Jeff Pearlman

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Why a USFL biography

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During my senior year of high school, one of my classes was AP English with a teacher named Rich Height.

Mr. Height was an adjunct professor at Marist College, and he took writing very seriously. He even had his own organizational methodology laid out on paper, and had it copyright protected. I can’t remember the name, but I’m sure one of my old Mahopac High classmates will recall as soon as he/she reads this.

Anyhow, Mr. Height was a quirky duck. He was an obese man, sorta sloppy, and many students made fun of him behind his back. He had a big deliberate walk, a grand way of speaking, bragged in a way that we weren’t supposed to think he was bragging. Every now and then he’d invite students to his house for lunch to talk the craft. I remember going once, with my pal Jonathan Powell, but the specifics are grainy.

I don’t remember the specifics of too many of my high school teachers, but I remember Mr. Height. Yes, because of his physical stature and booming voice. But mainly because, in the spring of 1990, he assigned the class a 20-page senior thesis (subject of our own choosing, as long as he approved)—which wound up changing my life.

My paper’s title:  The Downfall of the United States Football League.

•••

Today is Jan. 14, 2016. I’m sitting in a cafe in Dana Point, California. I have a big mug of coffee, a small plastic cup of water—and a stack of books and articles about the USFL.

It’s time to start reporting the sports project of my dreams.

I can’t say I’ve been thinking about writing a USFL biography for 26 years. I certainly didn’t know I’d be doing up books back in 1990, when my main concerns were track and picking a college. But The Downfall of the United States Football League turned into an obsession; one that wound up being submitted to Mr. Height at a length of, I believe, 42 pages. It was my absolute favorite high school assignment, and I found the USFL’s fall both riveting and tragic. It was a league I’d loved as a young boy—the funky helmets, the big names (Herschel! Flutie! Reggie White! Jim Kelly! Reggie Collier!), the weirdness (the Portland Breakers also played in Boston and New Orleans); the Arizona Wranglers and the Chicago Blitz were traded for one another; the second world championship game ended with fan rioting; Donald Trump owned the New Jersey Generals and thugged the other owners into switching from spring to fall; on and on. The stories are outlandish; the characters bigger than life; the game (football) our legitimate national pastime. Thanks to the USFL, the NFL has coaching challenges, instant replay, huge salaries. The league was weird and cool and captivating and … awesome.

So here I am.

As has been noted on Twitter, I generally guard the topics of my books as a bank security guard watches the vault. Ever since Game of Shadows came out two weeks before Love Me, Hate Me, I’ve suffered through this paranoid fear that, should I say what I’m writing about, someone will beat me to the punch. It’s admittedly irrational, but we can’t always choose our little quirks, can we?

This, however, is different. First, the odds of someone else planning a biography on a 30-year-old dead football league seems remote. Second, I’ve lost a little of my paranoia. Third, most important, I wanna try a new approach with this one. In short, I want to use this space—and Twitter and Facebook—to take people along for the reporting and writing journey. I want suggestions, tips, thoughts, ideas. If you’re a fan of the USFL, or you just love sports nostalgia, I want this to be our book project, not merely mine.

I’ve now completed seven books, and this one is different. First, because of my history with the subject. But second, because it doesn’t come with the automatic audience of past projects. From the ’86 Mets to the ’90s Cowboys to Bonds and Clemens and Walter Payton, all those ideas had a chance—based upon subject alone—of selling big. Not all of them did, but the names meant they had shots.

The USFL … eh, hard to say. The wife thinks it’ll be a huge seller. I hope it’ll be a huge seller. I fought for this book deal; took less money and less time, because I believe in it, and it’s a story I desperately want to tell.

So, hey, off I go.

Hopefully I’ll make Mr. Height proud …

PS: My e-mail address is anngold22@gmail.com. USFL thoughts? Hit me up.

  • dgw

    This is a great subject – I can’t wait to read it.

    Just yesterday, I watched the ESPN ’30 for 30′ special on the University of Miami football program, and there was a brief mention of Howard Schnellenberger leaving the university to pursue a team with the USFL that never materialized. I think that might make an interesting chapter.

  • bobcook

    Have you read Terry Pluto’s “Loose Balls?” It’s the definitive history of the ABA. Now, I presume you’re writing a narrative, not Pluto’s style of interspersing dialogue from his sources. I bring it up because the beauty about the kind of book you’re doing is that it has a very long tail, whatever the initial sales. Hey, that reminds me, has anyone done a World Hockey Association bio yet?

    • Mike Brodsky

      Rebel League by Ed Willes is pretty good on the WHA. LOVE Pluto’s book, read it every couple of years.

  • bobcook

    Also thanks to the USFL, NFL allows early-entry draftees. Remember the hubbub over Marcus Dupree?

  • TheUSFL2014 .

    I am a HUGE USFL fan and wished it came back but this time under budget. As a Generals fan I remember how much it made me mad we couldn’t get past the one team that dominated the whole league and that was the Philly Stars. I still get mad when I see the old games on my YouTube Channel called, “USFL Forever”. If you need my help with ANY research about the league I am open to discussion. I made the USFL Forever channel as a way to remember this beloved league.

    My YT channel link is https://www.youtube.com/user/TheUSFL2014.

  • Gene Sanny

    Hello…. I sent you an email, but in case you don’t get it, I’m posting here in case, as I want to make sure you hear from me. If you use the image above on or in your book, it truly will be my project, not merely your own, to paraphrase what you said in your blog… as I created that image from my mini-helmets. Some guy stole it from a post on Facebook I made to a USFL group where I asked that it only be used by them as a desktop image (so, stupidly, I didn’t watermark it – won’t make that mistake again) and made puzzles from it and now I see it everywhere. There are several ways I can prove it from my pieces I used in my art program, and the photos, and mostly the mini helmets themselves… the Maulers is a good example, as I painted a non purple helmet purple with spray paint, and it doesn’t match the decals. Anyway, if you’re wanting to use it, we can talk…. I’m a graphic designer who’s obsessed with the USFL, so maybe there’s something that can be done here, or on the new book if you would like…. I have many pieces of art I’ve made about the USFL…. it sounds like you’re as obsessed as I am with the league :)

    Gene Sanny
    nfltattoo@gmail.com

  • Byron Magrane

    Jeff, looking forward to this book. @bobcook:disqus mentioned Pluto’s ABA book and if it can be half as good as that book, you’ll have a winner on your hand. Good luck to you.

    BTW, Bob, there was a WHA book called “Big Bucks, Blue Pucks”. It was okay.

  • Brian Charles

    A novel idea for a book — I would definitely read it. There had to have been tons of drama behind the scenes, even the teams without Trump.

    I still remember watching a USFL playoff game where Fred Besana — the USFL’s leading passer that season, I believe — had a chance to guide an Elway-like comeback at the end, but threw a pick instead.

  • Tom Ehlebracht

    I was there at the beginning when George Allen and Greg Landry waited by Halas Hall for Ditka to cut Bears. I have a Pittsburgh Maulers coffee mug.

  • Dean

    Further proofing req’d, Jeff:

    “…he assigned the class a 20-page senior thesis (subject of our own choosing, as long as he approved)—which wound changing my life.”

  • Converge241

    Would love to read it!

  • Jariah

    It was Bill Oldenburg, owner of the LA Express that persuaded Donald Trump to team up with him to move the USFL from Spring to Fall.

  • Eric Furniss

    Loved the USFL and I’m anxiously awaiting your book. Only other Ive seen on the topic is The $1 League. As a Browns fan, the great teams of the 80’s benefitted from many great USFL players after the league folded. Even had Oldenburg & Trump not pushed for the move to fall I doubt the league would have survived but it certainly could have lasted long enough for some type of merger.

  • Da_Coach_K

    Is there any timeline or estimated date on the release of the book? Looking forward to it, and I know Mr. Pearlman will do a fantastic job with it.

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Once again, Jeff Pearlman has produced an exhaustively researched, elegantly written book that re-creates one of the most colorful and memorable teams of the modern era. No basketball fan's bookshelf will be complete without it.

— Seth Davis, author of Wooden: A Coach's Life