Books

8 takeaways from ‘It’s Better to be Feared’ discussion with author Seth Wickersham

"They went back and they reevaluated their belief systems and those belief systems worked better than maybe any in NFL history."

Can you imagine getting a behind-the-scenes look at the Patriots’ rise to fame? That’s exactly what Seth Wickersham experienced, cutting his teeth as a sportswriter for ESPN while Tom Brady was fine-tuning his game on the field. 

Last week, the Book Club hosted a virtual discussion with Wickersham on his new book, “It’s Better to Be Feared,” which follows the team on their journey to greatness. Moderated by Paul Swydan, owner of Acton’s The Silver Unicorn Bookstore, our conversation covered switching gears from journalism to book writing, his strategy for authentically covering the Patriots dynasty, the thing Brady and Belichick have most in common, and more.

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Ahead, we share our top takeaways from the event, and you can also watch the full recording here.

Wickersham “wrote to the moments he found interesting.” 

With his career as an ESPN sportswriter one can imagine Wickersham has many insider stories at his disposal. For this book, however, he mainly kept his focus on the details he himself found most interesting, not what would make a salacious read. 

The writer is fascinated with Bill Belichick’s ability to get into the heads of opposing quarterbacks and head coaches.

“I really wanted to write to those moments—obviously Mike Marks in the Super Bowl, Payton Manning during the early part of the dynasty, Mike Shanahan on that famous Monday night game in 2003 where Belichick took the intentional safety and they ended up winning the game,” said the author. “I think I looked for those moments that I found interesting and were a little overlooked.” 

The middle section of the book, “The Highest Plateau,” was the most fun to explore, which details the 2014 season where Brady and Belichick were on the cusp of true greatness

“Tom Brady and Bill Belichick were in this cultural and professional thin air and yet, they were coming up just short and they really did something that I think is pretty brave,” said the author. “They went back and they reevaluated their belief systems and those belief systems worked better than maybe any in NFL history, but that’s kind of where you saw Tom Brady invent his own method…he’s trying to find ways to make himself two inches more accurate in the fourth quarter of the Super Bowl and then you have Bill Belichick especially in that 2014 season that he might find after almost 10 years they might need something in a game to get them going.”

Going from penning articles as a sports journalist to composing a book is something Wickersham felt was one of the best things he could do as a writer. 

“I think that as a writer I think one of the best things you can do is switch gears,” said Wickersham. “It keeps your mind kind of fresh and if I would get stuck writing the book, I could turn to my investigative work at ESPN.” 

Wickersham thinks Tom Brady and Bill Belichick have one important quality in common.

Though people often focus on the difference between these two men, Wickersham finds they both have an incredible ability to focus on what lies ahead, and even being optimistic about it. “It’s a very rare trait and they come at it from different angles,” he said. “Brady’s more earnest, Belichick is a little more downward—he has to figure out all the different ways the team can lose before he can figure out how they can win.”

The writer interviewed more than 100 people for the book.

Wickersham also drew on a lot of work and interviews he conducted over the years that never made it into ESPN magazine in addition to the more than 100 people he interviewed exclusively for the book. And though they make frequent appearances throughout “It’s Better to Be Feared,” Tom Brady, Bill Belichick, and Robert Kraft were not interviewed specifically for the book.

Interviewing Bill Belichick, notorious for being a man of few words, was a process—and it wasn’t without awkward moments.

The journalist would always spend a great deal of time preparing—he wanted to make the coach really think through his questions during each and every conversation he conducted. Though it didn’t always go as planned. “The first time I interviewed him in 2001 about Tom Brady…I asked him a wrong question about [Drew] Bledsoe’s injury and return and after that, he was like a computer that just sort of froze,” said Wickersham. 

The author wanted to portray the Patriots dynasty in the most authentic way possible in the book 

Wickersham preferred to draw on natural, previous conversations that happened in real time versus interviews specifically for the book. It felt strange to “jam 20 years worth of experiences” in a one-hour interview and he felt he knew enough about them to report from both people inside the building and outside to have a book worth writing. 

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Buy “It’s Better to Be Feared” from: Bookshop | The Silver Unicorn Bookstore 


Join our next virtual Book Club discussion

Join Tim Ehrenberg from Mitchell’s Book Corner and author Nathaniel Philbrick for a virtual discussion on “Travels With George: In Search of Washington and His Legacy” on Tuesday, Nov. 23 at 6 p.m. 

Buy “Travels With George” from: Bookshop | Mitchell’s Book Corner

GIVEAWAY 🎉 
Publisher Viking is raffling off 10 free copies of “Travels with George” to Boston.com readers. RSVP to the event and submit a discussion question for your chance to win! (Open to U.S. or Canada residents only.)
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