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The making of "North Dallas Forty"

Wednesday, November 19, 2003
Health is more important than Money

On Friday, in conjunction with "ESPN's Reel Classics" feature (7 p.m. ET, Sunday), North Dallas Forty author Peter Gent made a special visit to take your questions.

Peter Gent turned to writing after a five-year career with the Dallas Cowboys. He is the author of seven books, including the novels The Franchise (1983) and The Conquering Heroes (1993). His most recent book was The Last Magic Summer: A Season with My Son (1996).
Mac Davis
Mac Davis plays fun-loving quarterback Seth Maxwell in "North Dallas Forty."

In 1973, Gent set the sports world on its ear with the publication of his groundbreaking novel North Dallas Forty, the story of eight harrowing days in the life of a football player. Gent, once a receiver for the Cowboys, told the devastating truth about the world of a player in the National Football League - a world of drugs, pain, sex and incredible savagery. North Dallas Forty has sold more than 75,000 copies in its first printing and was made into a major Hollywood movie. The new edition features an updated forward by the author.

Critical acclaim for the first edition of North Dallas Forty came swiftly and unanimously. ESPN's Dick Schaap called it "one of the best sports novels ever," and continued, "Every pro football fan should keep a copy next to his TV so he realizes what he's watching." The New York Times called it "a remarkable novel" with "devastating impact."

Nick Nolte and Mac Davis star in ESPN Classic's presentation of the movie version of North Dallas Forty on Sunday, November 26 at 9 p.m. ET.

The following is an edited transcript from Gent's Nov. 24 chat:

Peter Gent
Hi everyone. I spent yesterday with my son watching the Cowboys. Thanksgiving has never been a holiday for me. It was strange. In college, I played basketball and with the Cowboys, we always played that day. So Thanksgiving and Christmas have always been like work days for me.

Connor from at 1:08pm ET
Peter, When you look back at your time with the Cowboys, what's your feelings now after some time has passed? Thanks.

Peter Gent at 1:13pm ET
I never lost my love of playing. It was a marvelous feeling to go out and be in front of 80,000 at the Cotton Bowl. Th noise makes your skeleton vibrate. I will always miss that instant gratification. U knew u were involved in something close to the Roman Coliseum. We were the war heros. Guys I grew up with fought in wars, in World War II for example. My uncle came back and was never the same. He didn't live very long, drank himself to death. Those were my heroes. I had to do six physicals. It was tough going to the mail box every day. The biggest year I had was $22,000. That was the most we made. Now, these huge salaries. Everyone is confusing money with health. These guys sell their health for dollars. I watched Troy Aikman, to me the best quarterback playing today. U can't tell me he needs the money. He is playing after nine concussions. When u wake up and can remember every hit and it takes two hours to get out of bed, it's difficult. Mike Ditka has had hips replaced. Dan Reeves is advertising heart medicine.

scribe from at 1:13pm ET
Pete: Enjoy your work, including "The Franchise." Was Landry really as cold as his image?

Peter Gent at 1:17pm ET
That's a difficult question. Tom was in a difficult position. He was there striking point between players and management. U have to hold the team together to win Sunday's and hold yourself together. You can't take anything too personally. Tom fascinated me, he's probably the most brilliant man I ever met. When he did something that didn't make sense and him talking about the Bible and such, I would argue with him. We'd have a meeting every week, and he told me I needed to change my attitude. He told me the most difficult thing he had to do was not get close to people. U have teammates who could be gone any day or take your job any day. With Tom, everybody could cost him his job. This is something Tom cried about. I finally saw his emotional side. We got to be good friends later. I ran into him at a Mavericks game. I asked him how it was to be out of football. He said it wasn't bad. And I told him that I could have told you that. And he said to me, I think you tried too.

Brian from at 1:17pm ET
What's harder to worry about: writing or getting ready for games on sundays when you used to play?

Peter Gent at 1:22pm ET
Writing is harder because it's longer. Sunday is more terrifying. But once you get out there, you live your whole life in two and a half hours. You have either done what you were supposed to do or you haven't. I usually came out feeling good about my performance. If not, it was a long week. Monday was like a depression day. You didn't get ready for Sunday till Wednesday. That's when cocaine became a problem for athletes. Guys I played with were drinkers. You drank on Monday. Bobby Lang was a perfect example. He got the whole Lions team together for this on Monday. Wednesday you started focusing. I finally figured out why guys started using cocaine. They were using it for after games so they wouldn't get depressed after games. Writing is a constant anxiety. You never get away from it. I have screen plays I have to do and another novel I am going to start. It's a very heavy responsibility. The new novel is set in the '60s, the early days of the Cowboys. A bunch of us lived in one apartment building. Airline stewardesses and pilots were the only other ones who lived there so it was an interesting place. 1964 was a tough year for me. I came back in '65 to come back mean. Don Talbert was my roommate and taught me how to be that way. He was a great teacher.

HokieFan from at 1:23pm ET
Honestly, I'm young and have never read your book or seen the movie based on your book. In a sentence or two, why should I read it?

Peter Gent at 1:28pm ET
If you would like to understand the deviant psychology going into football and if u are planning to play football, u will see the risks and chances u are taking with your life. I never let my son play. He played basketball and baseball. Like the guys who went to Vietnam, they have a closeness we can't understand. I have that with other pro football players. It doesn't get u out of bed in the morning. It doesn't pay your bills. What is streaming thru the television tube is to trade your health for money. We'll destroy our planet for money when our planet is the reason we are here. The only guys who get to tell u the stories are the guys who come out of it who can tell u the stories. The announcers are talking like it's the greatest thing a man can do, destroy yourself for a game. Football is a working man's sport. In the '60s, the end zones of the Cotton Bowl were always full and they always came, win or lose. They knew what we were doing. The only way out of life was to get yourself killed. Society wasn't going to let you out.

Spaulding Smeals from at 1:29pm ET
Which book are you most proud of?

Peter Gent at 1:31pm ET
North Dallas Forty is like my first love but The Franchise is the one I think I approached as a better writer. North Dallas Forty dealt with my deamons. The Franchise projects what sports is going to become. That's why I think we are going to make it into a TV series hopefully on ABC 20 years after it was published. The Last Magic Summer was my hardest one to write because it was so personal, my failures as a father and you watch your children suffer for the decisions you made. I was friends with Mickey Mantle and one of the last things he told me was that he wishes he could have been a better father. We all do.

Danny Noonan at 1:32pm ET
How did you feel about your book becoming a movie? Do you think Hollywood did a good job?

Peter Gent at 1:33pm ET
That's tough. I think they did a really good job. So much of it was just blind luck. I got to write every day. I was thinking about what it would be for a movie for six years. Mac Davis was a perfect choice for QB. I had a great director. I got 80 percent of what I was trying to get. I think we got the most important plot lines.

Lacy Underalls from at 1:34pm ET
Was the league mad at you for writing the book?

Peter Gent at 1:36pm ET
It's interesting. At a certain level, mid-management level and below, they were furious. Guys like Pete Rozelle and Clint Murchison, Jr., the Cowboys owner, respected the fact I could do that. Clint loved the team and didn't interfere in my life.

Pajich at 1:36pm ET
The players of the past seem to have more personality....more vices like partying and drinking and drugging....players now seem to be a bit uptight. Do you think you would want to hang out and party with the new players?

Peter Gent at 1:39pm ET
Not at my age. I think players are players. It's a faster game now. I was the first guy in the NFL to come out with a communications degree. These guys now are planning to play professionally since young ages. Colleges only get kids for a couple years now. Players now become businessmen. That's the danger. What they are trading is their health and real wealth (their bodies) for money. As long as u have your health, u can do anything. I am 58, can't climb upstairs, can't sleep comfortably sometimes. It's more of a show now. If I was on the worst defense in the league, like Dallas, which I watched yesterday, and then they go out and celebrate after a good play. I would have run back into the huddle instead of celebrate for a good play when I am on the worst defensive team in the league.

Jamie Weber at 1:40pm ET
Was your nickname really "poot" and where did it originate? I ask because that's what my dad calls me. (He loves N.D-40)

Peter Gent at 1:42pm ET
Poot was actually Buddy Dials nickname. He came from Texas too. It's a Texas nickname. It means fart. That was part of Mac Davis' ad libbing in the movie, he is from Lubbock, it was perfect. That's the magic that can happen. The madness got up on the screen. The first time I heard it was from Buddy and Meredith. It's a Texas thing.

deportes from at 1:42pm ET
How different would North Dallas Forties be if it was written today?

Peter Gent at 1:44pm ET
I think what would change is only that they literally buy you. You can't complain about your money. I think people are greedier. You could get 20 million dollars in debt these days. Back then, you couldn't get into so much debt. That's the only real difference. It's a speedier game now. Guys back then played for more of the love of it than money. Guys today love the game but you still have to go out and beat the crap out of each other. Turf has made it faster.

Bill at 1:45pm ET
Where did you get most of your information about The boys from Junction? I thought it was very, very good.

Peter Gent at 1:45pm ET
I had just been through there. I have been in every place in Texas at one point or another.

t-webb from at 1:46pm ET
What do you think the next Texas expansion team will do in the next five years? And what do you think about the XFL?

Peter Gent at 1:48pm ET
It interests me because we are trying to make The Franchise on ABC. I have no idea about the XFL. I think Arena football is really strange. In terms of the expansion team, I don't know how they will do with talent. But there are plenty of football fans in Texas. I think the problem is, I asked Raymond Berry, and he said 75 percent of QBs who played in the 50s or 60s were Hall of Famers, now only 25 percent make it. So the talent has thinned out a bit. You were almost always playing against Hall of Fame quarterbacks in those days.

Bob Putman Joe at 4:32pm ET at 1:49pm ET
What is your impressions of "On Any Given Sunday."

Peter Gent at 1:53pm ET
There was no story. The idea that the head coach didn't realize the QB was changing the plays is a little absurd. The coach would know the next play if it was being changed. That's why Staubach quit. Landry wouldn't let him call the plays. Roger and Landry fought as much as Landry and I did. Roger was the perfect QB for Tom. Roger came out of the Naval Academy, drafted the same year I went to Dallas. Roger went to Vietnam, came back four or five years later. He took his orders but hated it. He wanted to call the plays. Meredith demanded it. Meredith was calling the plays in 1965 and '66. He gave in a little later to Landry. You get the best info. from the guys on the field. You have to know from the players what is happening. Only the guys playing can tell you that. I thought there were some great film technique and graphics in "On Any Given Sunday." But it wasn't really about football. It was Oliver Stone making a movie.

Dr. Beeper from at 1:53pm ET
Do you think the crazy stuff that you wrote about still goes on in the NFL?

Peter Gent at 1:55pm ET
Oh yes. I am sure it does. I am sure it's crazier. The stuff we did in the '60s were misdemeanors. Now, it would be on television. I knew people that were pointing guns at each other. Today, a lot of kids come from the ghetto. They don't come socialized in the game. The Cowboys gave psychological tests. The union got those stopped. They have never been socialized and told stuff like you can't bring your nine millimeter into the locker room.

Pajich Joe at 4:32pm ET at 1:56pm ET
Who was the craziest player you played for or against?

Peter Gent at 1:58pm ET
That's tough. Me. I was just crazy. I know that. They all acted like me. They were bigger and tougher. Butkus was crazy. I saw him try to bite Bobby Hayes thru his face mask. Butkus said he wanted to see a helmet rolling across the field with a head in it. I don't know if he was any crazier. He was just bigger. Jake Jacobson, a quarterback in 1964, said he played in a high school league where there were players carrying guns and knives onto the field.

Peter Gent at 2:00pm ET
Thanks everyone. I hope everyone gets to see the movie on Sunday. Keep in mind, it's still the old gladiators. It's bread and circuses, to keep people's minds off the problems of the real world. Pro football shows u where your culture is coming apart. Money is not wealth. Your health is your wealth in football. Aikman is unconscious most of the time and he's been the greatest quarterback in the '80s and '90s. Look at him now, though, he has been destroyed physically. Thanks for having me and thanks to ESPN for showing the movie. I hope everyone enjoys it.

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