MAHOPAC, N.Y. - Over the years, in a string of bestselling sports books, as well as a personal blog, Jeff Pearlman has often returned to his Mahopac roots. Indeed, his latest book, “Football for a Buck,” traces its genesis to his hometown high school almost 30 years ago.
A lively look back at the brief and boisterous life of the United States Football League, Pearlman’s latest book, like so much of his popular output, focuses on the ’80s and early ’90s of his younger days.
His first book—in 2004, following seven years as a writer for Sports Illustrated—revisited the rowdy world of the world champion New York Mets of 1986. “The Bad Guys Won” spent eight weeks on the New York Times Best Seller list.
The ’80s had clearly made an indelible impression on the youngster just entering his teen years.
Pearlman’s enthusiasm for that long-ago era was on full display Sept. 12 for an audience at Barnes & Noble’s Eastchester store. He was discussing, as the book’s subtitle has it, “The Crazy Rise and Crazier Demise of the USFL.”
An upstart rival to autumn’s National Football League, the USFL’s largely springtime schedule initially avoided head-to-head competition with the established league
“The idea (the USFL) was brilliant,” Pearlman told the crowd—his parents, Stan and Joan, among them. “I actually think it was one of the best ideas in sports ever.”
Nevertheless, the USFL never became the toast of the town. Instead, it was toast after just three colorful seasons, 1983-85.
The league was “a disastrous, joyful mess,” Pearlman, a 1990 MHS grad, acknowledged in his talk. Still, he and others blame Donald Trump for plunging the fatal dagger into the USFL’s heart.
Back then, long before gaining celebrity as a reality-TV star and president, Trump was simply a well-heeled real-estate developer. He bought a majority stake in the New Jersey Generals franchise in 1984 and almost immediately began spoiling for a fight with other team owners and especially the NFL.
“Trump wasn’t merely disliked by his fellow owners; he was loathed and abhorred and detested,” Pearlman noted in a blog entry early on in his reporting for the book. “The general take: Here was a selfish bully who desperately craved an NFL franchise, and viewed the USFL as a temporary (and disposable) vehicle toward that end. Trump memorably led the USFL’s suicide march away from a spring season and toward the fall, and (much like now) his big words and loud voice and thuggish tendencies caused many lemming peers to follow.”
Trump also successfully urged the league to sue the NFL, charging anti-trust violations. A jury ultimately found for the USFL but awarded it just one dollar for damages (tripled to $3 under anti-trust provisions). Players never again suited up for a game.
“The whole thing Donald Trump has against the NFL—I know this–is [that] he’s been rejected over and over and over,” Pearlman told his audience.
“This has nothing to do,” he said, “with what I think about Donald Trump; this is about the USFL, and about football. He tried buying the Colts and failed; he tried buying the Bills and failed; he tried suing the NFL; he tried buying the Cowboys and failed. It’s a club he wanted to be in and they never took him in.”
Viewed through different eyes, however, say those of a Mahopac youngster on the cusp of his teen years, Trump “was a classy owner.”
“I would say for a 10-year-old kid in Mahopac, he was great,” Pearlman told the crowd. “For the USFL, he was a nightmare.”
Smitten by the new league’s razzle-dazzle—colorful uniforms, exciting new team names, a clutch of top-prospect collegians—Pearlman writes, “the USFL had me hooked.”
Long before Pearlman entered Mahopac High School, however, the USFL was history. Still, Pearlman remained captivated. By 1990, in his senior year, he was requesting—and receiving—permission, however reluctant on the part of his teacher, to chronicle the league’s ups and downs in a 20-page paper for his advanced-placement English class.
He turned in 40 single-spaced pages. While double the minimum length assigned by the teacher, his report earned only a B+. Pearlman thought it deserved an A+ or, as he writes in his book’s prologue, “Maybe an A++, if such a thing exists.”
Still smarting 28 years later over that grade, Pearlman insisted from the stage last week, “There’s no way in hell that guy read all 40 pages.”
But readers apparently devour the pages Pearlman has put between hard covers: five of his seven books have hit The New York Times Bestseller list.
Besides “The Bad Guys Won,” his other ’80s-oriented Times bestsellers were “Showtime,” about the L.A. Lakers of that era, and “Sweetness: The Enigmatic Life of Walter Payton,” who starred for the Chicago Bears through most of the ’80s.
Two other books with ties to the decade were an unauthorized biography—“Love Me, Hate Me”—of Barry Bonds, a Pittsburgh Pirates rookie in 1986, and “The Rocket That Fell to Earth,” a bio of Roger Clemens, Boston Red Sox rookie in ’84.
Pearlman returned to the bestseller ranks with “Boys Will Be Boys,” the story of the 1990s Dallas Cowboys, and “Gunslinger: The Remarkable, Improbable, Iconic Life of Brett Favre.”
While Pearlman does not expect a subject as arcane as the USFL to see his latest book reach bestseller stardom, with five others already in that prestigious galaxy, it does seem that sometimes the good guys win.