Growing up in the 1980s, many would have listed Michael Jordan or Joe Montana as their ultimate sports icons. Others would have had a lineup including Magic, Bird, or maybe even Gretzky. But for Michael Weinreb, who grew up in central Pennsylvania, the quarterback at Penn State University never departed from the top of his list. It did not matter that this particular Nittany Lions QB, John Shaffer, wowed no one with his athleticism or his on-field persona. He led Penn State to the 1986 national championship and once dislocated his shoulder giving a high-five.
"You could stand in a supermarket checkout aisle next to frickin' Bo Jackson and people would not know who he was."
"Shaffer was such a no-frills guy," Weinreb says now. "He just didn't look like any of the other quarterbacks who were coming up. Shaffer just looked like a regular guy. I had absolutely no talent myself so obviously I was going to look up to that guy."
The Nittany Lions pulled off an upset victory in the Fiesta Bowl over a Miami team best known for its arrogance and poor behavior, on and off the field. It was that game, as well as Penn State's loss to Oklahomawhich was led by a rule-breaking coach, purse-carrying QB, and outlandish star linebackerin the national-title game a year earlier that provided inspiration for Bigger Than the Game: Bo, Boz, the Punky QB, and How the '80s Created the Modern Athlete.In it, Weinreb writes how athletes much different than Shaffer rose to prominence in the 1980s: Players turned into phenomena, fueled by a combination of pure skill and the explosion of sports advertising and media. Gelf Magazine spoke to Weinreb about Bo Jackson's quiet retirement, today's closest equivalents, and an "authentic punk." The following interview has been edited for length and clarity. Gelf Magazine: The Penn State-Miami game was the highest-rated college-football game ever, a matchup between a plain Penn State team and the outlandish Miami team. Do the players get why it was so big?
Michael Weinreb: A lot of those Penn State guys I talked to don't understand what Miami was doing or even what Oklahoma was doingit's almost incomprehensible to them. That sort of new paradigm that was coming up around them, even now it kind of boggles their mind that all sorts of stuff was kind of happening around them. You had everything happening at oncecocaine was a cultural force at that point, impacting sports, and you had the dual monsters of ESPN and Nike popping up all at once. And so the culture of excess Reagan createdthat culture of every man for himselfthat really carried over into sports.Gelf Magazine: You focus on three starsBo Jackson, Brian Bosworth, and Jim McMahonand their impact on the 1980s sports scene. Which one is your favorite?
Michael Weinreb: How could Bo not be your favorite? You grow up playing Tecmo Bo, seeing all those highlights of him, plus he was the biggest athlete in the world for a few years and nothing extensive has been written about him. The book was a way to tell that story.
Gelf Magazine: What surprised you when you visited Bo at his home?
Michael Weinreb: That he could live such a quiet life, that he could go to the supermarket and maybe one or two people would recognize him. You could stand in a supermarket checkout aisle next to frickin' Bo Jackson and people would not know who he was. It was just kind of amazing to me that he could live that life and half the people in his town don't even know he lives there. This guy was the biggest athlete in the world and now he's just kind of invisible.
Gelf Magazine: There's a bunch of similarities between the trio. One is, they all made a ton of money and we're still talking about them today. Would you say they're pretty smart guys?
Michael Weinreb: Yeah, definitely. They were all very self-aware, in different ways, of what they were constructing. Boz was an Academic All-American, so you know he knew was he was doing. Bo, especially, was very cognizant of his image, while McMahon didn't give a shit about anything, but he was smart enough to grab what he could, while he could.
Gelf Magazine: You write that McMahon was an "authentic punk" and a guy who never wanted to work after football was over.
Michael Weinreb: He was. He was just kind of a jerk and he wasn't being fake about it. The media really hated him but he was being real and he was being himself; nobody really knew how to get a handle on him and that was something new in itself. He just wanted to make a shitload of money and do his own thing, and now he does it. He goes to celebrity golf tournaments and he drinks a lot of beer and he's on the road 200+ days a year playing golf, and that's what he wanted to do, basically. It really was like he had that moment with that one team and then he managed to hang around the NFL for all those years as a backup, barely playing, and got another Super Bowl ring. He just had this one huge moment, and then nothing.
Gelf Magazine: McMahon seemed to have peaked during his college years, as did Bo and Boz.
Michael Weinreb: I guess you could say McMahon peaked with that '85 Bears team. They all did have these prolific college careers; they had moments in the NFL, except for Boz; and then they just kind of faded away. It was like a lot of guys in the '80s, where they grabbed what they could and then just sort of faded from view. It is kind of interesting how all these guys have sort ofI don't want to say they've vanished, but they've all settled into their own very quiet existences in their own ways.
Gelf Magazine: We get Bo, Boz, and McMahon in the ring. Who wins in the Battle of the Egos?
Michael Weinreb: I think Boz would be the winner. He was a pure construction of ego. Just in terms of percentage of ego, he would be the winner.
Michael Weinreb: Yeah, you can almost see it unfolding where those are four guys who could be the main people there. Maybe it's the internet or something; maybe it's just the cultural moment that we're in. It does seem like we're hitting it at the next level now. It's like we stepped it up one level in the '80s with TV and ESPN and all that other stuff, and now maybe we're stepping it up to the next level with all this weird and mind-boggling stuff happening all at once again.
Gelf Magazine: There are 31 pages of notes in the back of the book listing all the sources you used. How much space does all that stuff take up in your home?
Michael Weinreb: I still have a huge box sitting under my desk. I have every Sports Illustrated from 1985 and 1986 sitting in some folders down here. I ordered them on eBay before the SI Vault existedI'm kind of glad I did it, because it's more fun to page through them than it is to look in the SI Vault for various things. You know, it's kinda fun to look at the Winston ads from that era or the Camel ads back when cigarette ads could exist. I have all that and then I have at least 10 to 12 notebooks, probably more, and then entire shelves of books about that era. If you see 50 books about the 1980s go up on eBay in the next few weeks, you'll know that's probably me.