Tag Archives: Sid Gillman

Writing a biography on a lost soul

Sid Gillman, in so many of the interviews I’ve read of him, wasn’t especially forthcoming. Well, that might not necessarily be true. When the interviewer wasn’t asking questions about Sid specifically – if the queries tilted toward his team or about football or about the famous coaches he knew and supported – he was fine. I don’t think he loved dealing with reporters* and I think he especially didn’t love talking about himself.

I mean, good lord, look at some of the answers Sid gave to Todd Tobias in this interview a couple years before Sid died. Could he have said anything less when asked about himself?

*There is a great story in my book about Sid swearing off reading the newspapers after getting into a spat with the media during his first season with the Los Angeles Rams in 1955. The legendary L.A. sports columnist Mel Durslag told me that Sid swore off reading the papers forever. Durslag asked Sid what he would do during breakfast instead of reading the local rags. “I’m going to eat my eggs and look out the goddamn window,” Sid smartly replied.

Still, I really could have used Sid – who died in 2003 – during the time I wrote his biography.

Especially when I had to write about how he grew up in Minneapolis. Or what he thought about leaving an African American player behind when Miami (Ohio) was invited to play in the 1947 Sun Bowl and the Sun Bowl officials forbid black players from competing. Or about his offensive philosophies or about if he knew forcing his 1963 Chargers team to take steroids could have long-term consequences on those individuals’ lives?

Would he have answered my controversial questions? Probably not. Or he would have tap-danced around him. Or he would have gotten pissed at me and eaten his eggs while ignoring me and looking out the goddamn window. Still, like I wrote in the intro of my book — due out Aug. 29 Sept. 11 (apparently) — it’s tougher to write the story of a man when you can’t shake his hand and talk to him face to face.

I had long and multiple interviews with each of his four kids, and all of them were great. All were forthcoming about their father, the good and the bad. Yet they couldn’t tell me stories about Sid growing up and they couldn’t get inside Sid’s head during the most meaningful moments of his life.

But Sid’s not here, and so we must find a way to move past it.

I just finished reading Richard Ben Cramer’s fantastic biography on Joe DiMaggio, and though the Yankee Clipper was alive when Cramer was researching and writing the book, DiMaggio refused to speak to him. But at least Cramer could observe some of DiMaggio’s actions (and there is a great scene at the beginning of the book with Cramer watching DiMaggio during his last appearance at Yankee Stadium). Me? I didn’t know anything about Gillman until five years after he died. Except for old film, there wasn’t much of anything for me to observe.

So, how do you write a biography about a dead person? I didn’t know. Naturally, I googled it.**

**To be clear, I used google for this exercise only. I did not use it to figure out how to write a biography of Sid Gillman. I do wonder, though, if this knowledge would have made the book better if I had actually thought to do this before I started.

According to this site, writing on somebody who’s dead is easier because “Information about them can be easier to obtain, and they can’t complain when you mention their underwear, etc.” Yes, information about Sid’s personal life was MUCH easier to obtain from the newspapers that didn’t write about it. I mean, thank the lord I couldn’t ask Sid directly about that kind of stuff. Really dodged a bullet there. And the chances of me writing about anybody’s underwear – whether Sid was alive or dead – were pretty slim (though I do have a rather-innocent story in the book about Gillman buying a kimono for his wife that he thought made her look like a geisha girl).

Let’s try eHow. “Follow a chronological order of the person’s life if possible. Include any noteworthy accomplishments, events, tragedies, successes, and more. If the person is still living, end with un (sic) uplifting conclusion about their path for the future. If they are dead, then conclude with one of their great accomplishments.” Well, crap. I concluded my book in a cemetery. That’s no good.

All right, for the real analysis, I turned to New York Times’ best-selling author Jeff Pearlman, who released a fantastic book on Walter Payton last year called, “Sweetness.” Payton, who died in 1999, obviously wasn’t around to help Pearlman (or hinder him, I suppose), and since this was Pearlman’s first book on somebody who’s dead (previous bios include Roger Clemens and Barry Bonds), I asked about his approach to the Payton tome.

“I guess, Josh, it’s not all that different from the Bonds and Clemens bios I wrote,” Pearlman wrote in an e-mail. “Neither man spoke with me, so – in a way – with Sweetness it felt normal. That said, the thing that I found interesting is how, for lack of a better word, haunted I felt. I would take these long runs at night and feel Payton next to me, running along and talking up his life. That sounds pretty insane – and it’s not like I actually believed he was there. But I just couldn’t shake that idea; that he was somehow reading over my shoulder.

“Truth be told, it might be easier when someone isn’t around. A. He isn’t there to be annoyed at you; B. (Most important) he can’t tell people not to talk to you; C. People probably feel more at ease talking, knowing Walter wouldn’t get mad at them.

“All that said, I wish he were alive …”

I felt the same way about Sid. And I can understand where Pearlman was coming from when talking about going for runs with Payton in spirit. When I traveled to Los Angeles to interview two of Sid’s children in March 2011, I visited the graves of Sid and his wife, Esther. I told them both that I would do my best to present a fair assessment of his life and his life’s work. I would try my hardest to make sure people know who Sid Gillman was, what he did and what he meant to the game.

But other than that, Sid never visited me during the writing of the book (UPDATE 1:00 a.m. CT: Swear to god, I was just adding the above photo of Sid, and I heard a single piano note go off in my house. Everybody else is asleep in their beds. I do not own a piano or a cat that would crawl across one. Freakin’ creepy, man). I never felt Sid reading over my shoulder. I never felt his presence. I don’t know, maybe I should have gone for more long runs late at night.

The question of how to write a biography on someone who’s gone never really was answered, and therefore, I have little insight to give. I just wrote it. Which, I suppose, is the only way to go at it. You research, you interview, you dig, you double-check, you triple-check, and you start tapping.

Anyway, I just hope I present a work that’s fair. I hope I did him right. I hope, like Pearlman said over and over again with his Payton book, that I gave the definitive story. And I hope somehow and in some way, Sid knows about it and would feel the same way.

Advertisements

Sid Gillman, Gregg Williams and bounties

With so much talk in past few weeks about former Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams and his vile pregame speech before last year’s 49ers game, former NFL player and current player-agent Ralph Cindrich penned an interesting tweet.

Cindrich played as a linebacker in the NFL for four seasons in the 1970s with the Patriots, Oilers and the Broncos, and during his tenure, he was coached by at least two legends (Sid Gillman and Bum Phillips).

Basically, Cindrich asked himself this question: if his own coaches had the opportunity, would they have overseen (and/or encouraged) a bounty program – the kind of program that led to a one-year suspension for New Orleans coach Sean Payton and an indefinite suspension for Williams? Here was his conclusion.

Regarding Gillman, I agree. One theme of my upcoming book (COMING OUT THIS SUMMER!) is that while Gillman wanted to do the right thing much, if not most, of the time, winning ultimately triumphed everything. There were instances in his career when Gillman, intentionally or not, did wrong by his players in order to win. Some decisions, I believe, he regretted. Others, he probably didn’t. If Gillman felt he could have gained an advantage by offering a bounty, I would guess that he wouldn’t hesitate to do so.

I asked Cindrich, after his initial tweet, if he was saying that Gillman HAD taken part in bounties or that he WOULD have participated, and Cindrich responded this way:

I also agree with this take.

It’s unfortunate that Gillman is no longer around to ask about this issue (christ, how many times did I say that while writing my book?). And if he had been asked, I imagine he would have denied it whether he had or hadn’t or whether he believed he would or wouldn’t.

But I’m also guessing many of his former players, and not just Cindrich, would wholeheartedly agree with the assertion that Gillman would have made the same decision as Payton. Hell, I found articles from the mid-1970s where Oilers players complained that he was putting them at extreme and unneccessary risk during practice.

I don’t quite understand that mindset – screw everything else; win at all costs – but it’s also why Gillman is such a fascinating figure to write about. Gillman, with all his greatness, still had plenty of warts. Just like Payton and Williams; just like many of the most successful pro coaches in history. Luckily for Gillman (and perhaps unluckily for me), nobody taped his pregame speeches and then slathered them on the Internet for all to see and for all to judge.

Can you identify this man?

UPDATE (Feb. 20; 11:27 a.m. CT): The guy on the right has been confirmed as Keith Lincoln by Keith Lincoln himself. Still not exactly sure of the year, but the best guess is probably the AFL All-Star game after the 1965 season. Thanks to everybody for playing along.

———-

The man on the left is Sid Gillman, the subject of my latest book. I have no idea about the guy on the right. Does anybody know him? This picture comes from the Gillman era in Houston — so, we’re talking 1973 or 1974. If you get me the right answer, I’ll put you in the acknowledgments section of the book when it comes out this summer and I’ll praise you for the rest of eternity.

So, in a word, help.

Sid Gillman is the subject

It’s time to start ramping up this website again. It’s time to start posting. It’s time to start promoting. Now that my book is nearly finished, I can finally tell you that the subject matter is the fascinating Sid Gillman, the father of the NFL’s modern-day passing offense. After working on this tome for about 18 months, it’ll finally be out this summer.

I literally have about 25 more words to go, but I haven’t yet figured out how to write the ending of the book. I have some ideas, but can’t figure out the right combination of words. It’ll come … hopefully, soon.

And then, the full-fledged Gillman-mania will begin.