Dawidoff introduces fans to the overworked underlings — the coaches and staff members — who tackle every game plan, practice and film session with a sense of urgency and importance that appears disproportionate to the task at hand. They arrive early and stay late — all essentially to wind up 53 oversize men and point them in the right direction.
“Football coaches are like war correspondents,” Dawidoff suggests; “they can’t stay away from the action. As a result, every night all over America, sleeping badly on office couches, are overweight middle-aged men with broken marriages.” Of one assistant coach, he writes: “After thirty-five years of marriage, he still didn’t know what time his wife woke up.” Of another: “He realized, not for the first time, that his family’s lives were going along without him.”
Dawidoff doesn’t delve much into the players’ locker room. And while there are no instances of bullying or hazing similar to those unveiled in recent news reports, the author does describe a Y-chromosome world with few social boundaries, where teasing is a principle of communication. Jets head coach Rex Ryan, not surprisingly, is featured prominently, at times as a cartoon character of sorts — when his staff glues a peanut butter jar shut and laughs at Ryan’s failed attempts to dig in, one can’t help but envision Winnie the Pooh — but also as a caring, nurturing leader, loyal and competitive perhaps to a fault.
This, Dawidoff’s sixth book, comes in at nearly 500 pages. Few details are spared. A James Joyce quotation about passing “boldly into that other world” appears before the introduction, as if to warn the reader, “Buckle up, this is no primer for your fantasy draft.” The author aimed to document a year, and almost every day feels included — both the book’s beauty and flaw.
More than 260 pages pass before Week 1 of the NFL season begins, a reminder that these dedicated men exist outside of 16 Sundays a year. We’re also told that their existence isn’t always exciting. An assistant coach gives the author some advice on telling the story of a football team: “Make it all drugs and prostitutes or nobody’ll read it. Don’t worry about the football. You got to have hookers and cocaine in there!”
There are no hookers and no cocaine here. And the most exciting part of the sport, the games, is usually summarized in just a couple of paragraphs. It’s the workplace relationships that stand out. At times, the author found language and attitudes “of a like I hadn’t encountered since high school.” And the game’s violent nature seems ever-present, if mostly in the background. (The book’s title is cribbed from playbook vernacular, referring to linebackers hitting a receiver who crosses the field close to the line of scrimmage.)
When the season ends in disappointment, an assistant coach goes home and crawls into bed next to his wife, only to be reprimanded by his 3-year-old son: “Hey! You’re in my spot!” The father
clarifies for him:
“It’s the offseason. I’m home now.”
The toll the game takes on players is perhaps better explored by former NFL tight end Nate Jackson, who looks back on his six-year career in “Slow Getting Up.” There are two characters in the book: the author, a relatively unknown player; and the machine of professional football that churns through athletes with little compassion.
Jackson existed on the NFL’s fringes. In detailing his injury-riddled career from start to finish, he expresses qualms about the way players are regarded at times. Right after being traded to a new team, he is told that his flight departs in three hours. “I am meat,” Jackson writes, “traded to the highest bidder.”
Like the Jets coaches in Dawidoff’s book, Jackson and his locker-room buddies are spurred by the game’s rewards and consumed by their professional lives. “The NFL bubble is well formed,” he writes. “It keeps almost everything out: everything but the big stuff.”
The testosterone drips off the page at points, and the author prefers to romanticize the locker room rather than question it. Physically — and perhaps otherwise — the game desensitizes its combatants, Jackson says. Pain is merely a choice, “a weakness of the mind, a glitch in the system that can be overridden by stones and moxie. . . . I can’t feel a thing. My body is a machine and my emotions are dead.”
Perhaps because of this mentality, even now, five years removed from the NFL, the author seems to struggle with balancing the important and the trivial. Jackson doesn’t deliver a “Ball Four” exposé, and the tales of debauchery are mere hints; more Tucker Max Lite than a football version of Jim Bouton.
Released by the Denver Broncos, Jackson decided to try human growth hormone, illegal in the NFL, to prolong his fading career. It’s a big decision for any athlete. Unfortunately, Jackson mentions this — like his praise for the pain-relief benefits of marijuana — almost in passing. He spends much more time recalling a rodent infestation in his Denver home and a Vegas trip without consequence.
Jackson avoids the issue of concussions entirely and too often uses male-centric locker-room humor as a crutch, preferring to ponder the on-demand adult movies available in hotels and to daydream about Playboy models. It’s too bad, because when he tries, he exhibits a strong, unapologetic voice with a unique understanding of today’s NFL. For example, explaining why football players visit strip clubs, he writes: “Both strippers and professional athletes live on the fringes of a society that judges them for their profession, based solely on stereotypes. These stereotypes are nearly impenetrable. Both stripper and athlete stand alone behind them, and often find solace with those who know what it’s like to be there.”
In a sport that captivates the nation, very few players experience the game’s ultimate rewards. Even then, it’s impossible to ignore the sacrifices required of both victor and loser. Theirs is a workplace that demands every ounce of everything.
In Dawidoff’s book, Ryan, the Jets’ affable coach, says he can recall every detail of every loss but not necessarily the wins. “Look at all the time you lost with your children,” he tells the author. “You never get it back. You have to win or it’s not worth it.”
Rick Maese, a sports writer for The Washington Post, has written about the NFL since 2002.