Unless you're a devoted fan of the Denver Broncos, you've probably never heard of Nate Jackson. He's a tight end who attended a small college in California and wasn't drafted into the NFL. He's played in 41 games over six seasons and caught 27 passes, two of them for touchdowns. He's made lots of tackles on special teams.
Nate also is my friend. We met when I joined the Broncos as a placekicker in training camp a few summers ago to write a book about the NFL. I've stayed at Nate's house in Denver (in a comfy guest room) and he's stayed at mine in Washington, D.C. (on an air mattress in the attic). We attended the Obama inauguration together.
Nate is thoughtful, intelligent and funny. He reads a lot, from Hunter Thompson to Jacob Riis. He records music and writes poetry. Like many players, Nate is talented enough to be gripped by the game of football but rational enough to question the business of football. During my time with the Broncos and since, we've spent many hours discussing the paradoxes of the NFL.
So when Nate last week became one of the 900 or so players to be cut this summer -- he was released by the Cleveland Browns after spending just a week with the team near the end of camp; the Broncos had let him go in the offseason -- I suggested a public conversation, which we conducted via e-mail, about life in the NFL.
Stefan Fatsis: When we talked shortly after you were let go by the Browns, you were, to put it mildly, pretty angry. What happened in Cleveland?
Nate Jackson: It was more a question of what didn't happen in Cleveland. Prior to last week I'd been unemployed for seven months, training on my own in California. Preparing to play football isn't the same as playing, though -- as much as I wanted to tackle a parking-meter attendant, my mother told me I shouldn't. So when the Pavlovian bell finally rang, of course I came running. But the whole week was awkward. The offense was on mile 16 of a marathon. I was dropped off at the starting line barefoot in the middle of the night. I couldn't catch up.
SF: Meaning what? You didn't play well because you weren't in "football shape"? Or was there just too much playbook to digest in a short time? I don't think fans or the media appreciate how much information players are required to learn.
NJ: The offensive coordinator understandably wasn't going to stop the whole operation to teach me a system that everyone had learned months earlier. Learning a new offense is like learning a new language, and Cleveland's dialect is completely different than Denver's dialect. The plays, the terminologies, the process of communication, the concepts -- everything was different. If you aren't present when the basics are taught, then you'll be lost, which I was.
Also, it's impossible to simulate the physical movement of actual football plays when you're training alone. The reactive explosiveness and instinctual moves that become refined through repetition tend to rust a little when you're not practicing. It takes some time to get your football legs underneath you. Four practices wasn't long enough for my legs or my mind to adjust.
SF: You're 6-foot-3, 235 pounds, a converted wide receiver. The four other tight ends in Browns camp averaged 6-5, 265 pounds, blockers and short-yardage receivers. It sounds to me like the front office might have liked you but the coaching staff didn't see a fit. And you got squeezed.
NJ: Like Charlie Weis in a leotard.
SF: So you got cut. You're obviously not alone. NFL players are disposable -- all pro team-sports athletes are disposable. But I'm startled sometimes by the lack of decency in how players are treated. You weren't a superstar or even a starter in Denver, but you were one of the most veteran players on the team, and a well-liked and respected presence in the locker room. But the Broncos didn't call your cell phone or your home phone when you were released. They called your parents' home phone.
NJ: That was a strange situation. It's acknowledged in the locker room that we're all expendable. Everyone understands that, at least subconsciously. What matters in the long run is the manner in which we're discarded. There exists in the NFL today a troubling trend among some coaches who see the player as a puzzle piece instead of as a man. With the pressures put on a head coach, it's easy for him to overlook the player's emotional struggle. The danger is that a coach will find himself with a team that believes he doesn't care about his players as individuals. They, in turn, will lose interest in his message and ultimately won't care if the team wins or loses. The good coaches understand this paradigm.
SF: The two head coaches you just experienced -- Eric Mangini in Cleveland and Josh McDaniels in Denver -- are young guys. One might think they'd be more relaxed, or at least modern, in how they run their organizations. But I hear that McDaniels runs an unsmiling, closed-door operation. Mangini has inspirational quotations painted in giant letters around the practice facility. Do players really need that? Could a hip, reasonable, progressive coach succeed in the NFL? Or is the Lombardiesque culture too deeply ingrained? Do coaches, regardless of age, just spend so much time watching film that they aren't able to see players as actual human beings?
NJ: This is where the line gets fuzzy. There's no manual on how to coach a team to the Super Bowl. There's no mold from which a successful coach is cast. Coaches and players have to be flexible, inquisitive and humble enough to adjust strategies when things don't feel right. That's difficult for coaches to do, mainly because they've spent so much time strengthening the foundation of their own philosophies. It's tempting for a coach, after a string of losses, to blame the players for not executing the plan, and to accelerate faster toward the brick wall. I don't think age has anything to do with these tendencies. The last two Super Bowl-winning coaches are Tom Coughlin and Mike Tomlin. Coughlin could be Tomlin's grandfather, but both men were able to get the most out of their players when it mattered. It's an art, not a science.
SF: We spent a lot of time in Denver discussing the NFL work place: the culture of paranoia fostered by the coaches, the infantilization of the players, the lack of open communication between the players and their bosses.
NJ: An NFL team is a multi-layered, multimillion-dollar enterprise. The more dollars involved, the weirder things get. As players, we don't really know what goes on upstairs in the front office, and upstairs they rarely understand the locker room. Again, the good coaches do get the temperament of the player, but more often, there are too many organizational layers and agendas to allow free-flowing communication. I'm not sure much can be done about that. The NFL is a shiny bubble that's glossed over by the insatiable appetite of the fans and the media. It's hard for anyone inside the bubble to see things clearly.
SF: I'd like to think that some basic tenets of successful management could work in the NFL. The general manager of the Broncos when we were there, Ted Sundquist, told me he was surprised to learn from my book how much players disliked the front office -- and that if he got another job in the league he'd strive to be more open, to communicate better, to listen to players more.
NJ: Basic tenets of successful management involve openness and communication? Interesting.
SF: While we were doing this back and forth, the New Orleans Saints called and flew you in for a workout on Saturday.
NJ: Being flown in for a workout is an odd experience. I've had several over the last month. Your agent calls in the morning and says a team wants to fly you out that night for a workout the following morning, possibly to be signed to the roster. You're typically picked up at the airport by an intern who drives you to the hotel and tells you how crazy things have been for him. (Interns do all the work no one else wants to do, like escorting players like me from the airport.) Usually multiple players are brought in; four of us auditioned in New Orleans. You're met in the hotel lobby early in the morning. You get a physical, fill out some paperwork, then wait around until the player-personnel guys and coaches are available. The actual workout varies only slightly from team to team: run a 40-yard dash, do some blocking and footwork drills, run routes, catch some passes. Considering that we're applying for the same job, everyone usually gets along well.
SF: I remember our friend Preston Parsons -- a former third-string quarterback with the Broncos -- saying that, over the course of one season, he was flown in for workouts by nine teams.
NJ: That's a lot of ginger ale and peanuts.
SF: In New Orleans, each of the four candidates -- including your former Broncos teammate Jeb Putzier -- had several years of NFL experience. That's a good reminder of just how many qualified players watch games on television every Sunday.
NJ: The four of us were joking in the locker room that they should just cut the other tight ends and sign us.
SF: So what happened?
NJ: One of the Saints' more productive pass-catching tight ends [Billy Miller] was injured last Thursday, so they were looking for a comparable replacement. [Starting quarterback] Drew Brees threw to us during the workout and most of the Saints coaches, including [head coach] Sean Payton, watched. All four of us did well. The coaches were complimentary. They were good dudes. But none of us was signed. An hour later, we were all back at the airport.
SF: It turned out that while you were auditioning, the Saints were trading a draft pick to the New England Patriots for David Thomas, a similarly sized tight end with similar career stats who's a few years younger.
NJ: Yeah, that was a little disappointing, but an organization never knows which deals will work out and which deals will fall through. They have to cover all of their bases. Even though we were flown out there as a back-up plan to a back-up plan, I still felt we were treated with respect. That goes a long way.
SF: Players never know why teams choose one relatively anonymous guy over another -- minimum salary, perception of potential, an old scouting report, something a coach saw on a piece of tape -- which has to be frustrating. And yet, despite the institutional flaws we've discussed, and what I imagine is a pretty strong temptation, at age 30, to hang 'em up, something keeps you eating those airplane peanuts and running another 40. Any idea what that is?
NJ: I love the game. It's the best thing that ever happened to me. I am never more at peace than I am during a football play. There is something magical that occurs on a football field when a team finds its rhythm. Finding yourself inside of that rhythm for even a moment is worth getting tangled up in the red tape. It's worth bleeding for. I think the institutional flaws make the actual game that much more of a sanctuary for the players. When you take away all of the NFL's distracting periphery, you're left with the best athletes in the world playing the best game in the world. I can't turn away from that.
SF: The regular season starts this week. Teams have cut their rosters to the maximum 53. You're, obviously, not on one of them. But you were drafted by the Las Vegas Locomotives (I would have preferred Croupiers) of the new United Football League. NFL veterans aren't accustomed to playing the equivalent of minor-league football; few guys seem willing to go to Canada once they've tasted the show. But the UFL is staffed by former NFL executives and coaches, and looks like it's trying to position itself as an NFL feeder league. Are you up for it?
NJ: Definitely. I've been training like a freak for the last six months. If I don't use it soon I'll probably ignore my mother's advice and hurt some poor stranger. I've discussed the UFL with many of my former coaches and mentors and they all have encouraged me to do it. So I'm doing it. I report to training camp for the Las Vegas Locos on Thursday. It's not exactly what I had in mind for myself this season, but it's still the game I love.