Q/A with John Schulian on new best of football writing book: ‘Write like your pants are on fire’

Back in the saddle. My latest column for the National Sports Journalism Center is a Q/A with one of my all-time favorites, John Schulian.

From the column:


Even though John Schulian enjoyed a second, and I imagine, much more lucrative career in Hollywood, he always was a sportswriter to me. In the 1970s through the mid 80s, Schulian influenced a generation of sportswriters as a columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times and then for the Philadelphia Daily News. He wrote with an uncommon grace and elegance rarely seen before or since. Throw in uncompromising passion, and he was the complete package.

Unfortunately for fans of his work, Schulian gave up press boxes for sound stages at the age of 41. He worked on several hit TV shows and was the co-creator of “Xena: Warrior Princess.”

Yet once a sportswriter, always a sportswriter. Thankfully, Schulian always maintained his love for the business.

It is reflected in a new book, “Football: Great Writing About The National Sport.” As editor, Schulian put together a collection of the game’s best stories, old and new, for a book published by The Library of America.

It’s almost like being a coach and drafting a backfield of Peyton Manning, Jim Brown and Walter Payton. The list of writers includes Grantland Rice, W.C. Heinz, Myron Cope, Shirley Povich, Red Smith, Frank Deford, Jimmy Cannon, Jim Murray, Dan Jenkins…Well, you get my drift.

The territory also is considerable: Brown, Red Grange, Dick Butkus, Gale Sayers, Tom Landry, Bear Bryant, Vince Lombardi’s Green Bay Packers and the Steelers of the ‘70s. Plus, there also are surprises along the way.

Of course, there’s a contribution from Schulian. He did a Sports Illustrated story on aging tough-guy Chuck Bednarik wrestling with a tougher foe than he ever encountered on the field: screaming grandchildren. Classic.

In the book’s introduction, Schulian sets the tone as only he could:

“The story was the thing. It was what we lived for: re-creating the drama every game is built on, pillaging our notebooks for the perfect quote, forever searching for something in the people we wrote about that maybe even they weren’t aware of. Our working quarters could be cramped and our deadlines tighter than the wrong pair of shoes, but the men and women who ran this gauntlet every week still felt the jolt of inspiration.

“If you cared about what you were doing, if you felt a connection to the game and wanted your contribution to its deadline literature to truly matter, you had to write like your pants were on fire even when you were risking frostbite.”

I recently had a chance to chat with Schulian:

What do you think of sportswriting today?

Schulian: I don’t see how anybody can cover sports today. Everything is fed to you. You’ve got PR guys over your shoulder. The athletes all speak in clichés. It’s a brutal time.

I always thought there was an art to writing sports. The sports pages were a great laboratory for writing. You were given room stylistically. You weren’t bound by the final score. There were issues you could tackle. You could have a social conscience. You could have a discussion. That was all available to you. Now I see very little evidence of it.

How did book come about?

Schulian: I edited a book of great boxing writing (“At the Fights: American Writers on Boxing”) with George Kimball. George was a certified piece of work. He was the last wild man in sports. We had a great time doing it. I’m not sure the people at The Library of America were prepared for us. They’re used to doing books about the works of Poe, Twain, Fitzgerald. Serious literature. We were a couple of guys just trying to make a deadline and get a beer.

They actually had enlisted two fellows to do a football book. When I heard that, I sent a list of stories they should consider for the book. Then these guys fell out for some reason. They called me, and I got to do this book sort of by default.

I always loved sportswriting. It’s something I really care about. Even though I left the business, I still did pieces on the side.

In doing this book, I got to renew old acquaintances. I also got to meet new people like Bryan Curtis and Wright Thompson. It was nothing but Ws all the way.


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