Book review: Favre biography goes deep and scores

Gary D'Amato
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
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Brett Favre played for the Packers from 1992-2007.

Brett Favre was the first Wisconsin sports superstar whose career overlapped the dawn of the Internet age and so his life and career were scrutinized in a different way than those of Bart Starr, Hank Aaron and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

We knew a lot about Favre, in real time. His exploits on Sunday afternoons were dissected a thousand different ways by Monday morning and we knew much about his reckless lifestyle, his addiction to Vicodin and, of course, his messy divorce from the Packers. He was a blogger’s dream.

But did we really know Brett Favre? What made him tick? Why did he take so many chances, on and off the field? How could he be so decisive in a huddle and so conflicted in his personal life?

Jeff Pearlman delved beneath the surface in his terrific biography, “Gunslinger: The Remarkable, Improbable, Iconic Life of Brett Favre” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $28), available this week.

Gunslinger: The Remarkable, Improbable, Iconic Life of Brett Favre. By Jeff Pearlman. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 448 pages. $28.

It’s not only a page-turner, but it’s built on a foundation of solid journalism by an author who has a background as a newspaper reporter. Pearlman, 44, interviewed 573 people – former teammates and coaches, lifelong friends, family members – and took two years to write the book. He crafted a fascinating profile of one of the most interesting and entertaining athletes of this or any era.

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“I just thought it was one of those topics where we know a lot about the guy, but we really don’t know him,” Pearlman said in a telephone interview from his home in Laguna Niguel, Calif. “I thought a lot of the material about him was really surface. We knew he was from Mississippi, we knew he played hard, we knew about the Vicodin. But there was a lot about him that we didn’t know.”

“Gunslinger” strings together hundreds of anecdotes, organized in chronological chapters and framed with context supplied by the hundreds of people Pearlman interviewed. Some of the stories have been told and re-told but many are new and draw back the curtain on Favre’s life in a way that hadn’t been done.

It is an unvarnished look at an icon, at times salacious, but it is also fair and balanced. Pearlman interviewed many of Favre’s relatives, including his mother, Bonita Favre, and told them up front that he was writing neither a fawning ode nor a hit piece. They talked, willingly and candidly.

“My wife said, ‘Why would they talk?’ ” Pearlman said. “Because they just do. I wasn’t duplicitous. I told them what I was doing. Bonita was unbelievable. So was Brandi (Favre, Brett’s sister). I developed a real affection for them.”

Pearlman said Favre politely declined to be interviewed for “Gunslinger.” In an odd way, the book is perhaps better without his voice dominating its pages.

“Sometimes you interview people and they wind up having too much input in the book itself,” Pearlman said. “It works that way sometimes: ‘I’ll talk to you, but …’ My favorite biographies were written about people who had died. For me, the best sports biography ever written was Richard Ben Cramer’s book on Joe DiMaggio.”

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Without the subject cooperating, Pearlman said, the author must “interview absolutely everyone you can, research as hard as you possibly can, read everything, watch every documentary and dig as hard as you can.”

Pearlman explores Favre’s childhood in rural Mississippi and the relationship the quarterback had with his father, Irvin, a no-nonsense authoritarian who instilled in the athletic sons he coached a brand of mental and physical toughness that would serve them – and particularly Brett – well on the field of play.

The author also devotes a chapter to “Big Irv” in which the elder Favre is depicted as a heavy drinker and womanizer who lived vicariously through his son and embarrassed Bonita on countless occasions. The apple, it turned out, didn’t fall far from the tree.

“That is the chapter I had the most sort of internal debate about,” Pearlman said. “What it came down to is if you’re writing a truly definitive biography about someone and his dad has such a heavy influence on his life – and Irv Favre had a huge influence on Brett’s life – you can’t paint the guy as this big lovable lug. You just can’t do it.

“I can’t imagine (the Favres) will be thrilled by that chapter. I had conversations with Bonita about it. I don’t know what the alternative is. If it was your second cousin there’s no reason to explore it. The father-son relationship was so huge. You can’t ignore it.”

Pearlman also explores the icy relationship between Favre and Aaron Rodgers, which has thawed in recent years. Many assume their disdain for one another was mostly Favre’s fault: He was the aging quarterback who felt threatened by his cocky understudy.

While that was largely true, Rodgers wasn’t entirely blameless, calling Favre “Grandpa” the first time they met and teasing Favre about his Wonderlic score.

“I think you have to remember Rodgers was a 21-year old kid,” Pearlman said. “I was a cocky doofus at 21, too. As we get older we all experience this. Some young guy comes along and he’s the hotshot and we’re like, ‘Who the hell does this guy think he is?’ It’s such a normal human dynamic.”

Rodgers initially agreed to sit down for an interview with Pearlman, the author said, but didn’t follow through.

“He told me to call the Packers and set it up through so-and-so,” Pearlman said. “I called so-and-so. He never did it.”

Favre comes off in “Gunslinger” as a flawed hero, as so many of them are. He was a great teammate, at least for most of his career, but for many years a terrible husband. He was a charismatic leader, but an immature and at times juvenile man. He was gifted with a tremendous right arm, but cursed by addictions and impulsive behavior.

If there’s a true hero in “Gunslinger,” it’s Favre’s wife, Deanna, who put up with some awful behavior by her husband.

“She stuck by this guy,” Pearlman said. “Deanna Favre, to me, she kind of got him clean, she forced him to face his demons. I think a lot of times in sports the wives are scapegoated. This woman stuck with this guy through so much.”

Pearlman said he admired Favre’s personal transformation from something of a cad to a devoted husband and father.

“I really like the guy,” he said. “People see the way he treated Aaron Rodgers and say that was kind of a jerky way to be. Or when he sent the pictures (of his genitals) to a sideline reporter. What the heck was he thinking?

“But when you write a biography, you see the ups and downs and the highs and lows. You see the journey. He’s a 47-year-old volleyball dad who lives contentedly in Mississippi. He has come out of it as a really good guy. We all have our ups and downs. How do you come out of it in the end? I think Brett Favre overcame all these problems to become a really good human being.”

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