By Chris Foss
I spent much of my winter break reading new engrossing books about two of the NFL’s great quarterbacks of the 1990s: Gunslinger, Jeff Pearlman’s Brett Favre biography; and QB: My Life Behind the Spiral, Steve Young’s memoir. These books give the reader much insight into the quarterbacks’ growth and development, their fight to overcome doubters to be successful in college and in the NFL, and their physical deterioration and eventual fade into the sunset. These books are very similar in many ways, but we have to be careful to discern the differences between biography and memoir in considering their usefulness in understanding the legacies of two men widely perceived as living legends of the NFL.
Biography is a traditional form of historical writing: it is a work undertaken by a third-party source, one usually with no direct links to the subject, who works from sources she or he has painstakingly combed through to tell the story of the life of their subject. Jeff Pearlman utilized every book ever written about Brett Favre; cited tons of local newspaper articles from Favre’s Mississippi childhood years and from his professional days in Atlanta, Green Bay, New York, and Minnesota; and conducted over 500 original interviews with Favre’s various family friends, family, and adversaries to put together what he claims is a balanced telling of Favre’s life.
Pearlman’s work is billed as not overly celebratory or condemnatory. In a nod, perhaps, to Favre’s devotion to Catholicism, Pearlman claims that Gunslinger reveals the life of a flawed human being. Favre supporters will, however, likely be disappointed that Pearlman’s work does not devote more time to Favre’s charitable causes: for example, his work to aid Hurricane Katrina victims gets little more than a brief mention here. It also dispenses with the notion of Favre as a football god: yes, it depicts him as (mostly) a hardworking, studious professional, but also unblinkingly examines Favre’s early-career Vicodin addiction, his struggles against alcoholism, and his adultery, punctuated by Deadspin's allegation that there was a period of time in 2008 when he sexually pursued a female New York Jets sideline reporter. There are no attempts to make excuses for Favre, and, especially later in the book, few defenses offered for his shortcomings, particularly the “will I or won’t I retire” saga that played out over his last roughly half-dozen seasons.
Overall, Gunslinger is not particularly friendly to Favre; perhaps that’s why he declined to be interviewed (although, interestingly, the rest of his family did cooperate). The rocket of an arm, the photographic memory, the toughness, the charm, and the spirit of generosity that have all been lauded by the NFL over the years with regard to Favre are on display here, but they are confined to the background in favor of a focus on his indiscretions and failures. The Favre of later years recovered from addiction, but also withdrew from the team, getting his own private dressing room, and is depicted as in virtual rebellion against his final coach, Brad Childress. Today’s Favre is a dedicated family man, but also a rotten investor and possibly showing the early signs of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) after years of punishment in the pocket.
If Gunslinger is a study in flawed humanity, QB: My Life Under The Spiral is a study of a man seeking to be a better human. Memoirs written by the subject promise to the reader a tantalizing look at the subject’s real story, as recalled by that person. But memoirs are also subject to the failures of memory, or of the storyteller’s desire to omit unpleasant memories. The reader always must ask themselves if they are getting something close to the “real” story. Perhaps memoirs are most useful not as evidence of fact, but as evidence of thinking, perception, and memory. In that case, the reader should examine this book as a reflection of the memories and perceptions Steve Young felt were most important, and should not look on this as the “final word” on the man.
With ghostwriter Jeff Benedict, Steve Young catalogues his life’s struggle to succeed in the NFL, to become a better Mormon, and to get married and raise a family. Along the way, Young depicts himself as blessed by a photographic memory, exceptional athletic ability, self-restraint, strict adherence to Mormon prohibitions against vice, and dedication to studying both playbooks and the good book. In the end, of course, he won the Super Bowl, deepened his faith, stayed true to his personal and religious values, got the girl, and raised a family. The only regret Young seems to have (and even then, only briefly) is that he did not serve a two-year Mormon mission.
Even a celebratory memoir must have conflict, however, and in QB, the conflict (and big reveal) is Young’s struggle with near-crippling anxiety disorder. He does not say so explicitly, but Young appeared to suffer from agoraphobia (fear of leaving his home) early in life. This eased with time and gradual separation from family, but it prevented Young from serving a Mormon mission. Anxiety plagued Young in his playing career as well—fear of not being good enough became fear of letting down his team, then fear of losing his starting job, once gained from the legendary Joe Montana. Overall, Young gives a seemingly credible portrayal of the way anxious thoughts ebb and flow in the life of one unfortunate enough to be afflicted with anxiety.
Critics will, however, find much to pick apart in Young’s memoir that could be better explored by an independent biographer. He is not shy about discussing his two broken engagements, but he is (understandably) not eager to discuss how he might have better handled those situations. Even more tantalizingly incomplete is his analysis of how football ravaged his body over the course of his career. Young’s 1999 retirement following a concussion was, as he acknowledges, the tipping point for public consciousness about the health risks inherent in playing football. Football could do better to address players’ pain, Young suggests, but unlike Pearlman, he does not apparently believe that the NFL has major cultural flaws. Perhaps Young is not qualified to make such a judgment, however: after all, not every player is blessed with Young’s “good genes” (as he often puts it), and very few abstained from drugs and alcohol as did Young, another potential factor in his durability and his apparently clean recovery from his concussions.
So, is biography or memoir the better route to go? It depends on what you are looking for. In an earlier article, Keith contended that we are in an era of information overload, thanks to a constant barrage of articles on websites and social media. Many of these pieces are written on the spot—journalism being, essentially, a first draft of history. Pearlman and Young/Benedict have contrived, meanwhile, in their own different genres of biography and memoir, to take the long road toward understanding two legends of the game with a contentious past. In the end, however, each view the past not as it was, but as they think it happened, extrapolating what they think is the most significant takeaway from two remarkable football stories.
In this case, I give the nod to Gunslinger as the slightly better book, because when it comes down to it, Pearlman does a better job of acknowledging the conflict and contention at the heart of these men’s individual dramas: the punishment inflicted upon them by the game they loved. The contentiousness of Pearlman’s subject lies in Favre’s infidelity and addictions, whereas, since Young did not have those problems, he and Benedict focus on the less controversial personal demon of Young’s anxiety disorder. The message here is that there’s more to Young than just the concussions, and QB is interesting in highlighting those. “Just be more like Steve Young”—don’t drink and don’t overdose on painkillers—is not, unfortunately, going to solve the concussion problem for most football players. QB is a solid book, but there should also be a good biography of Young that puts the concussion issue more at the center of his story. On the flipside, I’d like to hear Favre’s take on his life, although I doubt we would get much more from him that we don’t already know, thanks to Pearlman’s exhaustive interviews of his inner circle. In the end, these are both great books that put you in the pocket without giving you as much of a pounding as the defenders these great quarterbacks spent their careers eluding.