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Paper Bronco
A journalist experiences firsthand the performance anxiety of pro athletes.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

A FEW SECONDS OF PANIC

A 5-Foot-8, 170-Pound, 43-Year-Old Sportswriter Plays in the NFL

By Stefan Fatsis

Penguin Press. 340 pp. $25.95

Stefan Fatsis, who has covered sports for the Wall Street Journal and National Public Radio, spent the summer of 2006 training as a place kicker with the Denver Broncos. He's allowed to stand on the sidelines for the first pre-season game (but not play), and he melts with childish glee when he sees his locker: "The letters of my last name are stitched individually and perfectly onto the back of an authentic NFL jersey . . . ready to be worn on an authentic NFL playing field and read by thousands of authentic NFL fans." Later that season, the Broncos play the New England Patriots, and Robert Kraft, owner of the Patriots, sees Fatsis (now back in journalist mode) talking to a group of Denver players. "So are you a Broncos fan now?" Kraft jabs. "No," replies the author, "I'm a Bronco."

Well, no. He's not a Bronco, and his own reporting shows why. No matter how often Fatsis practices with the team, no matter how many strained calves, sore hips and aching knees he endures, he still has a life outside of football. He can't be cut; he can't be deprived of his identity and income by a coaching staff that seems inspired by the Soviet gulag. Hey, I sympathize with the author's dreamy self-glorification. Like all washed-up jocks, I have my fantasies (returning to the Little League in Bayonne, N.J., where I hit well under .200, and blasting one -- just one -- home run). But you can't just pull on a player's cleats and become a pro athlete; you have to feel the fear of taking them off.

Still, give the guy credit. When George Plimpton attended an NFL camp in 1963 and wrote his famous account of that experience, Paper Lion, he was more observer than participant. Fatsis worked hard to become a passable place kicker, and because he shared their training camp regimen -- the pain and pressure, brutality and boredom -- he won the confidence of his teammates. That intimacy produces some candid insights, particularly about the marginal players, the walk-ons and spear-carriers in the NFL's "moneymaking machine," as one Bronco calls it. In fact, the author's physical shortcomings endear him to these very large but very human characters. One day, coach Mike Shanahan announces that if Fatsis can make a field goal from 35 yards, practice will end early. When he misses badly -- twice -- he thinks his chance "to validate my presence here" has been lost. But the opposite happens. Pro players believe that sportswriters never understand how hard their job really is, and once Fatsis fails, they think he finally gets it.

The magic number threading through these pages is 53. That's how many roster spots are allotted to each NFL team, and with more than 90 players in camp, and thousands more clamoring at the gates, the chances of any one player making the grade are quite small. That's true in all pro sports, but the stress level in football is higher for two reasons: The risk of injury is much greater, and few contracts are guaranteed. You're off the payroll as soon as an old ligament betrays you, or a new linebacker outruns you.

This means that teammates are forced to root against each other. When Todd Sauerbrun, the incumbent punter, jeers at a youngster trying to replace him, a coach cracks, "Attaway to pump air in his tires, Todd." Sauerbrun spits back, "I'm here to slash his tires." Players hide injuries, knowing that any sign of weakness could mean their demise: "Obviously it's illogical. But players believe they can overcome pain more easily than they can a coach's perception. So they avoid treatment and suck it up." Jason Elam, the team's star kicker, sums up life for even the best NFL players: "You are a replaceable part. It's just that unknown. What are they thinking and how long am I going to be here?" One of the author's closest friends, P.J. Alexander, is cut on the last day of camp. "Before I can say good-bye, P.J. is behind the wheel of his Lincoln Navigator," Fatsis writes. "I knock on the tinted window. He rolls it down and I see him crying."

Fatsis might not be a real Bronco, but he's a real sportswriter, and this book tells you what brings real Broncos to tears.

Steven V. Roberts is a professor of politics and journalism at George Washington University and author of "My Fathers' Houses," a childhood memoir.

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