Peter Gent, a backup wide receiver for the Dallas Cowboys who went on to write novels about professional football, has died in Bangor, Michigan, of pulmonary disease. He was 69.
After a five-year career in Dallas, during which he caught 68 passes for 989 yards and four touchdowns, Gent retired to write North Dallas Forty, a 1973 exposé in fiction. Life in the NFL had left Gent deeply divided. “In one sense, you’re a folk hero,” he said. “But you’re really someone else’s property: your life subject to change by a single phone call.”
North Dallas Forty was about eight days in the declining football career of Phil Elliott, a receiver for the North Dallas Bulls. Before he is suspended by the NFL commissioner for drug use, Elliott is benched in favor of a young hotshot, although he knows he is the better pass-catcher. From that vantage point, Elliott serves up reflections about his teammates and their fans:
Looking up into the stands at the mass of gray dots that were faces, perched atop flashes of colors that expressed their egos, I suddenly realized how peculiar we [players] must look. I thought of Al Capp paying six dollars a head to watch and scream while trained mice scurried around in panic.
The novel was widely read as a roman à clef rather than an exposé — the fast-living quarterback was obviously modeled on the Cowboys’ Don Meredith, the robotic coach on Tom Landry — and though it was later filmed with Nick Nolte playing Gent’s role, North Dallas Forty was a victim of its own timeliness. It ceased being a scandal when Meredith and Landry ceased being gossiped about. Its social commentary wasn’t original or particularly sharp even when its football was still news.
In 1984, in one of my first published reviews, I briefly summarized Gent’s third novel The Franchise in the New York Times Book Review:
Peter Gent, who used to catch passes for the Dallas Cowboys, now writes novels full of rage and bitterness at pro football. “I don’t want revenge, I want the truth known,” one of his characters says. That could serve as Mr. Gent’s motto. The Franchise, his third novel, is a long and thickly woven work — his most ambitious to date. Its title refers to both an expansion football team named the Texas Pistols and to Taylor Rusk, the quarterback who within three seasons turns his team into a Super Bowl contender. The story is focused primarily on the behind-the-scenes struggle to control the new Texas franchise and the league. Characters barter and cheat and sell each other out, engage in “creative financing” and obtain stolen game plans, but there is remarkably little depiction of action on the field. In fact, the central puzzle about The Franchise is the question, for whom is it intended? Football fans will be disappointed by the lack of football and dismayed by Mr. Gent’s relentlessness in tracing the corruption of a sport that finances itself upon “the working stiffs,” that is, the players and fans. Those who love literature will wince as the book alternately reads like a screed, then like an attempt to resurrect the proletarian novel. But the authority and command with which Mr. Gent writes are nonetheless impressive. Unfortunately, in The Franchise he has not submitted that talent to the strictures of plot and selectivity that might have made this a more satisfying novel.
Gent’s best book is probably his touching memoir The Last Magic Summer: A Season with My Son (1996). Although he was in position to do so, he never wrote the definitive football novel, which, indeed, remains to be written. Rest in peace.