The trouble with newspaper reporting is sometimes the very same thing that makes it so effective: immediacy. There is less inclination by athletes, for instance, to tell all following a game, or even during the course of a season. Better to let time and events settle, better to let perceptions clear. Somehow all the details flow better when looking back.
There's a new book on the market and it covers a familiar, if not worn, subject - the BYU quarterback legend. And yet the author, our own Lee Benson, makes it work, with new detail,with fresh and revealing anecdotes and insights. "And They Came to Pass," was released by Deseret Book this month, just in time for the football season.
It chronicles the rise of the BYU football program through the lives of six All-American quarterbacks from 1973 through 1985 - Gary Sheide, Gifford Nielsen, Marc Wilson, Jim McMahon, Steve Young and Robbie Bosco.
"The interesting thing to me was that when you interview these guys on a daily basis (with a newspaper), they hold back," says Benson. "They keep you at a distance, they're more reserved. But when I interviewed them for the book, all of them, except Bosco, who never was a great interview, shifted into another gear. They got off their formal interviewing posture and started flowing with the stories. They enjoyed it."
Thus, we learn that: an assistant football coach tried to get the basketball team to take back Nielsen, a converted basketball player; Wilson once walked into the coach's office and quit; Jim McMahon was banished from practice for cursing the head coach to his face in front of his teammates (but was quickly forgiven); Steve Young wished that Cougar Stadium would blow up before those weekly high-pressure games, but he had to settle for throwing up instead - before every game and again during halftime; a handful of doctors failed to diagnose the real problem with Bosco's arm (it was out of socket) during his anticlimactic senior season, but the quarterback kept playing anyway, albeit ineffectively, and probably ruined his pro career.
Such anecdotes are no accident. Benson, a sports writer with the Deseret News for 15 years, went to great lengths to research the book, which goes well beyond the football field to detail the lives of the quarterbacks. He interviewed, in person, all six quarterbacks, plus their parents and brothers and their friends and coaches from high school and college.
Benson hung out with Bosco's old school chums at Orsi's Deli in Roseville, Calif. He played golf with McMahon's father. He took a ferry to reach Wilson's parents' home near Seattle. He walked the California high school fields where McMahon and Bosco starred, and the neighborhoods in which they grew up. He spent an afternoon in the Young family's home in Greenwich, Conn. He picked the brain of BYU head coach LaVell Edwards during four different interviews. He looked at scrapbooks with every quarterback's parents. He visited the offices of the San Francisco 49ers and Philadelphia Eagles to find former BYU quarterback coaches Mike Holmgren and Doug Scovil.
Benson began the project on March 1, 1987 and finished exactly 11 months later. He's not sure he'd do it again.
Running down the quarterbacks proved to be a difficult task, but each was irresistibly drawn into a discussion of their lives and their BYU days. "Even Wilson got rolling, which would have been a surprise to the press in L.A.," says Benson, who, after being stood up once by Wilson, finally chased him down at his clothing store in Provo and interviewed him for 11/2 hours in the shoe department. Later, Wilson called and said some of his comments were off the record.
"Nobody made it particularly easy," says Benson. "Except Sheide." What was supposed to be a brief interview with Sheide at his home in Washington, D.C., turned into four hours.
En route to cover the Final Four in New Orleans, Benson caught up with Nielsen during a four-hour layover in the Houston airport. Their interview continued all the way to Nielsen's car in the parking lot.
McMahon and Wilson proved to be as elusive off the field as on it. Benson wrote a letter to McMahon, but it went unanswered, and attempts to get his unlisted phone number failed. Finally, Benson played 18 holes of golf with McMahon's father (Jim Sr.) and brother (Mike). Afterward, he bought lunch, then practically begged them for Jim's phone number in the parking lot.
When finally contacted by Benson, McMahon apologized for not answering his letters, then said he wasn't interested; he had said everything he wanted to in his own book. Benson, who had been trying to reach McMahon for four months, changed McMahon's mind and flew to Chicago to meet with him at his home.
"He was late," says Benson. "He was having a root canal."
So Benson visited with McMahon's wife, Nancy, until Jim arrived a half-hour later. Like the others, McMahon warmed to the task. The interview lasted five hours. "Nancy served us lunch while we were talking," says Benson. "At the end, he took me into the den and showed me his memorabilia. I had to rush to catch my plane."
Curiously, the most difficult quarterback to catch was Young, who lives in Deer Valley during the off-season, only a few miles from Benson's home at Jeremy Ranch. It took six months for them to get together. Benson finally sacked Young at his apartment in San Francisco during the football season. He was given two hours; he got four.
All have moved on, of course. McMahon, Wilson and Young are still in the NFL. Bosco, cut by Green Bay last week, moved quickly to coaching, at Idaho State. Nielsen is a TV sportscaster in Houston, where he played for the Oilers for several years. Sheide, whose own shoulder problems (very similar to McMahon's and Bosco's injuries) cut short his pro career, is president of a marina developing company.
"Just because they were All-American, it didn't end there," says Benson. "They're all still driven, all still trying to achieve. They're not the most mellow guys you'll ever meet."
And it is their stories, with help from Benson, that make good reading.