I sat down Sunday night to write a commentary on the Lions big comeback against Dallas, but got sidetracked by a short headline on the America Online news site.
“Former NFL Player, Author Dies.”
My heart sank. There was only one former player that I would consider a bona fide author; a guy who chronicled the National Football League of the 1960s and early ‘70s in a beautifully written, and reported, novel … a book that sent shivers through the executive offices of the league.
And sure enough, a quick click and there he was, and there it was: Peter Gent, of Bangor, Michigan, writer of “North Dallas Forty,” died Friday at his boyhood home. He was 69.
Pete Gent was a unique and hybrid athlete. Star of Michigan State’s basketball teams of the early ‘60s and captain of the squad in his 1963 senior year, he was drafted by the NBA after averaging 21 points a game that final season. Though he had never played a down of college football, he bypassed basketball and instead decided to try out for the NFL Dallas Cowboys in the summer of 1964. His reason for the sports switch? “He had heard you’d get $500 just for showing up,” his son Carter said.
Gent caught on with the Cowboys, and spent five productive seasons as a 6’ 4”, 209 pound wide receiver for the team just as Dallas — under the leadership of coach Tom Landry and quarterback Don Meredith — rose to challenge the Green Bay Packers of Vince Lombardi for supremacy in the NFL. It was an era that saw the Cowboys begin their elevation to the level of “America’s Team,” a time when they lost two excruciating last-minute NFL championship games to the Packers in 1966 and 1967.
Pete loved the game and the challenges of his position — he literally dreamt of touchdown passes — and he reveled in the friendships and personalities he encountered in his time in Dallas, especially his complex relationship with buddy Meredith, with whom he shared an interest in the reckless lifestyle afforded by membership in the NFL of their time. But disillusioned by the “business” approach to football that he saw in the Cowboys’ management and ownership — ‘Every time we call it a sport, you tell us it’s a business; when we try to treat it as a business, you tell us it’s a sport,’ one of his players memorably complains in “North Dallas Forty” — and his body shattered by injuries that would plague him the for rest of his life, Gent retired from football in 1969.
As his semi-autobiographical lead character Phil Elliot of “Forty” would lament, “I’ve left pieces of myself on fields all across this country.”
So Pete Gent, wide receiver, became Peter Gent, author and Hollywood script writer … and the success of “North Dallas Forty” as both a novel, and later a so-so movie, made him a celebrity in social circles and an anathema in management and coaching circles around the league. Gent was the guy who gave away the dirty secrets, and the hidden lifestyles, of professional football, and he was never forgiven by many of the NFL bigshots — and some bigtime players — he skewered in his book. The drugs (used on and off the field), the camaraderie, humor, hypocrisy, wild sex, violence and injuries, and crazed personal behavior found in professional football were presented to a naïve NFL fan base by Gent’s superbly written novel. (A warning — “North Dallas Forty” is not a book for kids or wide-eyed sports fans; it is a graphic and sometimes disturbing work.)
I met Peter Gent in 1974 when he visited WXYZ-TV in Southfield while promoting the paperback version of his book. He and I hit it off, and I later spent a good deal of time interviewing him for a weekend magazine feature for which I was given the go-ahead by the Chicago Tribune. I subsequently spoke with him on the phone during the weeks the piece was being prepared, and he was an unfailingly considerate, humorous, and usually brilliant interview subject. I couldn’t help but like him, and well beyond the usual borders of an author and subject relationship. We shared an interest in the country music of the time, in particular the work of Jerry Jeff Walker and folk-country singer John Stewart.
He told me he had been scheduled to appear on “The Tonight Show” with Johnny Carson on the west coast leg of his promotional tour. I watched the broadcast, thought he was terrific on the show, and told him so. Years later, when I was working in Los Angeles and came into the circle of legendary “Tonight” producer Fred DeCordova, I asked him how he had taken to Peter. “That son of a bitch will never appear on our show again,” Freddy told me. “He came out here (the “Tonight Show” set) in tennis shoes, jeans, a t-shirt, and a blue jean jacket. Johnny was furious about it, as was I.”
It was obvious that Peter had about as much respect for the gods of show business as he did the deities of the NFL.
Gent never repeated the literary success he achieved with “Forty,” but he became the author of a series of well-received books over the years. The best was a personal family memoir, “The Last Magic Summer: A Season With My Son.” The book detailed the year that Peter coached his son Carter’s baseball team near Bangor, and recorded the rise of an amazing young shortstop on a rival team whom both Gents greatly admired — Derek Jeter.
Peter Gent was a pioneer in exploring the phenomenon of professional football’s rise to prominence as our new national game. He understood, and examined, the conflicting elements of football as both show business and a game like no other writer, or athlete, in the land. He loved the challenges of football, and was in awe of its beauty. He also deplored its savage ways, its money-mad bosses, and its proclivity for attracting, and often destroying, the young athletes who danced across the NFL’s green fields.
Sadly — for me — I lost touch with Peter after our Detroit encounter and subsequent talks. The magazine piece I wrote on him was canceled when a new editor replaced the one that authorized it. But Gent liked it enough to contact Sport Magazine with a thoughtful personal recommendation on my behalf, and he put me in touch with famed writer Dick Schaap when I later moved to New York in 1975.
And he sent me a very touching letter of appreciation after reading my magazine submittal. I was crestfallen that it wouldn’t be published, but he rejected my apology for my perceived failure. “Dear Tom,” he wrote, “reading your piece gave me hope that I have made sense to someone, somewhere, at some point in my life.”
The good ones seem to be leaving at a frightening pace these days. R.I.P Peter Gent — a super guy, a good father, a terrific writer, and a fine wide receiver. An athlete-turned-author who made sense to millions.