Q&A: Steelers Beat Writer Jim Wexell

Jim Wexell, author of the new book Steelers Nation, was kind enough to do a Q&A with FanHouse about the new book. He'll also do a Q&A about the Steelers in general in the near future.

Q: So Jim, you drove across the country to find Steelers fans and Steelers families. How did you come up with the idea and how did it change as you started gathering information for the book?
A: First of all, J.J., I want to thank you for your time and space on this. As we drift away from the clunky, old-school publishing houses, writers must depend on the kindness of strangers to promote their product, so thank you. I also worry that it's getting in the way of your outstanding coverage here, so I want to thank your readers as well.

As for your question, I came up with the idea while reading the book "Neil Young Nation" about three 20-somethings who took off in a car and followed the route Neil took to rock stardom. Me being an old road-trip kind of guy, I took to it. I loved their squabbles and bone-headed decisions and whatnot. I wanted to do the same thing, but am married and don't drink and really didn't want to drive around with two stinking friends smoking dope in the back seat as we're crossing the Canadian border. That's fun stuff to read in a rock road trip book, but that's not my life anymore, and this is football anyway. But because I wouldn't have those sideshows to lean on, I felt I needed to burrow further into information that football fans really want.

After that book got me thinking about a road trip through "Steeler Nation", I read the book "Brave Companions" by David McCullough. He wrote "John Adams" and "1776" and "Truman" to name a few. He is the absolute greatest living historian, and in "Brave Companions" he wrote an essay on how he does his job, and he explained that -- and I'm paraphrasing -- he doesn't feel comfortable writing about a topic until he's walked in the terrain. Now, I don't know if that gave me the intellectual excuse to proceed with this road trip, but it gave me comfort in that if the book doesn't sell, I have gained more knowledge of the people I cover and that can only enrich my work. Did it change as the trip ambled on? Well, I thought I'd talk to more fans, but so many of the fans say the same thing, and then it almost became a question of Who's the most bizzarre? Who's the greatest fan? Who understands the real essence of Steelers football? That's why I shuddered when the huge gathering in Phoenix began chanting. I'm just not impressed with massive displays like that. I was more impressed by the intensity of a Thomas Tull. He's the guy who made "The Dark Knight" and he's a big Steelers fans, but he has to watch the game alone and if they lose he doesn't talk to anyone for the next day or two. That's what I'm talking about when I say the greatest fans don't have to be the loudest or the craziest. Tull spoke for the quiet, intense majority out there.

Q: One thing that jumped out is how the players seemed to be interested in the idea. They get interviewed all the time, but it seemed like when you brought up the idea of interviewing their friends and family, they generally were excited to give you phone numbers to set things up. Was there anyone who surprised you by helping out or not helping out?

A: Yes, the first person I asked surprised me by saying yes. I approached James Harrison on the sideline at training camp while he was injured and asked him if I could visit his parents' home in Akron during the Hall of Fame Game weekend. Right away he said yes, and that surprised me. Later, when a couple of guys were hesitant, I invoked James' name and they thought, 'Oh, well, then it's OK.' Some guys got wind of it and asked if I'd visit their homes. As you read in the book, Santonio Holmes kind of goaded me into visiting Belle Glade, Florida, but that wasn't in our travel plans because we had to get to certain spots by the next game day. Really, the guy who was most surprised was my partner Jan, the RV driver. He couldn't get over how readily the players welcomed me into their inner circles, but having covered these guys for so long I wasn't surprised at all. Jan says it reflects on me, but I think it reflects on the caliber of people in that locker room.

Q: In the book you mention that the original version of the book was nearly twice as long. Which players' stories were left on the cutting room floor, and what was the best story that just missed the cut?
A: Well, I don't know if there's necessarily a "best story." It'd be hard to cut one of those. I had to trim the Lloyd interview, and perhaps too much, because the mathematics between myself and the graphic designer were askew. I self-published this, and in the self-publishing industry's bible, by the great Dan Poynter, he gave me margin parameters to set on my Word document. Since everything else Poynter said was right on, I went with those numbers, and I cut, and cut to fit absolutely square for a 256-page press run (they run in sets of 16). I had 16 pages of photos, 230 pages off text, the map, the dedication, the table of contents, copyright page, etc., and it all fit perfectly. But my graphic designer used different margin numbers and as you can see the margins are very small and as a result there are several blank pages throughout. It's nothing the average reader would notice, but I took a lot of time to cut this to fit, and cut a lot of good reading to do so. I had to put the Sean Mahan and Carey Davis sections back in. Some of the stuff I couldn't put back in: Bruce Arians' QB days at Va. Tech and how he lost out on the job at Va. Tech to Frank Beamer; Marvel Smith's "big brother" in Oakland; a story about serpent handling in southern West Virginia which led me into a story about Jack Lambert and rattlesnakes with SWVa native Tom Beasley; not finding any tributes to Willie Parker at the UNC Hall of Fame; Casey Hampton's story about lifting weights with GW Bush at Texas and then Bush greeting him at the White House; and the story behind Anthony Smith's interception return at Carolina a few years ago. But a lot of what was cut was self-absorbed drivel that my editors couldn't stand. Much to my chagrin.

Q: Greg Lloyd comes across in the book as just as intense and focused (and intimidating) now as he was at outside linebacker. So who is more intimidating to interview: Lloyd or James Harrison?
A: Oh, Lloyd. I've become used to Harrison. I was already established here when he came along. Lloyd I knew to be cantankerous with reporters, so I was naturally apprehensive. When I started covering the team, he had already stopped talking to the media, so I never had to deal with him. But down in Atlanta I was impressed with his intelligence. When I told other reporters that, they said, 'Oh, yes, he was the best interview on the team at one time.' One reporter told me -- and this is something I cut from the book -- that Harrison IS Lloyd, that both say what needs to be said, regardless of friendships they may lose as a result. As you read in the book, Lloyd didn't just say what needed to be said, he did what needed to be done on the practice field.

Q: How did interviewing the families of the current players change your perceptions of them?
A: My perceptions changed big time, and at times it wasn't for the best. Take Sean Mahan for instance. I visited his coach, friend, aunt and uncle in Tulsa. They told me of his parents dying while he was in school, and how he sucked it up and never missed a practice, and how smart and reliable he is, and how much he loves being in Pittsburgh, that he's finally found peace. Well, when the NYJ nose tackle gets 3.5 sacks against the Steelers, and there was all kinds of muttering in the press box about Mahan, and knew that Dewayne Robertson had been moved up and down the line and beat three different players for those sacks, so I probably stuck up for Mahan too much. It was a reaction from having walked in his shoes. I felt the same way about Anthony Smith after visiting his great uncle, a real classy guy. The story about Anthony being picked up out of the streets of Youngstown and moved to the country really struck a chord with me. When he was called a thug, I already knew the entire background, so in that regard it helped my coverage. I think for the most part it's enhanced my coverage. I've become closer to guys like Aaron Smith and Brett Keisel and Troy Polamalu because of my visits to their hometowns. The Polamalu chapter's one of my favorites. I know it runs too long, but I opted to err on the side of too many Troy stories. There was so much talk flying across the interviewing room that his aunt asked to read the copy before it was published. I obliged and she wrote back that it was the best thing anyone's ever written about Troy. Now, he's agreed to help promote the book by attending a book signing. What a classy guy, and there are several others like him.

Q: This was your third book. Does it get easier to write your second and third books? And is there a fourth Steelers book in your future?
A: This was the first in which I won't be cheated out of -- heck, forget profits, just my advance. I still haven't been paid the full advance for "Men of Steel" by Sports Publishing. So I wanted to find another publishing house, but the window opened briefly for this trip and I took it without any backing. I figured the idea and the team and the writing would sell itself, but the publishing houses wanted more and more proof that it would sell. I'm so convinced about the profitability that I said heck with them (their Fall of 09 release date didn't help, either) and opted to do this myself. It's a lot more work, but the payoff will be greater. As for a fourth book, I can see it coming, since I learned from this experience, and also had to buy some of the tools necessary to get it done. Now, the next one should be a lot easier.

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