This is a book I almost never had the chance to write. It also required me to wrestle with my own demons when I finally did.
From the time I first conceived of what became The Genius, I knew the writing I had in mind would be impossible without extensive access to Bill Walsh. Indeed, such a relationship was the premise of the proposal I would eventually make to editors Bob Loomis and Mark Tavani at Random House. As a lifetime Forty Niner fan, I knew much of the team’s story already but that story would only work for a book if it was melded with Bill’s personal journey as well. His human sensitivities and iconoclastic personality woven through all his football brilliance were what would make the book into literature rather than just sports reporting.
Fortunately, my old and dear friend, Michael Murphy (the founder of Esalen Institute), had traveled with Bill in the Soviet Union right after his resignation from the Niners and the two had remained friends ever since. Michael and I have watched Forty Niner games together for years and he quickly agreed to introduce me to Bill. Michael and I went down to Walsh’s Stanford office in April, 2006. Bill was enthusiastic about my project and we followed that introductory meeting with another—this time one on one—at which I conducted several hours of preliminary interviews. I told Bill I would need to find a publisher before I proceeded any further—a process I expected would take a few months—and that I would be back in touch in the fall to proceed with the twenty hours of interviews he promised me.
Come late September, however, I started leaving Bill messages which weren’t returned and after a few weeks, I began to experience panic that something had gone wrong and that Walsh was going back on our understanding. I left messages at his office and on his cell phone and nothing happened. I sent them through others to the same result. Finally I learned through a former player who’d been to see Bill that since our spring conversations, Bill had been diagnosed with a form of leukemia and was in critical condition at Stanford University Hospital. At that moment, this book looked like it might well be still born. Bill’s players had been flying in from all over to pay their last respects and everyone connected had been sworn to secrecy, so no mention of his plight had yet reached the media.
After several more weeks of waiting, I learned that Bill had survived this first brush with death and begun to recover. By December, he was strong enough that we were able to start our interviews. Those— conducted over the next seven months in his home, office, and hospital room until his health began its final deterioration—formed the core around which this book was written.
The interview that sticks in my mind was the final one, conducted in June, 2007 in a cancer ward at Stanford University Hospital some two months before his death. It was the first time I had been in a cancer care facility since I accompanied my wife, Lacey Fosburgh, during her more than two years in and out of hospitals prior to her death from breast cancer in 1993. Much of Lacey’s treatment had been in the extreme end of cancer therapies, demanding and painful, and I watched her go through it all, helpless to do anything but hold her hand. Shortly after she passed following three weeks on a breathing machine in an intensive care unit, I had been overtaken by Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, paralyzing me with anxiety and depression for much of the next year.
Fourteen years later, this return to a traumatic setting gave me twinges as soon as I left my car with the complimentary valet parking at the entrance to the hospital’s new cancer wing. I found Bill in an outpatient exam room down several gleaming corridors. I couldn’t help but flash to the miles of such hallways I’d seen before. Walsh and I had a pleasant time, dotted with his wry, self deprecating humor, as we sorted through some details on which I needed clarification, mostly about his childhood. A nurse was administering intravenous medication, coming in and out every ten minutes to check on Bill’s IV. He would be there some four hours before he was done. The Genius looked worn around the eyes and the light behind them had faded, but he was still tan and handsome and smart and personable. He was reclining on an examination table and I was perched on a stool. He held my tape recorder in his hand to make sure I got it all. We both now knew this would likely be the last time we would speak and that the book I was working on would reach print after he was dead.
Within two days of this last face to face encounter, my own PTSD recurred and it would be several weeks before I could stabilize myself.