For your last book, Word Freak, you took up competitive Scrabble. In A Few Seconds of Panic, you play in the NFL. It’s an interesting next step. Scrabble seems more in line with a writer’s skill set than professional football. What inspired you to take on this challenge?
With Scrabble, I’d tested my mind. This time, I wanted to test my body. At one point in Word Freak, I compared myself to George Plimpton—but with a distinction. In Paper Lion and his other groundbreaking works of participatory journalism, Plimpton’s conceit that he was the average guy imagining what it would be like to throw a touchdown pass in the NFL or sink a putt in the Masters. So he didn’t prepare very much for his ventures onto the playing field. I felt that, in the decades since Plimpton boxed and played football, baseball, basketball, and hockey, the incredible advances in the size and skill of athletes had created an unbridgeable gap between Pros and Joes. I wanted to see how much I could narrow that gap. The problem was that it would be impossible for a weekend athlete, someone who had never played a particular sport beyond high school, to get good enough in almost any of our mainstream games. Oddly enough, the only possibility for playing and looking credible was in football—the sport in which the players have grown the most. I couldn’t try to play quarterback, which Plimpton did, because these days anyone would no experience could be hurt badly trying. But I had played soccer for decades, and could kick a ball. A 5-foot-8 placekicker, I reasoned, wouldn’t even look out of place on an NFL field.
How did you get the Denver Broncos to take you on as a rookie kicker?
I asked! But it didn’t happen quickly. I’d covered the NFL for a decade as a reporter for The Wall Street Journal. So I had lots of contacts throughout the league. The NFL is a rigidly controlled and tightly closed world. Fortunately, my contacts at league headquarters trusted me enough to give me the go-ahead to find a willing team. Then I went franchise by franchise, starting with those close to my home in Washington, D.C., and moving West. Most organizations, predictably, instantly rejected the idea of allowing a reporter into uniform: My presence would be a “distraction” from the sacred task of trying to win a Super Bowl. After about twenty rejections over a full year, I called Broncos owner Pat Bowlen. Bowlen headed the owner’s broadcast committee, so I knew him pretty well from writing about the NFL’s multibillion-dollar television contracts. Bowlen, to his eternal credit, immediately understood what I was hoping to accomplish—to write about how a modern NFL franchise operates—and his head coach, Mike Shanahan, appreciated that the only way do that accurately was from inside the locker room. Shanahan told me he liked that I had the guts to want to play. And both men were secure in their place in the league, proud of what they considered a model NFL franchise, and trusting that their players wouldn’t embarrass them. Ultimately, they believed that the unusual presence of a writer in the locker room wouldn’t disrupt a thing, and actually could serve as a fun diversion during the miserable slog of training camp.
What was your prior football and kicking experience? Were you prepared for the physical and mental demands of playing in the NFL?
Prior experience? My elementary school touch-football team circa 1974. I had never played organized football. Growing up, I didn’t even weight enough to play youth tackle football. But I could kick a ball. I’d played soccer through high school and then in adult leagues in my thirties. But my playing career ended after I tore the ACL—anterior cruciate ligament—in both of my knees. That might seem like a disqualifier to joining an NFL team, but it wasn’t, as long as I was in shape. So I hired a personal trainer and spent a year getting into the best physical condition of my life; and I bulked up, too, growing from 160 to 172 pounds (through natural means). I also found a kicking coach, Paul Woodside, a former college standout who was my age and who never made it to the NFL. Paul taught me how to kick a football, which is very different from kicking a soccer ball, and his unflagging support and enthusiasm made me believe that I’d do fine on the field in Denver. So while I knew I couldn’t kick like the actual Broncos—the team’s placekicker at the time was 13-year veteran Jason Elam, who should be in the Hall of Fame one day—I hoped to at least kick well enough to blend in. Since the kickers aren’t banging heads, and I could lift only so much weight in the gym, the day-to-day physical workload was manageable. But as camp progressed, my legs started to wear down from the repetitive stress of kicking. And nothing—I mean nothing—prepared me for the mental demands of playing in the NFL. Not even Scrabble.
You sound like you’re joking. But maybe not. Any similarities in the two experiences?
I’m not joking. To succeed in Scrabble, you have to shut out all outside distractions and bear down and concentrate. And there are parallels in the two games, I discovered. The inches-thick playbook that NFL players master is equivalent to the tens of thousands of words that great Scrabble players learn. There’s the pressure of a clock ticking to zero in both games. And both are governed by what players call incomplete information—in Scrabble, not knowing what’s on your opponent’s rack, in football, not knowing what the other team will do on a particular play. But in Scrabble, if I make a bad play, maybe I lose a game and I’m angry with myself for failing. It’s all on me. The pressure of standing on a field, with my teammates watching, with the coaches watching, with fans watching is unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. It’s overwhelming—only the mentally fittest survive in the NFL.
What surprised you most from your inside-the-locker room vantage point? Did you find that there were aspects of the sport or players’ lives that were new to you?
The amount of pressure on the players was the most dramatic revelation—and the degree of ambivalence toward what they do for a living. The media and public naturally glamorize athletes. “What a job they have!” as one Bronco put it to me. The quotidian reality of the existence of the modern NFL player is rather joyless, especially but not exclusively during the summer. The players move from home (or hotel, for rookies like me) to the locker room to the field to the training room to the weight room to the lunchroom to the meeting room. They play under the constant threat of crippling injury. And they are reminded—constantly—that they are being scrutinized by a phalanx of coaches studying hours of video, that their jobs on are the line every second.
At the same time, they keep playing. Why?
As one player told me, they play for Sunday. The adrenaline rush of racing onto an NFL field, I can now attest, is fantastic. They love the camaraderie and the competition—the knowledge that they are among the very best to possess the very particular skills required to play pro football. The money is a motivation for some, but the more self-aware players know it’s an elusive goal. As we rookies were told in our orientation meeting, the average NFL career lasts just three years. Only a fraction of players will make the millions most fans associate with the NFL. Most won’t even make the team—just fifty or so of t
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