with Emmett, so he came along. Rayshawn was fantastic. He sat eating shrimp and noodles off a plate, and discussed the crazy improbability of it all. At one point Emmett asked me a question about Rayshawn’s college major. I said, “Ask him.” So he looked at the Charger and said, “So what is criminology?” Rayshawn gave a very informative answer, and later posed for a photo with the kid (Truth: I have never in my life asked for a picture from an athlete. Never. But this felt different. And I want Emmett to remember the lessons learned that evening. About hardship, courage, guts).

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I started working on the piece, but needed more. So I returned to camp and lucked out—one of Rayshawn’s sisters was visiting, as well as Emily, his girlfriend and the mother of their 2-year-old son, Ace. So when Rayshawn had to take off, the three of us sat and chatted for another, oh, 30 minutes. They were candid and open and wonderful.

I actually have no idea whether Rayshawn will like the piece or not. I sent it to him; haven’t heard back. Sometimes seeing stuff in hardened words before you can be a bit jarring. Again—he loves his mother. So to read what she did, even though it was delivered via Rayshawn and his siblings, can be rough.

What I kept thinking through this process was the craziness of perception v. reality. We tend to see athletes as these magnificent stallions, galloping onto a field for battle. We know they’re well paid and famous and living out a fantasy.

Behind it all, however, is usually a story of struggle, difficulties, insurmountable odds.

That’s the beauty.

In case you need a reminder that we’re a bunch of selfish asswipes

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So I’m writing this from vacation. We’re in Maui celebrating my parents’ 50th wedding anniversary. Which is nice and lovely and warm and beautiful. We’ve spent a lot of time at the beach, at the pool, snorkeling, swimming, eating.

Good stuff.

However, this trip has also served to remind me that we, as in humanity, are a bunch of asswipes.

I think of this whenever I’m around tourists. Watching them (us) overload our plates with food we wind up throwing out. Watching us fall for scams all in the name of being gifted with a “free” resort tote bag. Watching us invade a generally tranquil people and leave all our wrappers and bottles behind to be picked up by the locals.

This week, in particular, what’s killing me are the towels.

So we’re staying at a place where there’s a big-ass pool, surrounded by a couple hundred chairs. They’re hard to come by if you arrive past, oh, 9 am, so what people do is this: At 5 in the morning they drape their towels over X number of chairs, then return to sleep. In other words, they mark their territory so no one else can take it. I’ve talked to staffers about the practice, and it drives them to drink. A. Because it’s annoying. But, B. Because it’s pure selfish bullshit.

What makes you any more important than the other family? Why is it proper for you to claim a chair as your own—hours before using it?

This stuff … truly … argh. I bite my tongue, try and move forward.

But it’s an indictment of humanity.


I cleaned someone’s piss

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Arrived at the local Bruegger’s Bagels today for some writing. Went to use the bathroom. Was greeted by the above image.

It’s surely a familiar sight for men everywhere—and women forced to share toilets with men. Namely, someone lazily failed to lift the seat, then piss sprinkled on it, then walked away. In many respects, the image speaks to every complaint I have about humanity. Selfishness. Indifference. A casual refusal to take any sort of responsibility. An unwillingness to think of the feelings of others.

Or, put differently, I wound up cleaning the piss. I grabbed a thick spiral of toilet paper, wrapped it together, held up my nose and wiped it off the seat.

And I wonder—did the pisser even ponder such a possibility? Did he consciously think, “Hmm, by not cleaning my own urine I’m leaving it for someone else?” Probably not. But that’s a huge chunk of the issue. We don’t think. We don’t consider. We just … do.

We just do.

Waiting for a book to come out

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So my USFL book, “Football for a Buck,” comes out on Sept. 11.

Waiting for a book to drop is … not fun. You wait and wait and wait and wait. You check Amazon to see if any pre-reviews have arrived. You check Goodreads. Then you Google the title. But, of course, almost nothing comes up … BECAUSE THE FUCKING BOOK ISN’T OUT YET.

It’s all weird. Because once the book is released, it flies by. You’re in this moment, then—snap—the moment passes and you return to your cave to work on the next project. The book sits on a shelf in your home, collecting dust. You used to look at it 100 times a day. Now it feels like yesterday’s product.

The cycle never feels new and it never feels old.

It just is.

And one day, when the earth explodes, my books will explode with it.


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Jon Springer

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Back in the lord’s year of 2000, a fellow University of Delaware alum named Jon Springer reached out to me. He wanted to piece together a profile of my post-John Rocker career for Out and About, a local First State magazine. This was both flattering and terrifying.

First, no one had ever written about me before. Second, the Rocker experience left me shellshocked. Third … I dunno. It just seemed weird.

However, Jon and I had both cut our teeth at the student paper, The Review. So we met one day in New York City, and he was kind, empathetic, curious, cool. Just a good guy, and the resulting profile actually made my week. I still have it tucked away in a box; the first, “Look, I’m doing it!” moment from my career.

Anyhow, thanks to social media (and a shared interest in the New York Mets), Jon and I have stayed in touch, and his writing career has been one I greatly admire. Jon is the founder of Mets by the Numbers, a website that explains the franchises, eh, mixed history via uniform digits. And recently he released his second book, Once Upon A Team, about the Wilmington Quicksteps, who finished 2-16 in 1884What I dig about this project is, well, everything. It’s not obvious. It’s not done for sales. It was a pure labor of love; a writer pursing a subject that fascinated him.

Hence, it’s my honor to bring Jon to the Quaz. You can follow him on Twitter here, and order his new book here.

Jon Springer, you are the Tom Seaver of Q&As …

JEFF PEARLMAN: Jon, so you’re the author of a new book, “Once Upon A Team” about the Wilmington Quicksteps, who finished 2-16 in 1884. And at the risk of starting with a somewhat lame question—what would make someone write a book about a shitty baseball team from 134 years ago?

JON SPRINGER: Great question! The conceit underpinning the book was that Quicksteps weren’t just any shitty team, but the shittiest team of all-time, at least as winning percentage in the Majors goes. No team in history ever achieved a worse winning percentage than Wilmington’s .111 in 1884: It is perhaps baseball’s safest and most unenviable team record. The irony is, that until the Quicksteps joined the Majors – they were promoted from the minors as a midseason replacement for the Philadelphia Keystones franchise that went bankrupt in the middle of that year – they were an excellent team that could and did defeat some major-league opponents in exhibitions, including for example the ’84 American Association champs, the New York Mets and their Hall of Fame pitcher, Tim Keefe.

The reasons they struggled in the big leagues mainly had to do with the economics of the game – issues that still resonate today – plus a comedy of misfortune on and off the field. One player drunkenly falls down an elevator shaft, and there’s a gruesome incident where an umpire nearly dies on the field after getting struck in the mouth by a foul ball, literally sickening the spectators. Sharing those stories was a lot of fun.

J.P.: I feel like a lot of readers here are fascinated by processes—especially when it comes to getting a book deal. I’ve always pitched relatively mainstream and recent ideas. You, to understate, did not. So what was the process? How did you land a deal?

J.S.: Short answer: My editor at Skyhorse/Sports Publishing, Jason Katzman, is insane. Longer answer, Jason and I worked together on Mets By the Numbers. I pitched him a bunch of half-assed ideas at a lunch one day, including the possibility of blowing out a magazine article I’d written about the Quicksteps 15 years before. To me, that was the most personally challenging of them and to my surprise, he asked me to take a go at it.

As you noted there are not a lot of 19th century minor league baseball fans out there but what I try to tell people is, it’s an unusual kind of riches-to-rags story in which a team achieves a collective dream on a massive scale, only to see it blow up in their faces. That’s a relatable theme in any era. The time period in which it took place just provides that story an interesting setting.

Back in the day

Back in the day

 J.P.: Along those lines, researching a book where everyone is dead. How to do? Are there people to interview? Anyone? Is it old newspapers? How long did it take? How do you organize your materials?

J.S.: I primarily relied on contemporary newspapers. One of the joys of doing it was realizing that every city that had a baseball team back then had three or four newspapers covering them, with writers who were at least as good at their jobs as the players they wrote about. The game stories were typically hard to decipher, but the “notes” columns were gold: Great turns of phrases, cutting descriptions, snarkier and sneakier than anything you’d read in Deadspin today.

Capturing as much detail as I would have liked was a struggle. In addition to the guys being dead and unable to answer questions, writing about them as minor leaguers meant that most of the details of their lives that I could find came afterthe period I was focused on. Oyster Burns, for example, was a notorious fighter who once stabbed his own teammate in the leg with a pen knife for laughs. But that happened years after he was on the team, and so I didn’t really get to use that, except to inform myself: I’m writing about a young man who will one day stab his own teammate.

I did some outreach to descendants of a few figures in the book but not much came of that. In the end I took to riding my bike out to the tombstones of some of the guys in the book and interrogating them.

Most of the material I used were photocopies that resided in any of six different loosely organized folders; a bunch of books piled on top of the desk; and a big trove of clipped pdfs from Were I to do it all over again, I’d probably start by using an online project management program like Trello to better map things out.

J.P.: In 1999 you started the website “Mets by the Numbers,” which is a place for Mets fans to understand the franchise by—your words— “using numbers instead of years to form and follow the history and ongoing progress of the team.” Um, how did this idea even enter your mind? And why?

J.S.: I’m no math whiz, but I always connected Mets to uniform numbers and back again as a means of remembering things like locker combinations (Mays-Matlack-Strawberry = 24-32-18). As my friend Matt Silverman says, it’s the way the mind of the fan works. I started the project in the early days of the internet realizing that was a good place to publish narrowly focused stuff like lists of players by uniform number. This was before this info was widely available – in many cases, even known at all — so it started as a crowdsourced research project, and it worked. I wound up attracting a number of people who were doing similar things independently, and over time the data got better and more precise. Today I can tell you what uniform number produced the most home runs for the Mets (20); appeared in the most games as a pitcher (39), etc. It’s completely useless info, but fun to have revealed.

What I learned was the that uniform number unlocks a kind of secret door to a team’s history: Since no two players ever wear the same number at the same time, uniforms are a kind of passed-on tradition, a family within the family. So I was able to write a team history that proceeded by number instead of by year. That book, which I wrote with Matthew Silverman, was published in 2008 and again in 2015, and spawned a whole series of copycat books about other teams.

Nowadays the research is long over but I keep up the site and data as it arrives mainly as a blog to reflect on and complain about the Mets: I think it might be the oldest continually operating fan-written Mets website there is. And probably the least popular one, too.

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J.P.: You seem particularly fascinated by quite the obscure Met, Jeff McKnight. Why?

J.S.: Jeff McKnight was one of those underdog fringe major leaguers who cling to the outer edge of the roster, a prototypical utility player/25th man who switch-hit and played every position on the field, not because he was good at any of them but because he had to just to keep a job.

Many players lose their assigned uni numbers when a higher-profile teammate comes along (Bret Saberhagen literally took 17 off McKnight’s back for example), but McKnight did that one better by once losing his No. 7 to a coach). Between that and frequent bobs between the majors, minors and other organizations, McKnight eventually became the first and still only player in Mets history to wear five different uni numbers. My Jeff McKnight tribute sort of lightheartedly celebrates the kind of effort McKnight put into his career, and he’s become a kind of hero to geeked out Mets fans.

J.P.: I’ve often told the story of how, as a kid, I became a Jets fan. We’re sitting around the kitchen table, little kids, and my older brother declares, “I like the Giants!” So I took the Jets. He stopped caring about sports 10 seconds later, and meanwhile I’m stuck with a franchise known for losing. You’re a Mets fan. How did that happen? And do you ever regret not going with the Yankees?

J.S.: It never occurred to me to make a choice, I just did what my Dad and my older brother did. My brother is seven years older than me, so the difference between us wasn’t such that we’d be rivals. My dad was an old Brooklyn Dodgers fan who became a Mets fan before I was born. He was a freelance illustrator whose gigs included writing sports cartoons in newspapers in New York and Long Island, so there was a lot of baseball stuff in his studio, and the Mets game was always on the radio.

There’s no doubt a sober view of the history of the Mets reveals an utter wreck of a franchise that never learns a thing, but my passion for them has mellowed with age, and I’ve never once envied fans of other teams. What’s the use? I do my best to enjoy each season for whatever it brings.

J.P.: I know you’re a University of Delaware grad, know you wrote for the student newspaper. But how did this writing thing happen? Did you have a moment? A spark? A lightbulb moment?

J.S.: I was one of those students who was majoring in “undeclared,” my grades weren’t very good, and I had no clue what to do with myself. One day sophomore year, one of my dormmates talked up E-307, which was the intro to journalism class. I was struggling with things like essay exams, and she said, “It’s like learning how to write all over again.” That sounded like a good idea to me.

That class ultimately solved a lot of problems for me. It gave me something at school to focus on, which I needed. I always liked the idea of writing, and reading good writers, but for whatever reason I just didn’t know how to pull it off myself until I got some rules I could follow. Suddenly I felt I could write anything. I owe it all to the inverted pyramid.

Writing stuff is the only job I ever had in the 30 years since. I’ve had to switch gears a few times and wound up writing about business. I got lucky a few times to escape the ax and probably unlucky a few times not to have. At my last job, we had a staff of 18 at one point; when I left I was the only full-time editor there, along with a few half-timers.

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J.P.: On June 16 you did a signing at the Barnes & Noble next to the Concord Mall in Wilmington. Signings scare the living shit out of me. What if no one comes? What if people ask embarrassing questions? Etc. How about you? And how did that one go?

J.S.: Let’s just say that if empty chairs were pizzas, I’d never go hungry again. It was … intimate. That said, I met a few really nice folks including a guy who even bought a few copies of my outdated Mets reference book, and I attracted a couple of buyers who definitely hadn’t come to see me. Afterwards I signed as many books as I could right off the display, since it’s my understanding they’d be less likely to be returned to the publisher as unsold that way. It was as though I was vandalizing them, making them lessvaluable.

J.P.: We were a bunch of years apart at Delaware, but considering we didn’t have a journalism major, man, that program produced a shit-ton of journalists. How do you explain it? Why? What did it do/not do for you, attending UD?

J.S.: I think there was something to the idea that the faculty was great (I was a Nick Nickerson-Chuck Stone student), but those guys never stepped foot into The Review’s office: It was only us students. I don’t know if every school paper was that way, but I feel as though that arrangement made us challenge one another, and we always looked up to the ones who were especially good. At the time I was there, there was Mike Freeman, who as you know became a noteworthy NFL reporter – I could have told you in 1987 that Mike was going to be very successful. Chuck Arnold wrote features, went on to become a well-known music writer. John Martin was a no-bullshit reporter who I believe went on to have a long career at the Star-Ledger. John was so good as a student journalist I swear the administration fearedhim. But everyone on staff was inspiring in their own way and a lot fun to work with.

It was one thing to learn stuff in class, another to go demonstrate what you learned, and then see it all over campus twice a week. I feel like I did some good work at The Review, and also, got a load of bad work out of my system. And I still of think of Chuck Stone’s lessons all the time: “If your mother says she loves you, check it out.”

J.P.: Greatest moment of your life? Lowest?

J.S.: Becoming a dad, which I didn’t get around to until I was almost 40, has been most rewarding. It sounds cliché but it’s why I’m here. Lowest was when I learned my sister Jennifer had ALS (aka Lou Gehrig’s Disease). That is a terrible thing to have happen to anyone, and it put a tremendous strain on our entire family that still resonates. She had young three kids when she was diagnosed. To me the most terrifying part was not experiencing what the disease wound up doing, but knowing that it would. Lou Gehrig remains undefeated.

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• Rank in order (favorite to least): Cardi B, Dan Casey, Michael Dukakis, Santa Claus, the intentional walk, “Hard Habit to Break,” chicken sausage, black jeans, Jose Reyes, chicken soup: Chicken soup (my wife is always making some), Santa Claus, Dan Casey, Dukakis, black jeans, Jose Reyes (would have topped the list had you asked me 12 years ago), chicken sausage, intentional walks, Cardi B, “Hard Habit to Break”. I don’t know anything about Cardi B, but Peter Cetera-driven Chicago is an abomination. Mike Love gets all the credit, but Peter Cetera strikes me as underrated as rock-n-roll dickheads go.

• Five all-time favorite Mets: Strawberry, Seaver, Wright, Kingman. At the moment, Brandon Nimmo has overtaken Lee Mazzilli.

• Five all-time least-favorite Mets: Matt Harvey. I was suspicious of him from the start, in part because Mike Francesca spoke so highly of him, in part because I read he drove an Escalade to spring training. I get that pitching is hard, pitching as well as he did is really hard, and pitching injured is still harder, but not showing up for work really let his teammates and fans down. I don’t know if ever got that. Frankie Rodriguez (never been a fan of buying the guy with the most saves), Jack Heidemann (not Jack’s fault but I just had way too many of his baseball cards growing up), Tom Glavine (right guy, wrong team, wrong time), Fred Wilpon.

• Where were you for Game 6 of the 1986 World Series?: Can you believe I missed it? I was camping in the woods with a bunch of college friends somewhere in South Jersey. One guy had been listening on the radio in his car, and told me it was over: “Aguilera blew it.”

A few minutes later another guy came leaping out of the trees with the breathless play-by-play from the bottom of the 10th. So even though I didn’t actually “see” it, I went through the same gut-wrench that all Met fans did that night.

• What are three words you overuse in writing?: I write about business in my real job, so I too often find myself quoting people who use corporate buzzwords like “deliverables” or “optimization.” In my own writing I probably use “spark” or “sparked” as a verb too often.

• How does this all end for Donald Trump and America?: Probably less satisfyingly than “in prison” but surely the walls are closing in. I also think all but the most ignorant people are probably getting sick of the act by now, and it’s my hope for journalism, and for my son, and for the kidnapped children, and for justice, that he and his enablers will pay a heavy price at the polls, and in history.

• I’m in Starbucks, I really need to use the bathroom but I think it’s sorta risky leaving my laptop on the table/sorta gross brining it with me. What to do?: I was working in a coffee shop this morning and had the very same dilemma. I trusted my neighbors and it all worked out.

• Five reasons one should make Brooklyn his/her next vacation destination?:   Sunshine Laundromat + Pinball; trustworthy coffee shop co-workers; great place to ride a bike (three bridges, Prospect Park); temporary home the Islanders; there’s an energy here that comes with the hipster ridiculousness and high cost of living, I feel like it keeps me young.

• Three memories of profiling me for a Delaware magazine 20 years ago?:. 1.  Instead of describing J.D. Drew as a player Philadelphia fans wanted to “hang from the highest tree in town” I should have localized it and wrote “drown in the Schuykill River.” Lazy stuff on my part. 2. Bill Fleishman remarking on you wearing a beret: That story had several good quotes! 3. In all seriousness, I think I pursued it in part to confront my own anxieties about my career, and re-reading it for the first time in years I’m reminded that writers can and should take chances.

• Two memories from your first date: Taco Bell in East Northport. Janet E. drank one of those little plastic cups of hot sauce, just to show how fearless she was. My friends ragged on me relentlessly. Dammit, Janet.