This morning I appeared on ESPN’s “Outside the Lines,” a sports-news program hosted by the excellent Bob Ley. I was told a few days ago that I would be a guest alongside Jean-Jacques Taylor of the Dallas Morning News (one helluva writer) and Emmitt Smith, the NFL’s all-time leading rusher, a Dancing With The Stars champ and perhaps the worst televised football analyst in the history of the world. (And I was around for Joe Montana.)
I was sort of curious how this whole show would fly, because Smith is one of the few Cowboys who refused to speak with me for “Boys Will Be Boys.” While working on the book I contacted his representatives on multiple occasions; asked through friends of friends; so on and so onâ€”and was told that, these days, Smith only talks to book authors if he’s paid handsomely. Perhaps I would have found this to be surprising were I not warned ahead of time by myriad ex-Cowboys that the post-NFL Smith had become gallingly greedy and self-centered. “Emmitt being Emmitt,” they’d say. Oh, well. I moved on.
So there I sat this morning at about 8:50, alone in a New York City television studio, an earpiece in my left lobe, as Ley said, “Before we start, Emmitt Smith, say hello to Jeff Pearlman.”
The conversation went thusly:
Smith: “Hey, Jeff.”
Me: “Hey, Emmitt. How are you?”
Smith: “So how many of my teammates did you talk to for this book?”
Me: “I guess about 130.”
Smith: Long pause. “Oh. I don’t think I had 130 teammates.”
For the next minute, Smith insinuated that the idea of somebody not named, well, Emmitt Smith writing a ’90s Cowboys book is sort of wrong; the said-but-unsaid Who the hell are you to step on our turf? bravado that so many athletes unload on journalists. He wasn’t rude, per se, just antagonistic and off-putting (OK, maybe rude).
The show finally started, and after a segment by Ed Werder, Taylor, Smith and I began our “dialogue.” (I place “dialogue” in quotes becauseâ€”despite Ley’s best intentions and effortsâ€”it’s difficult to have a real, unfiltered dialogue between four guys with ear pieces in four different studios). We all answered questions, Taylor offering his detailed Cowboy knowledge, Smith throwing out one of his trademark linguistic butcherings (“In some way, form or fashion …”), I sort of sucking (and decked out in perhaps the worst TV shirt of the 21st century. Note to others: Bright yellowâ€”bad). Then, with 10 seconds left, Taylor made a final point, Ley thanked the three of us andâ€”with his last televised breathâ€”Smith offered one last, snider-than-snide thought:
It was far from a compliment. The man who wouldn’t talk to me; who would only agree to an interview should I pay himâ€”was taking a cowardly parting shot. Has Emmitt Smith read the book? Doubtful (it doesn’t even come out for nine more days). No, he just dislikes the idea of someone stepping on his rightful turf. And if a writer dares delve into the ’90s Cowboys, he/she is violating sacred territory. That was the clear intent of his words: You are taking advantage of us to make money.
The truth is, I wrote “Boys Will Be Boys” because I love sports; I love writing; I’ve always wanted to take a shot at football (I’m a baseball guy, primarily) and the Cowboys offered the perfect storm: On-field greatness; off-field insanity; wild characters; limited books on the subject). I didn’t spend two years of my life putting this together to “get” people like Emmitt or Michael Irvin or Troy Aikman. I did it because I love the process and the digging and the free-flowing writing books allow.
Oh, well. I’ve learned my lesson. No more yellow shirts.
* A good side note: While waiting, someone told me that a member of the ’90s Cowboys had recently read the first chapter of “Boys Will Be Boys,” which details the afternoon when Michael Irvin picked up a scissors and stabbed a teammate in the neck. “Man,” the Cowboy said, “we thought that would never get out.” As a reporter, I feel awfully good about that.
** Another side note: The strange thing is that, of all the primary subjects in “Boys Will Be Boys,” Smith comes off like a saint. He worked hard, ran his ass off, raised the Cowboys to a new level.