You may know Tom McAllister as a novelist, essayist, or literary-podcasting superstar. Before all that, though? He was just a kid growing up in Philadelphia, listening to heavy metal and obsessing over local sports teams. These days he teaches at Temple University and lives across the bridge in New Jersey. I had the privilege of speaking with him over Twitter DMs about football, Pantera, and the glory of Allen Iverson leading the 76ers to a lone victory in the 2001 NBA Finals. We started the conversation shortly after the Eagles lost in the Wild Card round of the NFL playoffs, and finished a few days later.
Hey man, at least the Eagles didn't give up! A couple of plays could have swung the game in a different direction. It is, though, almost 19 years, to the day, since the Eagles lost to the Buccaneers in the NFC title game. That one was the last game at the Vet (Veterans Stadium, RIP). What's your instant reaction to this game, and how does it differ from the much-younger Tom back in '03?
The original Bucs loss was/remains the worst moment of my sports fan life. The Eagles were favored, everything was pointing their way, they were about to get over the hump, all of it. The Ronde Barber INT...my god, I've never felt worse. I couldn't even bear to watch a replay for years.
The Eagles were deservedly underdogs today. It makes sense for them to lose, but I had hoped they would make the Bucs sweat a little. Knock Brady around, keep it within a score till late, but it was all a bonus in what was meant to be a rebuilding year. Either way, 20 years ago me would have been devastated for a full week. I am relieved to report that I can watch the Eagles lose a playoff game now and not have it ruin the rest of my day.
Given what happened with the Eagles today, how satisfying would a Cowboys loss be?
A Cowboys loss is always satisfying, regardless of context. Anything to see Jerry Jones and Chris Christie scowling up in the box.
Editor's Note: The Cowboys did, in fact, lose later that day.
Moving on for a moment, there is one thing I've always wanted to know. You're from Philly, but you've been living in New Jersey for a long time. I don't know, specifically, how skilled of a driver you are, but New Jersey is famous for having some of the worst drivers in America. When you slapped those Garden State plates on your car, did you instantly become a worse driver?
Here's the thing to know about my driving: I am an expert parallel parker. Not even living in the suburbs for 15 years has slowed me down. I hate pretty much every part of driving, but if you get me there, I will happily take the wheel and cram that car into any spot you can find.
That's the most important skill, and it's impressive you've maintained it after all these years!
I've heard you say before that you were a big Pantera fan back in the day, and I think their style of music fits well with what people think of when they picture the stereotypical Philly sports fan. What would you say the biggest misconceptions are of Philly sports fans and Pantera?
Oh, man. I was first into Pantera because I was trying to fit in with my high school friends who were all into what seemed like really intense, fringy metal stuff. Deicide, Cannibal Corpse, that kind of thing. But I listened to "Walk" and especially "This Love" and some other stuff, and I was just so hyped by the aggression. I was an angry teenage boy. Probably in some pretty typical ways. The anger was channeled through sports, too. Developing intense, baroque hatreds of various teams and sports figures (Erik Williams, former Cowboys offensive lineman, for example). And I enjoyed going to games (and later to Sepultura and Fear Factory shows, etc.) because it was socially acceptable to be mad as hell in a public space. Which maybe is not doing much to disabuse people of their notions of both parties, now that I think about it, Uh, there are a lot of people who like both of those things who are way more mentally balanced than I was.
Now is as good a time as any to come clean that I've been a Cowboys fan since I was a little kid. I grew up mostly in the Philadelphia area, and my brother is an all-Philly sports guy. He didn't want to share his teams with me, so naturally, I went with one of the teams he hated the most. I loved Tony Dorsett, but being a Cowboys fan in that area isn't necessarily easy. I remember going to an Eagles/Rams playoff game in '89. I was 11, and I remember two things vividly: 1st is that Keith Jackson had a long reception from Randall Cunningham and then he fumbled in Rams territory, ending the Eagles only real scoring opportunity. 2nd thing is the deep regret and fear I felt for wearing a Tony Dorsett shirt to the game. I kept my jacket zipped up real tight the entire time.
It is a little nuts that you wore the jersey to that game. I remember a Phillies game during the glory years when I saw a Yankees fan, maybe 12 years old, who wore his hat and Derek Jeter jersey in his seat, but any time he stood up, he took the hat off and put a Chase Utley jersey over the Jeter one.
I respect that kid's instinct for survival, but let's get back to metal. Recently, on Twitter, you bravely admitted to listening to the Ozzy Osbourne song "Perry Mason" hundreds of times when you were a teenager. In hindsight, would you agree that it is an objectively bad song?
Man, "Perry Mason" is so weird! Why did he write that song? Is it about Perry Mason? I listened to Ozzy, as all my friends did, and I tried to go to Ozzfest (had tickets but had to work) and all that...but really a ton of his songs are just awful, including all but the first thirty seconds of "Crazy Train."
That's a low point to end the metal conversation on, but let's move back to Philly sports. Everyone knows about your Eagles fandom, but how about the other Philly teams? Did you grow up a big fan of Clarence Weatherspoon and the post-Charles Barkley Sixers teams?
I tried very hard to make Spoon happen. Charles Shackelford, too. My first NBA memories are watching those Bulls teams in the Finals while on vacation in Ocean City, Maryland. My next memory is arguing with my dad over the Charles Barkley role model stuff (I defended Charles, Dad thought he was a clown), and then being bitterly disappointed by the trade to the Suns. I watched the teams in the ensuing years, but never with any particular hope until AI (Allen Iverson) came around. AI stepping over Tyronn Lue, that whole first game of the '01 Finals, was about as high as I've ever gotten as a fan of any sport.
Even if someone just hates the Lakers and doesn't care about the Sixers, that AI-stepping-over-Lue moment is classic. I've gotta say, it's admirable that you tried hard with Shackleford. People really wanted him to be "the other Shaq."
You've written about sports a bit in your short fiction, and of course in non-fiction, as well. Is there a sports-themed collection or chapbook waiting to be unleashed?
For a bit, I thought I would have a collection of mascot stories like the ones I was doing on Hobart a while back. I had a lot of fun with those, but then I got caught up doing other stuff, and also because I worried the premise was just too thin. Though I still think it could be a good, tiny, small press book. The real problem is even though I wrote a sports thing now and then, I still haven't stumbled into an idea that feels sustainable at book-length (unless you count my MFA thesis about a top baseball prospect who washes out due to a series of horrible off-field choices, but...let's maybe just never talk about that again).
I remember those Hobart pieces, and I especially liked the one about the gorilla, called "Trade Deadline," I think? Those were definitely fun, and I've got to think there's a small press that would go for it.
Another cool thing you've done, which seems like a good fit for a small press, is your collection of short essays for every year you’ve been alive. There are close to 20 of those floating around the internet right now. Should we be on the lookout for more?
Yes and no-- I have 37 written because I did them all in one shot as a short memoir manuscript in 2019. My agent wasn't too keen on it as a book; I think part of the problem is that it is very much a small press book, but the agent was pushing me to think of bigger things. So I went ahead and just started submitting the essays in the meantime. For a while, I think I had all 37 of them out with at least one place, and in some cases many places. At the peak, I think I probably had 200 open submissions going. There are only two left on submission at the moment, and one has been "in progress" for 2 full years, so you know how that goes. I want to start submitting more of them, but just haven't worked up the energy to start it all up again. I still hold out hope that I can make it a book somewhere, someday, though. Especially now that I have 3 more years, at least, to add to it.
Very cool. It would be great if the rest of them can see the light of day.
I know you give out recs all the time on the Book Fight podcast, but do you have three writers (sports-related or not) that you think people should check out?
Jeff MacGregor is hardly obscure, but he has a really good book (SUNDAY MONEY) about NASCAR that I think is underappreciated. I am super not into NASCAR stuff, but he does a great job of being a tour guide through the culture, the spectacle, etc.
Patrick Hruby is also not a deep cut, but I think he's about as smart as it gets when writing about the financial aspects of sports, especially the ways college athletes are exploited
Lynn Coady is a great writer, and although she is highly acclaimed in Canada, I feel like she is often overlooked in the US. I want more people to read her books.
One last question: since the Eagles are out, who do you have winning it all this year?
The Andy Reid Eagles were so important to me, so good during my formative sports years, that I still root for him and the Chiefs in games that don't affect the Eagles. Plus, the Chiefs are just so fun when the offense is rolling. Prior to this year, I would probably have said I'm rooting for the Packers because Aaron Rodgers is just so good, but now I'm hoping he gets sacked 18 times in a game and later blames it on cancel culture.
Editor's Note: The Packers have since lost to the 49ers, and although Rodgers is not expressly blaming the woke mob in San Francisco, he definitely thinks people are against him.
If the question is who am I actually picking to win...I'm looking at the bracket now, and I think I have to say the Chiefs.