As a guy who writes biographies, I probably look at books a little bit differently than most.
For example, the first pages I turn to are not located in the front, but the rear. I love indexes, bibliographies, acknowledgments. If a writer clearly didn’t do his/her research, I’m snobbily dismissive. If only, oh, 20 people were interviewed, I cringe and question the depth and dedication. Am I being fair? Maybe not. But I’m a creature of the business.
Hence, when Jerry Barca’s “Big Blue Wrecking Crew” came to my house a month or so ago, I skimmed through the usual pages … and was blown away. Quite simply, the man busted his ass. He didn’t merely trek down tons upon tons of interviews; he looked through tapes, combed through old articles, sought out anyone with even the slightest connection to the 1986 Giants. The resulting product is a wonderful book about a wonderful collection of characters; one I can’t possibly recommend enough.
Jerry Barca, you are the 272nd Quaz.
JEFF PEARLMAN: So Jerry, I was reading over promotional material for your book, and the first bullet point concerns Bobby Johnson, a pretty solid receiver who, according to your reporting, was a crack addict during the Super Bowl run. I’m a bigger fan of reporting than football, and I’m fascinated by this stuff. Soup to nuts, how did you report the Johnson material?
JERRY BARCA: Well, I hope you get to the pages of the book. They’re pretty good, even better than the promotional stuff.
Bobby Johnson has a pretty important spot in Giants history. Before David Tyree made that catch in Super Bowl XLII, there was fourth and 17 in ‘86. In a pivotal game that season, the Giants were down 20-19 in the closing moments at Minnesota. If they lose, they wouldn’t have had home field advantage for the playoffs, and who knows how the rest of their games against Denver and at San Francisco and at Washington would have turned out. On this fourth and forever play, Bobby Johnson makes the catch. A 22-yard gain. Raul Allegre kicks the game-winning field goal and the Giants get rolling after this.
As the writer, of course, I want to tell as much as I can about this play, this game and the key figures involved and Bobby Johnson is a huge part of it.
I had heard about Bobby’s drug use through other interviews and research I had done for the book. When we got on the phone to start the interview, I asked him if he had any questions for me. I start every interview that way because I’m going to spend the next hour or more asking intrusive—sometimes ridiculously intrusive—questions about someone and their life, so I’m up for anything they want to ask me as well.
In that opening part of the conversation, I told him I wanted to speak in detail about his drug use and asked him if he was up for that. He said he was. We took it from there, talking about that catch at Minnesota, his life in East St. Louis, Illinois, his catching on with the Giants, details of first time he used crack and through his years of addiction.
J.P.: Lawrence Taylor is the undisputed biggest name and biggest star from the 1986 New York Giants—and he didn’t speak to you. I’m curious: What efforts did you make? Was there a point when you finally realized, “Crap, this is impossible”? And how do you feel his lack of participation impacted the finished product?
J.B.: His character comes through in the book. Lawrence has said a ton already, and now you have his teammates, coaches and the Giants front office offering their perspectives on him during this stretch of time. You get the Giants reaction to finding out he was in New Orleans days before the ’81 draft, to him signing a personal services contract with Donald Trump, him rolling dice the night before the Super Bowl, and sharing a bottle of champagne with Phil Simms’ brother at the hotel after the Super Bowl. There’s a whole lot of him in there. And, at the same time, I would’ve been more than happy to interview him for the book.
I tried. There were weekly communications to someone in Taylor’s camp for more than six months. His agency even took questions. They said he doesn’t really do this stuff, but the fact that they took the questions gave me hope. I’d send emails. “Checking in.” “Hey, just want to stay on your radar.” “Hi there, just wondering if …”
Other people called and sent emails on my behalf. At one point, there was a former teammate who was scheduled to play golf with LT in Florida. There was this window where I was to call and LT would talk to me while playing the round of golf. The window came. I called. It went straight to voicemail. No call back. That was quitting time for me. You know this. You can’t force people to do an interview.
J.P.: You worked as a media relations intern for the Detroit Lions during the 1999 season, when Bobby Ross, Gus Frerotte and Greg Hill led the mighty team to an 8-8 record. Man, that was a shockingly good year for a shockingly talent-deprived squad. What do you recall from the experience?
J.B.: A lot. You have no idea. I’m an intern. I arrive in Detroit after working at the 1999 World University Games in Mallorca, Spain. That was a great experience. Kerri Walsh Jennings was on that women’s volleyball team. This was also Kenyon Martin’s coming out party as a hoops force. Anyway, I get to Detroit. This was going to be the year Barry Sanders became the all-time leading rusher in NFL history. I remember talking to my roommate, the other media relations intern, and we’re looking at the schedule saying things like, “Think he’ll break it on Thanksgiving against the Bears?” Obviously, a reference to Walter Payton, who held the record at the time. “What about on Christmas, against Terrell Davis and the Broncos?” Then, about two weeks in, we’re watching SportsCenter in this dumpy basement apartment and the news hits as our phone rings. It’s one of our bosses. Barry is going to retire. Be at work early. It was crazy.
The Lions started out the season 6-2. They had a great win coming back to beat the Rams—the Greatest Show on Turf—in the Silverdome.
I also had my first car that year. A leased Honda Civic. While running an errand for the team, I was t-boned leaving the Silverdome. The car was smashed. I was fine. One player drove around me, looking at what had just happened. Another player, Stephen Boyd, stopped his car. By now I’m on the side of the road. He drove me back to the offices and wrote me a check the next day for the damage that had been done. Pretty incredible act of generosity that has stayed with me.
Another lasting memory was the salary and life lesson that came with it. As interns, you make about $100 a week and you’re grateful for the job because there are about 400 other people who sent their resumes to get the same position. There was actually an overfilled drawer in a filing cabinet with the resumes of people who wanted this spot.
One day when I was complaining about something, longtime Lions assistant coach Don Clemons told me: “Remember this: You’ll always have enough money for a roof over your head and to have a beer.” And he’s been right. No matter how life has looked at some points, I’ve always had a roof over my head and enough money for a beer if I wanted one.
J.P.: I know precious little of your journalistic career: Two books, Syracuse, contribute to Forbes, SI.com. So how did this writing thing happen for you? When did you know it was what you wanted to do? What’s the path?
J.B.: I definitely took a different path. I always enjoyed writing. When I was in fourth grade I wrote a fictionalized account of my football team—the West Orange P.A.L. Mustangs. It was 17 pages, front and back, on loose leaf. I forced my mother, sister and brother-in-law to listen to me read the whole thing out loud one night in our kitchen. You can imagine, the look of boredom and exhaustion on their faces as this fourth-grade level story unfolded in my fourth-grade level reading voice.
When I was an intern with the Lions, watching the beat reporters in Detroit—Mike O’Hara, Curt Sylvester, Tom Kowalski and Paula Pasche—it looked like they had so much fun. I applied to Syracuse for a master’s degree because I didn’t have the training to do what they did and I figured Syracuse was the place for it. They also had a graduate assistantship in the athletic department and that was the only way I was going to be able to afford a master’s degree.
When I started, I ended up on the news side. I became a municipal reporter in New Jersey. First as an intern with the Star-Ledger, then I covered Paterson, N.J. for the Herald News. Within a couple months of being there, the Herald News sent me to Turkey to cover these three teenage girls trying to live their dream and make it in the music industry via Turkey. One of the girls thought when they came back to Paterson Angie Martinez would be playing their music on Hot 97 in New York. It didn’t happen.
After a stint in New Jersey politics, I settled into what I do now. A bit winding, I know.
I enjoy it, and I’ve been lucky enough to get involved in some documentary films, too, Plimpton!, which came out in 2012. I produced an upcoming 30 for 30 ESPN Film, and I’m working on two other films at the moment.
J.P.: Don’t take this the wrong way, but I constantly thinking about book subjects, and the 1986 Giants never jumped out at me as a must-write subject. I mean, they had a superstar in Lawrence Taylor, and a big-name coach, and they won in New York. But it just never jumped off the page as an all-time, all-time fascinating team. Tell me what I was missing.
J.B.: Ha! I had some apprehensions at first, too, but they are definitely an all-time fascinating team. Once I got into the material, it was pretty astounding. There’s the pop-culture connection with the origin of the Gatorade shower, which is now ubiquitous in sports. Phil Simms is the first player to say, “I’m going to Disney World.” There’s the odd connection to the Genovese crime family. You’ve got New York City nightlife in the ‘80s. Bill Parcells in his formative years as a head coach. It’s pre-elite Parcells. It’s a guy fighting for his professional life. That’s fun stuff to detail.
This is also a period when Wellington Mara goes from being hung in effigy outside the stadium to being embraced as a paternalistic figure in the NFL.
Don’t forget about Bill Belichick and his start with this team and the reason he didn’t become the Giants head coach.
These guys are also remembered. Mark Bavaro, Carl Banks, Harry Carson, George Martin, Phil McConkey, Leonard Marshall, and Jim Burt. They are all quite interesting and continue to draw interest from football fans.
As I’m reporting all this, I came to find this is a team that gets passed on to generations. It’s definitely unique. Whether it is Belichick showing film of this team to the Patriots or the plethora of Simms, LT, and Bavaro jerseys you still see at Giants game there is a special staying power. There will never be another first Super Bowl champion for the Giants and these guys are the foundation for who the Giants have been since.
J.P.: What’s your reporting process? Like, you decide to do this book. How do you attack it? I love the nitty gritty.
J.B.: Immerse myself. Immerse myself. Immerse myself. Get as deep into the material as possible. Get the game tapes. Watch the games. Take notes on what happens on the field and the interactions on the sidelines that the cameras pick up, but the announcers don’t talk about. I’ll take video of certain things and text it to interview subjects or show them video during the interview and it usually jogs the memory and elicits some great responses.
Read. Read. Read. Read everything. Pull the thread. I have to put things in the context of their time. This is 1986. I’m reading about the Challenger explosion, the Tylenol scare, Iran-Contra—none of it made the book, but it made me more knowledgeable about the era. And there are nuggets sometimes that did make the book—the deaths of Len Bias and Don Rogers.
Interview prep is also critical. I’m still looking for how to do the best interview, or at least better ones. And I know my better ones come from the best prep. Whenever I’m transcribing, I inevitably start criticizing myself as I listen to the interview. “Shut up, Jerry. Geez.”
On the writing front, I have four kids. So I have headphones that act as earplugs. I throw on some lyric-less SiriusXM Chill and I’m in a different world than the one around me. I write and re-write and re-write and re-write.
J.P.: Let’s say, in the course of reporting this, you found out Phil Simms was having an affair with a flight attendant on the team charter. Do you report and write it? Do you debate it? Do you broach the information with him?
J.B.: I hate hypotheticals. Probably started when a high school girlfriend said, “What if I went to a party and one of your friends …” I’ll be your huckleberry though on this one though.
I don’t think anyone you write about should be surprised about what they read about themselves in print. I’d go to the subject and have the conversation about it and take it from there.
J.P.: Greatest moment of your journalistic career? Lowest?
J.B.: I’ll start with the lowest. I’m an intern with the Star-Ledger. My journalistic brains have fallen out of my head. I’m a source of heartburn for my editor, and he’s a great editor. It’s one day after work. I’m in the spare bedroom in the garden apartment in Bloomfield, N.J. looking at myself in the mirror, intimidated by the talent I was working with, and asking myself, out loud, “Do you have what it takes to make it in this business?” And, at that point, I didn’t have the answer.
The high point was writing a series of stories, today they’d call it longform, on Elias Steves, an 11-year-old battling cancer. Changed my life. Made me less selfish. I was working for the Home New Tribune in Central New Jersey. In the pre-viral days of the Internet, we’d get letters, handwritten, from San Diego, Seattle, Michigan and other places too far away to know about this story. He was a precocious, faith-filled child. It was an inspiring story about him dealing with his own mortality. There are so many parts of this story that I’ll always remember.
I became close to him. Rubbing his back as he coughed up a mixture of blood and mucus as cancer filled his lungs.
I was at his bedside when he died. I was there when his mother said good-bye to him. Still remember his only semi-conscious words that night were him saying, “Sorry,” to his mom.
It was hard to do newspaper reporting after that. A short time later, I left the newspaper for a stint in New Jersey politics.
J.P.: I fucking hate Mike Ditka. You got him on the phone from a golf course. What was the interview like?
J.B.: Yikes. You’re a little harsh on Ditka. The interview was short. He was done with me after a few questions. The golf shot he hit in between questions was solid. I could hear that sweet thwack and my seven years of caddying experience told me it was a good one.
J.P.: I noticed the media material accompanying your book was on letterhead from a PR company named, “Athlete & Event.” I’m always fascinated by book promoting–because it’s awful. Did you have to hire your own publicity squad? Did St. Martin’s outsource? And what do you consider the five-star keys to book pimpin’?
J.B.: First, write the best possible book you can. Second, figure out how you’re going to get that book into as many hands as possible. Put together your dream team of people who can help you. Like you mentioned, or alluded to earlier, I’ve done some stuff journalistically, but I’m not Jeff Passan cranking out great copy on a near daily basis on baseball. I don’t have that built-in platform of readership. So I’ve got to work it. It’s like the old publishing saying goes, “If no one reads the great book next to the tree falling in the forest, does that book actually exist?”
As far as Athlete & Event, it’s run by Chip Namias, a longtime NFL PR director who is as connected in the business as anybody.
QUAZ EXPRESS WITH JERRY BARCA:
• Why does the legendary Solomon Miller only receive three mentions in your book?: Hmmm … I think I smell a sequel.
• Rank in order (favorite to least): Butch Woolfolk, Iheanyi Uwaezuoke, school picture day, Peter Criss, aspartame, mac and cheese, legalized marijuana, Harry Potter: Iheanyi Uwaezuoke, Butch Woolfolk, school picture day, mac and cheese, Peter Criss, legalized marijuana, aspartame.
• Five greatest sports writers working today: First, I wish there were weekly rankings. I’m sort of a fan boy of journalists. It would be total insider media stuff, but imagine a radio show: “Well, what did you think of his lede though? Really amazing stuff. Metaphor use wasn’t forced either. That’d hard to do, Kip.”
• One question you would ask Geena Davis were she here right now?: What’s the square root of 14,629?
• You spent three years, nine months as the communications director for Edison Township. What was the wildest thing you ever did as the communications director for Edison Township: What happens in Edison, stays in Edison.
• You went to the Newhouse School of Communications. I failed to get in. What did I miss?: Soaking in the constant, daily, formative conversations and actions of future media stars. Really was incredible. Pete Thamel had recently graduated, but he was around. I took a sports reporting class with Jeff Passan and Greg Bishop. The younger guys, at that time, were Eli Saslow, Chico Harlan and Darryl Slater. I was a grad assistant in the athletic department while getting my degree, so I missed out on a lot, too. But it was great to be around that level of talent.
• In exactly 29 words, how was tiny Joe Morris such a great runner?: Super smart, hit the hole and made cuts up field without losing speed, had an underappreciated offensive line that was bolstered by Maurice Carthon, Zeke Mowatt, and Mark Bavaro.
• Could the Giants have been a regular playoff team with Scott Brunner at quarterback?: No.
• What are the world’s three grossest smells?: Ammonia, the lingering smell of burnt scrambled eggs, and vomit.
• Three facts about the first person you had a crush on: 1. She was a second-grade student teacher; 2. It was second grade so I don’t remember what she looked like; 3. I picked flowers off people’s lawn on my walk to school and would leave them for her in her classroom.