An excerpt from Pete Gent's soon-to-be-published second novel, Texas Celebrity Turkey Trot, starts on page 68. In writing it, the former Dallas Cowboy wide receiver drew at least a little on the aftershocks of his own injury-plagued five-year NFL career, which ended in 1969 when he was traded to the New York Giants and subsequently cut before the season began. "I tried to be a disc jockey in Dallas, but that didn't work out," he says. "Then I auditioned to be a sportscaster, but I could never read the copy quite right when the cameras were on me."
In his playing days, however, Gent had a reputation for having a quick mouth, if slow feet. One day, while watching a Dallas rookie pore over Coach Tom Landry's voluminous play-book, Gent said, "Don't bother reading it, kid, everybody gets killed in the end." And he shrugged off his lack of speed by claiming, "The networks love me because they never have to use their stop-action camera when I catch a pass."
Gent played basketball, not football, at Michigan State and was signed by Dallas as a free-agent defensive back. "In my first training camp in 1964 the Cowboys tried me at defensive back," he recalls. "But soon it became obvious that even though I was 6'4" and 210 pounds, I lacked the physical skills to play defense. So they switched me to split end."
Gent started for Dallas in 1966, catching 27 passes—most of them thrown by his old buddy Don Meredith—for an average gain of 17.6 yards. Unfortunately, he was frequently injured. "I had endless trouble with my right leg," he says. "I broke the leg, broke the ankle and three times had surgery on my knee.
"The year I was traded to the Giants was the year they lost all five of their exhibition games," Gent says. "After the third loss I asked Allie Sherman, the coach and general manager, where I stood in his plans. He told me, 'Pete, you've got it made.' The next week we lost another exhibition. After a team meeting the following Monday, he cut me. The funny thing is, a few days later the Giants cut Sherman."
It was at that point that Gent returned to Dallas and tried his jump into "celebrityhood," only to crash-land. "Being out of football was shocking," Gent concedes, "and it took me a while to learn how to handle it." He turned to writing and in 1973 his first novel, North Dallas Forty, was published. The book deals with life in Texas and in the NFL, and critics called it "sensitive" and "powerful." It made the bestseller lists, with hard-cover sales of 54,000. "I made more money from that book than I ever made from football," Gent says. "In my five seasons in the NFL I earned quite a bit less than $100,000 total. My first year with the Cowboys I made $11,000. The next year I got a raise to $12,000 plus a $1,000 bonus."
As our excerpt from his new novel demonstrates, Gent has a gift for evoking mood and tension. At home in Wimberly, a Texas hamlet of 500 souls not far from Austin, he has begun work on a third novel. "This one won't have anything to do with football," he says. "It's going to be the standard old detective story."
GENT: WRITING SOFTENED THE SHOCK