It's hard to find a Wisconsin sports fan that doesn't have strong feelings about Brett Favre. Some love him for his sixteen seasons of throwing touchdown passes for the Green Bay Packers. Some are still smarting from the unceremonious way he left the Packers, and for his two seasons with the rival Minnesota Vikings. And some are, well, strongly conflicted.
Count writer Jeff Pearlman among those who love the guy - even after meticulously chronicling Favre's many contradictions as he researched the new biography, Gunslinger: The Remarkable, Improbable, Iconic Life of Brett Favre. "It's funny," Pearlman said from California, "he had a lot of flaws, tons of mistakes he made and dumb things he did in his life in the name of sex, in the name of drugs, and in the name of legacy, to a degree."
"But I think part of the joy of biography is you see the rise and the fall... and the rise again. And here he is now - he's back in good graces in Green Bay, he's in the Hall of Fame - things have worked out for the guy, and I love that."
Pearlman spoke with more than 500 people in Favre's orbit as he traced Favre's life from his childhood in rural Mississippi - playing high school football under his dad's coaching; to his college years at the University of Southern Mississippi; and on through his one season, warming the bench for the Atlanta Falcons - before his stardom with the Packers.
Those Green Bay years were marked by Super Bowl triumph, but also by Favre's painkiller and alcohol addictions, and by frequent womanizing, even as his relationship with (now-wife) Deanna went on. Those stories have been known by sports fans for some time, but what Gunslinger brings into sharp relief is the lengths to which the Packers went to keep the issues quiet at the time - and how difficult it would have been for Wisconsin sports reporters to write those stories, anyway.
"I think it was a sticky situation," Pearlman, a former writer for Sports Illustrated, says, "when you are a writer in a town like Green Bay, Wisconsin, where not only do people live and die with the team - people own the team."
In New York, Pearlman contends, if a famous athlete were caught having an affair, the city's newspapers would compete to print pictures and other evidence. "In Green Bay," he says, "if you find out Brett Favre is having an affair, what do you do with that stuff? Do people even want to know? Does it affect his play on the field?"
Pearlman also notes that most of Favre's career played out before the rise of social media and the proliferation of cell phones. But by late in has career, that had changed. One of Favre's most notorious missteps came in his one season with the New York Jets (revealed later), when evidence surfaced that he had sent explicit pictures of himself to an in-house sideline reporter. It was a story that, in the modern media landscape, could not be kept under wraps.
And it's evidence, Pearlman says, that Favre was among the last superstars to straddle two distinct eras of sports. "At the end of his career, he would walk into locker rooms, and everyone is listening to music on their headphones," he says. "The era he came along in - everyone [in locker rooms] would be joking around and farting in each other's faces. He spanned two different eras - technologically and socially - in sports."
While Pearlman spoke with hundreds of sources for the story, one key source who did not speak with him was Brett Favre himself. Favre chose not to cooperate for the book, but that did not stop his mother, siblings, and other people close to the quarterback from speaking. And while many of the stories they shared had not been written about before, Pearlman says he didn't sense any underlying motivation on the part of Favre's relatives.
"Honestly," he says, " I think they talked because someone asked - as simple as that sounds. [I] asked the questions, and they said, 'Well, you're here - you came down to Mississippi - pull up a chair'."
Jeff Pearlman will talk about Gunslinger Tuesday evening, November 1, at the Elm Grove Public Library and later in the week at events in the Fox Valley.