Thursday, July 10 at 1:30 p.m. ET
From Author to the NFL
Thursday, July 10, 2008; 1:30 PM
During the 2005 NFL season, author and journalist Stefan Fatsis decided he wanted to try and make an NFL team as a placekicker, to get an insider's view of an NFL team. He hired a trainer and a kicking coach, and asked team after team until the Denver Broncos took him up on the offer. His new book,
A transcript follows.
Fatsis is the author of the bestseller "Word Freak," about the world of competitive Scrabble players, and is a former columnist with the Wall Street Journal and is a regular sports contributor to NPR's "All Things Considered."
Stefan Fatsis: Hello everyone. Many thanks for joining the chat about my new book about life in the NFL. I'm eager to talk about my time performing what I firmly consider the hardest job in the NFL: placekicker. (Kidding.)
Stefan Fatsis: I've stored up a few answers to get us going. Everyone else, fire away.
Harrisburg, Pa.: Have you read "Paper Lion" by George Plimpton and, if so, what are your thoughts of Plimpton's observations on attempting to make the NFL and NFL culture back then?
Stefan Fatsis:"Paper Lion" was an absolute influence on me -- as it is on many writers of a certain age. Plimpton was the first to do participatory sports journalism -- a reporter named Paul Gallico did in the 1920s -- but he is certainly the most responsible for turning into a widely regarded genre.
When I had the idea to try to join a team, the impetus was, absolutely, "It's time to do a modern 'Paper Lion.' " I don't shy away from that fact at all in the book. I think every writer who has ever joined a sport or a subculture owes a debt to Plimpton. But my intent wasn't to do a mere copycat book. The business of the NFL had changed so much since 1963, when Plimpton went to Detroit Lions camp as a quarterback, and the job of the athlete had changed so much, too, that I knew my story would be remarkably different.
The cultures are in a lot of ways unrecognizable. Plimpton really focused on the then-mysterious locker-room hijinks and the myths and legends of the sport--he's a great storyteller. And the X's and O's of the game were revealing at the time. Today, the 24/7 media has revealed a lot of that. What I wanted to do was get to the core of what it means to be an NFL player -- what did the players love about the game and the business, what did they hate about that. The members of the 2006 Denver Broncos really opened up to me in ways we don't read in the mainstream media, in ways I think that will be revealing to readers.
Stefan Fatsis: Make that Plimpton "wasn't" the first."
Anonymous: Obviously "Paper Lion" comes to mind when reading the synopsis of your book. What are the differences? Was the rest of the team aware that you were an author doing and inside story?
Stefan Fatsis: I'll follow up on my last answer. Beyond the fact that we both put on NFL jerseys, Plimpton and I tell what I think are very different stories. Plimpton wanted to head onto the field as Everyman. He didn't train seriously to play quarterback. He wanted to see what it would be like for an average guy to walk onto a field. That was the conceit: his futile exploits juxtaposed with the superhuman feats of the pros. I felt like we know that weekend jocks can't possibly measure up. So I wanted to train seriously to see whether you could bridge the gap between pros and Joes.
The other crucial difference is one of content. The modern NFL is much more relentlessly stressful, corporate, organized, tyrranical place than the NFL of 1963. The players then had offseason jobs. Almost all of today's players -- even the ones with no guarantees -- don't. The stakes are obviously much higher, too. If you can make it longterm in the NFL -- four or five years or more, which is very hard -- you can set yourself up for life.
Mostly, though, Paper Lion was far more cheery, breezy and, to a modern reading, naive, than A Few Seconds of Panic. Many of today's players are deeply introspective, thoughtful and questioning about whether playing football makes sense -- that is, suffering through the many indignities of the game.
Stefan Fatsis: And yes, the rest of the team knew who I was -- after I arrived. It was pretty hard not to know that the gray-haired little guy wasn't an actual player.
Burbank, Calif.: Do you think the second most populous city in the country, indeed the most populated county in this country, will get an NFL team?
Stefan Fatsis: I think L.A. will get a team when the league decides that the economics imperatives dictate placing a team there. Not being in L.A. hasn't hurt the NFL's television deals, and money talks. The league can hold L.A. in its back pocket for when it needs L.A. -- either because another franchise is in serious financial peril or when expansion becomes desirable. But it's a complicated issue -- greater L.A. hasn't found the winning answer on getting a new stadium built, which is the prerequistie, of course, in today's pro sports world.
Los Angeles: What was your kicking experience before you tried getting an NFL team to look at you. Did you play soccer or kick football in high school or college, if not on a team than on amateur playing fields? How long did it take to practice with a coach until you were ready to try to make a team? In short, if Joe Sixpack stopped watching TV and practiced and trained really hard, could some non-players transpose themselves into professional athletes?
Stefan Fatsis: I had no football experience beyond messing around with friends as a kid. The only organized football I played was the touch-football team in elementary school. I did, however, play soccer in high school, though not in college; I wasn't good enough to play at my Division-I school. And I played indoor soccer in NYC in my 30s -- until my second torn ACL.
Yes, I decided to try to become an NFL placekicker after two ACL surgeries. I write in the book about visiting my orthopedic surgeon before heading to Denver. He told me that my left ACL was shot -- frayed -- but that I'd probably make it through camp because kicking a football is a unidirectional movement -- no cutting.
I worked with a personal trainer here in DC for a year -- a guy named Steve Kostorowski, who's worked with Wizards, Capitals and other athletes. I gained a dozen pounds of muscle. And I spent about four solid months working with a kicking coach, the great Paul Woodside of Alexandria, Va., a great college kicker at West Virginia in the 80s who tried and failed to make it in the NFL.
Rockville, Md.: Sounds like you had a soccer background. Why a FG kicker vs trying as a punter? Was it because you thought you would be better as a kicker or because the pressure can be more intense for a kicker?
Stefan Fatsis: Good question. Both, actually. I always liked placekicking more than punting, for starters. But I knew I could do it better. Placekickers are often called on to make 25- or 30-yarders, which I was confident I could do with consistency. Punters HAVE to have a big leg, and ridiculous flexibility. I couldn't have got to the point where I was booting 40-yard punts with a 4.2 second hang time.
But the pressure was also part of it. Punting is a defensive maneuver (with offensive ramifications). Placekicking is a money job. You make it, the team scores. All eyes are on you to put points on the board.
Slinger, Wisc.: Stefan: What was the most shocking thing your learned about NFL players though your experiences?
Stefan Fatsis: It wasn't what you might think, that guys were shooting up steroids in the bathroom or something. I write about this in the book: While I'm sure some players were cheating (one Bronco was suspended while I was there -- the punter Todd Sauerbrun -- for taking ephedra, which is an interesting plotline in the book, and another was suspended a year later for violating the NFL's steroids policy) they weren't going to admit it to me if they did and I wasn't there to investigate that anyway.
No, the most shocking thing to me was the degree of dissatifaction and ambivalence toward playing pro football. Below the surface, the NFL is not a very happy place. Players really confided in me about that.
Buffalo Grove, IL: Hi Sefan:
How were you introduced to the team? Were players advised that you were a reporter or did you just show up and start hanging out?
Stefan Fatsis: I wasn't introduced. In fact, the team owner, Pat Bowlen, was out of town and forget to tell the staff I was arriving. Only he, head coach Mike Shanahan, GM Ted Sundquist and kicker Jason Elam knew I was coming. I spent much time in the first few days explaining what I was doing there and what I was hoping to accomplish.
My real introduction came when LB Al Wilson called me to the front of the stretch line at the beginning of practice and made me dance in front of the team.
Newark, DE: Big Daddy Drew (Magary) gave your book a shout out on
Stefan Fatsis: I'm a 40-something career MSM writer who understands the growing influence and importance of the internets. Buzz Bissinger is a friend of mine, and one of the great narrative journalists of our generation (and he blurbed this book), but I respectfully disagree with the generalizations about the nature and quality of online writing. I've written for Deadspin and I've even written a couple of things for KSK. I'm eager to promote A Few Seconds of Panic online because I recognize that that's where sports fan congregate to talk about sports. The audience may be more diffuse, but there's a lof of great writing out there, even if it isn't by journalists. And frankly the online sports world is simply entertaining. I think being part of that world it's an absolute requirement for an author who wants to reach real fans.
Slinger, WI: Did you get to keep your jersey?
Stefan Fatsis: You bet! The NFL didn't let me kick in an actual preseason game -- it didn't let Plimpton play in one, either -- but it did let me "dress out" for games. I kicked in pregame, ran on the field through the tunnel and stood on the sidelines. Utterly exhilarating.
So, yes, I have my #9 home and road Broncos jerseys with my name stitched on the back.
Slinger, WI: Stefan: How did the players approach you: as a wannabe or as "one of the guys"?
Stefan Fatsis: Eventually, I was just another player. The players forgot I was always taking notes. More than that, though, many players really wanted to open up to me, to tell me what it was really like. I'm certain that couldn't have happened if I wasn't willing -- and if Pat Bowlen and Mike Shanahan didn't sanction -- my becoming part of the team.
The fact that I was willing to do whatever the players did -- practice, lift weights, run, go to meetings, sleep in the team hotel, follow the rules -- I think helped them accept me even more. On some level, my presence was a happy goof. But the players also respected, I think, the fact that I was trying to do well. And I was.
Longest Field Goal: What was your longest field goal under simulated game conditions?
Stefan Fatsis: You'll have to read the book to find out!
My range was about 40 yards and in, though. I'd hoped -- I honestly believed -- that I'd be able to make a 50-yarder, but it wasn't to be. As the Broncos' kicking consultant (yes, they had a part-time kicking coach when I was there), said to me once, "Too old, too slow, too weak."
Did you experience any of the "a kicker is not a football player" culture that pro locker rooms supposedly foster? Or is that going by the wayside as more players seem to become specialists of some kind on the field?
Stefan Fatsis: Sure, it's an endless joke among players. "Get out of my locker, kicker," quarterback Jake Plummer said to me with a sneer when I was sitting there one day. (He was joking. Sort of. And he was great to me overall, I should add.) And that was one of the milder comments.
Kickers may not hit, and our practice sessions were certainly less, um, taxing than what everyone else suffered. But everyone recognized how important the kicker's job is. The Broncos had Jason Elam at the time. He was the most senior member of the team. He understood his role -- "Never do anything to stand out," he once said to me, "especially as a kicker" -- but also understood how important he was to the success of that team. Love em or hate em, kickers account for nearly half the of points scored in the NFL today, compared to just over a third in the 1970s.
Players also recognize how hard a great kicker works to be prepared, physically and mentally, to play.
Washington, D.C.: Cool idea for a book. Did any funny pranks gets played on you by the players?
Stefan Fatsis: There were a lot of threats -- especially after I missed a few field goals -- but no one ever taped me to the goalposts or drowned me in the ice pool. There's less of that in the NFL these days. Though there were some boredom-relieving pranks. A punter's keys were taped to the bottom of a toilet and he was forced to go on a treasure hunt around the complex to find them. The same punter was dunked in the ice pool one day. A rookie running back had his head shaved, badly.
Baltimore: Do you still play scrabble and/or keep in touch with G.I. Joe and the other characters in "Word Freak"?
Stefan Fatsis: A Scrabble question! Yay! I do indeed still play Scrabble (online and with humans), though not as intensely as I did when I was writing "Word Freak." I just don't study as much as I need to to be as competitive. I am in touch with most of the main characters in the book -- they're friends, as our some of the Broncos now.
But I did start a Scrabble club at my daughter's elementary school here in D.C. and took a team to the National School Scrabble Championship earlier this year.
Tough Competition: Wow, trying out for the team where Jason Elam has resided for many, many years. Frankly, I think Jason will go down as one of the greatest place kickers of all time. Saw him kick for U of Hawaii back in the early 90s. What did he think of you trying out for his job?
Stefan Fatsis: He was totally into it. For a kicker whose job is all-but assured -- and believe me, I was no threat to Jason Elam's job -- a little diversion is a good thing. Jason is not only, I think, a Hall of Fame kicker, but also a renaissance man, and a great person to write about. He's working on a master's in divinity, goes on Christian missions to Africa and the Middle East, visits the troops in Iraq, hunts in Africa and fishes in Hawaii, flies airplanes. And the summer I was there he was writing an evangelical Christian football thriller. And it was published.
He was very helpful to me, as were the other punters and kickers (all but one, anyway, as you'll see when you read the book). I describe us kickers as the geek table in the high-school cafeteria. We stick together. And we're very different.
Tampa, Fla.: I once read a running back quoted that he hurt after every tackle. How much is physical pain a daily issue for the players? Thanks, and I look forward to reading the book.
Stefan Fatsis: Constant, unrelenting. One player said to me that everyone hurts all the time. It's the nature of the job, the tradeoff for the slim chance of making it big. I spend the better part of a chapter discussing a morning I just watched the nicks and bruises and worse -- a running back puking from dehydration, a lineman bruing a rotator cuff who couldn't lift his arm and going back on the field a few minutes later. But no one ever really complains too much. Not because it's a macho culture but because they don't want to risk not playing and not making the team. "You can't make the club in the tub," Jake Plummer said to me one day when I was slathering balms on my groin and wrapping my injured hip. He was kidding in my case, but he was serious. I saw players refuse treatment because they didn't want coaches to think there were hurt -- because perception was harder to overcome than a little pain.
Anonymous: One second on the clock, down by two with a 35-yard kick to win the Super Bowl.
World Series game 7, bottom of the ninth, two down, runner on first.
On the one hand, if you miss the kick, it could be because the snap failed, or the holder failed, or the line failed.
On the other hand, if you're hitting, you're all alone at the plate.
On the other other hand, you could foul off a bunch of pitches until you get the one you want, or you could single or walk and defer the pressure to the next guy.
Or, NBA finals, game 7, .5 seconds on the clock. Down by 1, you have the ball wide open from your spot. You make it, you win, you miss it, you lose.
So is the kicker's job harder?
Stefan Fatsis: Hmmm... I've given up comparing jobs. All are impossibly difficult and require a storehouse of cool that most of us mere humans don't possess. I will never criticize an athlete for blowing any of those things you listed. I respect what they do more than ever. One thing I certainly learned is that failure is usually not for lack of trying, especially in football with its multiple moving parts. The Broncos lost the 2005 AFC Championship game to Pittsburgh, and afterward Jake Plummer was ripped in the media as a loser. But he said to me: We were all trying to win, stuff we did during the season that worked didn't work that dad. But you know what? There's a winner and a loser in every game, and that day we happened to be the loser.
Silver Spring, Md.: Did you have to pay the team anything to do this, or did you get paid by the team for anything? Even minimum salary. I'm curious if Melissa gets to tell her friends if she's married to a "pro" athlete or not.
Second question, this happened in 2005... were you there when Maurice Clarett was there? If so, that must have been one crazy year for the regulars!
Stefan Fatsis: Actually, I was there in 2006. So no Clarett. Just Todd Sauerbrun getting suspended for taking ephedra, a wide receiver refusing to show up for camp the drafting of Jay Cutler. Then the season featured the benching on Jake Plummer and the tragic shooting death of Darrent Williams on New Year's Eve, after the last game of the season.
No, I paid the Broncos nothing to do this and certainly didn't get paid. I was a reporter with privileges. Owner Pat Bowlen and coach Mike Shanahan placed no restrictions on me. I had full run of the building, from the locker room to the coaches offices to the owners suite. Bowlen and Shanahan deserve much praise for their willingness, in this media age in what is, as we know, a very tightly controlled league, to let a writer in, as a player no less.
I remind my wife of my background as a professional athlete every day.
Baltimore: Alan Alda is to George Plimpton as who is to you in the movie version of your book?
Stefan Fatsis: A friend of mine said Rick Moranis. I said only if Scott Baio wasn't available.
Ashburn, Va.: Just bought your book over the weekend and I am really enjoying it. Any chance I can send you my copy after I finish reading it and have you autograph it. It's doubtful I would make it to any of your D.C. book signings.
Stefan Fatsis: Glad to. Go to my website (shameless plug) www.stefanfatsis.com and send me an email.
Rockville, MD: Despite my address, I'm a Broncos fan! In terms of the "dissatisfaction and ambivalence" you mentioned that existed in camp, how much of that do you think was related to how Shanahan operates? He seems, to an outside, to be a little cold and disassociated from the players. Is this true? Did players that had been on other teams talk about the differences between those teams and the Broncos?
Stefan Fatsis: Great question. Some certainly, but less than you might think. I'll start with your last question. Players who had been elsewhere rave about playing for the Broncos. They love Pat Bowlen, the owner, because he spend the money for a first-class operation and doesn't interfere in the day-to-day operation of the team on the field. They praise Shanahan for running comparitively humane practices -- the Broncos tackled to the ground once all summer, and we wore shoulder pads for just half of the 28 practices during camp. And they respect Shanahan's coaching acument.
So I think the dissatisfaction stems from the institution -- the things that are common throughout football. The overscheduling, the coaches yelling, the constant reminders that you can be cut at any moment, that you have to be perfect, the lack of open lines of communication between coaches and players. It all fosters a hefty degree of paranoia. Shanahan's role in that in Denver is that, because he is indeed so prepared and hard-working and controlling, and wields so much control over operations, that every can feel like they're walking on eggshells.
But he also has a dry sense of humor, can take a joke, knows when to pull back, and takes players out to eat steaks and play golf and drink beer. I liked him, if not all of his methods.
Philadelphia, Pa.: OK, so maybe kicking isn't your destiny, but how is your pitching? We could use some pitching in Philadelphia.
Stefan Fatsis: Maybe my next book.
Nah, Plimpton already did it.
Stefan Fatsis: Thanks everyone for the terrific questions. It's been fun. Enjoy the coming NFL season.
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