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Ray Duckler: Mike Lupica writes from the heart, shoots from the lip

Mike Lupica.

Mike Lupica.

Mike Lupica tells those he writes about that his newspaper columns, sometimes provocative, often critical, always lively, are not meant to be personal.

Part of the job, as Lupica sees it.

But his books?

Those, Lupica says, are personal, indeed.

The New York Daily News columnist, pervasive through all forms of sports media, will sign his latest novel, QB 1, tomorrow night starting at 6 at Gibson’s Bookstore in Concord.

He drew from the sports world he’s been writing about for years, and combined his own experiences as a father and coach to complete his latest literary project.

It’s a poignant, sometimes disturbing look at the importance placed on school sports, and how that affects a freshman quarterback named Jake Cullen, brother of Wyatt and son of Troy, both already local legends.

Lupica, raised in Nashua and a graduate of Bishop Guertin High, is mixing pleasure with business by promoting his book here this week and visiting his parents,

who still reside in Nashua.

Anticipating a big crowd for a writer with many commitments, Gibson’s has announced that it may limit the number of books Lupica will sign per person to give everyone a chance to meet him.

Best known nationally as a regular on ESPN’s The Sports Reporters on Sunday mornings, Lupica’s work also includes sports talk radio and political commentary.

He’s been confronted by professional athletes in locker rooms for his critical columns, befriended sports legends such as the late tennis star and pioneer Arthur Ashe and co-written autobiographies with Reggie Jackson and Bill Parcells.

His new novel, like several others he’s written, is targeted to a younger audience.

It blends elements from the Manning family of quarterbacks – Archie, Peyton and Eli – and the pressure that goes with maintaining a bigger-than-life name; the football-crazy culture that high school players in Texas face, a la the nonfiction book Friday Night Lights; and his own experience as a father, raising and coaching and loving his four children.

A sample of his book, released to the media shortly before it hit stores, describes Jake watching the video of his big brother after Wyatt, smiling and riding high on his teammates’ shoulders, had led his team to the state championship:

Jake pointed the remote at the big screen, sat there in the quiet den, waiting for his buddies to come pick him up and head over to Mickey’s Bar-B-Q tonight, wondering all over again what the view was really like up there for Wyatt. What it was like to actually be Wyatt Cullen, even though he’d grown up in the same house with him, looked up to him his whole life.

Lupica crammed an interview with me into his tight schedule, speaking about his new book and sports in general.

Here’s what he said.

Can you summarize the plot of “QB 1”?

It’s about fathers and children and about trying to get out of his father’s and brother’s shadow. Jake was not supposed to do what his brother had done the year before. He’s third string and 14, a freshman, and the thing that happens is he’s thrust into a quarterback controversy, and he finds out there’s more inside him, more football inside him than anyone knew, including himself.

What was the inspiration?

I’m always pulling things I’ve seen in life, pulling things out of things I’ve seen as a parent, as a dad who’s coached all his children in all sports.

How does this book rank with the others you’ve written for school-aged readers?

This is my favorite story because it speaks to things I have not written about. You can’t call this a sibling rivalry, because they love each other. Jake starts to love Wyatt even more when he finds out (Wyatt) is not a sports god and he has human frailties.

How personal or emotional does a book like this become?

These kids become my kid. I’m sad when it’s over, because I spent six months with these kids, and I’ve been watching them get knocked down and get back up.

Do you find your novels sticking to a central theme?

From book to book, they’re about loyalty and friendship and teamwork. There’s nothing more important than being a good friend and making rock-solid relationships and being able to count on a friend.

Turning to sports and your newspaper career, do you worry about writing something negative about someone, then seeing that player in the locker room the next day?

That’s all just part of it. When I write tough things, I always say it’s a fair fight. I’m not writing about a bat boy. It’s the governor of New Jersey, it’s the owner of a team. But mostly I’m celebrating great moments in sports, it’s just that sometimes I have to write about jerks.

Any memorable confrontations you’d like to share?

Ed Whitson, a pitcher for the Yankees, got upset because I wrote that his teammates thought he was afraid of pitching at Yankee Stadium. He started yelling at me and I said we need to take this into the hallway. And then (Don) Mattingly keeps peeking out of the clubhouse door to make sure I’m alive. It was hard to keep a straight face with Mattingly peeking his head out into the hallway.

Your favorite athlete to interview?

I loved talking to my friend Arthur Ashe. Shortly before he died, he told me growing up black was tougher than living with AIDS. I loved Arthur Ashe. I wish he had lived long enough to see Obama.

Do you know the story behind George Costanza mentioning you as his favorite writer in an episode of “Seinfeld”?

I did not watch that one on the Thursday night, and the whole world is calling me the next morning. . . . A week later a copy shows up from (Seinfeld creator) Larry David and a note that says, “I didn’t know if you knew that I’m a New Yorker, and that was for all the great columns you’ve written.” I was thunderstruck.

Did you like it?

I laughed my ass off.

(Ray Duckler can be reached at 369-3304 or
rduckler@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @rayduckler.)

Lupica writes fiction even in his newspaper columns. Only, its not funny.

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