That’s what makes Jeff Pearlman’s biography about Brett Favre so compelling. He interviewed 573 people for Gunslinger: The Remarkable, Improbable, Iconic Life of Brett Favre, (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; hardback; $28; 432 pages), and Favre was not among them. It doesn’t matter. Favre’s family was more than cooperative, and Pearlman coaxed some great anecdotes out of them about his youth.
“I’m not saying Brett’s mean now,” Pearlman quotes his sister, Brandi. “But long ago … God.”
Pearlman then gives the reader more, noting that “a pause follows, one that suggests Brandi is asking herself, Am I revealing too much? Then, more words.”
That’s great stuff. The casual reader knows about Favre and his magnificent career in the NFL. They know he threw for 508 touchdown passes and 71,838 yards, and that he led the Green Bay Packers to two Super Bowls and one championship. They know he was The Associated Press’ most valuable player three years in a row.
It’s what they don’t know that makes Gunslinger compelling, because in his seventh book, Pearlman unearths the qualities that made Favre alternately great, annoying, unbearable and beloved.
Pearlman is a former Sports Illustrated senior writer, a former ESPN.com columnist and a former staff writer for Newsday and The Tennessean in Nashville. Several of his books have focused on people or teams with bad boy images — the 1986 New York Mets, the Dallas Cowboys of the early 1990s, Roger Clemens and Barry Bonds. He also has written about the "Showtime" Los Angeles Lakers and Chicago Bears great Walter Payton. His time at Sports Illustrated included a memorable 1999 story about John Rocker that saw the Atlanta Braves closer trash New York, Mets fans and take shots at gays, foreigners and single mothers, to name a few.
So Pearlman is no stranger to controversy and does not dodge it in Gunslinger. He searches for the truth about Favre and doesn't mince words.
Favre was addicted to painkillers during the 1990s, and that is no secret. Pearlman does reveal, however, that Favre was a heavy drinker and a womanizer who thought nothing of hanging out at bars and parties.
“There was soooo much out there,” Pearlman writes. “So much alcohol. So many women. So many nights on the town, where the shots flowed and the midriffs were exposed and the 20-something groupies hovered around their new football god.”
Favre’s longtime girlfriend (now wife) Deanna put a stop to the drinking in the late 1990s when she threatened to leave him, and that had a calming result — sort of.
By now, it’s obvious that Pearlman is balancing the good with the bad of Favre’s life. Sure, there were the exciting plays and victories and exhibitions of steel nerve and toughness on the field. But there also were stories of a player who played hard on and off the field; Packers fans might wince, but Pearlman plays it straight down the middle.
One of the better chapters in the book is Favre’s rookie season with the Atlanta Falcons. Despite a strong college career at Southern Miss, Favre wasn’t held in high esteem by coach Jerry Glanville and was seen as an afterthought on the roster. Nationally he did not cause many ripples; among the indignities he suffered was having his name spelled incorrectly (as Farve) on the front of his 1991 Topps Stadium Club football rookie card.
Glanville saw that Favre was cocky, and while he relished bravado, the coach did not like seeing it from rookies, Pearlman writes. Glanville was quoted as saying that “we gotta have two plane wrecks and four quarterbacks go down” before Favre would see action. Neither scenario happened, and Favre made a humble debut on Oct. 27, 1991, handing off three straight times in a game the Falcons had in hand against the Los Angeles Rams.
Favre was traded to Green Bay after the 1991 season, where he could “turn over a new leaf” for his career.
Boy, did he ever, even after his first complete in the NFL was to himself. Tampa Bay’s Ray Seals batted a Favre pass back to the quarterback, who managed to run 2 yards before being tackled. So Favre caught one pass for minus-7 yards during a 31-3 loss to the Buccaneers at Tampa Stadium on Sept. 13, 1992.
Favre steadily improved his game and became a respected quarterback. He reveled in taunts with defensive stars like Tampa Bay’s Warren Sapp and wasn’t afraid to congratulate an opponent for a “good play.” Favre was hit hard many times during his career, but he always bounced back up, ready for the next play.
The reason defensive standout Reggie White spurned other free agency offers and signed with Green Bay was because of the team’s tradition — and not because the Packers’ brass took him to dinner at a local Red Lobster.
But Favre also was a factor without even making a pitch. “White couldn’t shake Brett Favre from his mind,” Pearlman writes. “The cockiness. The spunk. The toughness.”
Pearlman devotes plenty of attention to Favre’s father, Irv, who coached his son and never took advantage of the boy’s rocket-like arm, preferring instead to run the ball. The elder Favre was a tough customer who believed in hard work and no excuses. Sympathy was not in his vocabulary. When Irv died in 2003, Favre played the game of his life in his father’s memory.
Pearlman also chronicles the testy relationship between Favre and the man who replaced him, Aaron Rodgers, and writes about Favre’s traumatic post-Packers career.
“In many ways, a biography is a search for definition of character,” Pearlman writes in his prologue, explaining that it is futile to know what someone is thinking at a particular time in his career. He’s right; it’s impossible. “What you can do is understand what causes a person to tick, and how he became who he ultimately became, and what he did to make the world a better, or worse, or more interesting place.”
Favre was a hell-raiser, a womanizer, a beer-drinker and a flawed person. He made some brilliant plays and executed some dumb moves in life. But he also excited millions of fans with his go-for-broke playing style, and always had time for children in need. His is a complicated life, and Pearlman does a nice job of presenting all sides of this Hall of Fame quarterback.