It’s a big, multi-billion dollar business that tries to deliver “inside” access to the teams and players that we sports fans metaphorically—and soon, hopefully, in a very real and multimedia way—jock-sniff. It is a battle waged between wealthy television channels, one unnecessary slo-mo camera angle at a time. Slow Getting Up, a new memoir from Nate Jackson, wins the war to get furthest inside: Jackson spent seven years (2002-09) playing wide receiver and tight end for professional football teams, and this is his tell-all tale of how it all went down. Get more inside than that.
Unless you’re a big enough Denver Broncos fan that you considered acquiring a commemorative Tim Tebow tattoo during his miraculous 2011 season, you’ve probably never heard of Nate Jackson. The Broncos are the only NFL team that Jackson ever appeared for in a regular-season game (translation: they’re the only team he played for that didn’t cut him in training camp), and in six seasons for Denver, Jackson caught a total of 27 passes. To put some perspective on that: in 2008, Jackson’s teammate Brandon Marshall caught 18 passes in a single game. To be sure, the spotlight of public attention is shining more brightly upon Jackson now that he is something of a pundit than it ever did during his obscure playing days.
As Slow Getting Up shows, though, being a fringe professional football player all but inevitably means subjecting yourself to brutal, jet-lagged stretches of lonely football nomadism. Preseason 2003, Jackson is suited up with the San Francisco 49ers and on his way to the practice field when he is told that he has been traded to the Broncos and, with his uniform still on, has three hours until his flight to Denver takes off. After the 2004 NFL season, the Broncos sent Jackson to Rhein, Germany so he could sharpen his skills in (now-defunct) minor league NFL Europe. Midway through the NFL Europe season, an injury sends Jackson to a rehabilitation center in exile-from-exile: a depressing stable of injured players nursing their wounds in a hotel in Birmingham, Alabama. In the summer of 2009, a year after the Broncos themselves cut Jackson loose, Jackson auditions in Philadelphia for the Eagles and in New Orleans for the Saints, gets hired for a few days and then fired by the Cleveland Browns, and ends up in Casa Grande, Arizona. (That’s the name of a city, it wasn’t just a large abode.) While in Casa Grande, he snaps his hamstring and ends his football career in a training camp practice for the Las Vegas Locomotives, which was a team in the (now-defunct) United Football League.
To put some perspective on the difference between the UFL and the NFL: in 2008 Jackson got a $425,000 signing bonus to go along with his one-year Broncos contract. In 2009 he would have earned $35,000 for the entire season with the Locomotives. There’s really only one reason why Jackson would even consider roughing it in the UFL after so many years playing and earning at the highest level—the fat lady’s song that rang out as Jackson lay supine in the Arizona desert was a sorrowful aria about capital-L Love of The Game.
The story of Jackson’s entry into the NFL is the sort of gritty underdog yarn that warms the cockles of any old-timey football broadcaster. After Jackson got cut from the college team at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo—itself a school that rarely produces NFL players—he transferred to Menlo College, a school of 500 students on California’s Central Coast. As Jackson describes his college playing days: “I was playing football with my best friends: for football’s sake. I was as happy as I have ever been.”
Oh, is Jackson’s sentiment too gushy for you, you football fans with skulls perched on your shoulders, lustily screaming for your opponents’ demise? Too bad! Throughout Slow Getting Up, Jackson waxes poetic about the professional game. Here is how Jackson caps off a chapter about his underwhelming season in Rhein:
A football dream is easy to spot. Turn on SportsCenter and they’ll show you what it looks like. Tom Brady’s life. Peyton Manning’s life. Fairy tales. Storybooks. The football dream I had as a child unfolded much differently. But it has still unfolded. Every crease and every line, every grunt and every pop, I’m playing the game I love. The grass is still green, the hits still hurt, and the ball in flight is still the most beautiful sight I know. I will chase it to the ends of the earth.
This is exactly the sort of emotional undercurrent I’ve always privately hoped professional athletes carry around somewhere within themselves: that in the middle of all the unforeseen trades and too-intense coaches, with the threat of injury looming overhead like an anvil hanging on an ever-fraying rope, professional athletes are motivated, to whatever degree, by Love; that they are motivated by chasing that timeless flow and bliss that overtakes the brain and body when the game unfolds easy and free, dancing the masterful dance of any methodical practitioner who has sharpened the nuance of his craft down to the finest point.
As other, more mainstream media outlets have gotten their hands on Jackson’s book, they too have taken a nostalgic, rose-colored-glasses romp through the childlike wonders of football. Not! Why publish an excerpt from Slow Getting Up about some sentimental pussy shit when you can publish an excerpt, as sports-snark mavens Deadspin did, called “The Super Bowl Week Orgy, Through the Eyes of an NFL Player”? (Spoiler alert: the orgy is only metaphorical.) Even the ol’ gray lady New York Times couldn’t tear her focus away from the dirty bits in a review of Slow Getting Up: “You will learn more in this book about N.F.L. player’s [sic] hotel-room masturbation habits than you will soon be able to forget.”
In fairness, this book really has a ton of dirty bits. For reasons I can’t entirely decipher, the person that Jackson embarrasses the most with unflattering stories is himself, voluntarily offering up some incredibly uncomfortable moments when he got in trouble by thinking with the brains below his belt. (More like Fast Getting It Up if ya know what I mean!) To wit: Jackson’s long-distance girlfriend from California moves to Denver and, on the same day that Jackson gets injured in a Broncos game, she learns that Jackson had previously been unfaithful with an apartment neighbor. Jackson’s response when he arrives home: “C’mon, babe. I’m really hurting. [Jackson is referencing his leg here, not his emotional constitution.] Can we talk about this tomorrow?” What a romantic!
Some chapters later, now single, Jackson wears his anxious libido on his sleeve so prominently that high-schoolers are able to scope him as an easy mark. After learning that a duo of Bronco ball boys have successfully catfished him, Jackson responds by doing the following:
I get them tied up, sort of, and pour ketchup and mustard and baby powder on them as everyone looks on and laughs, presumably at me and the frantic pace with which I’m trying to even the score in a game that has already been won. Sweating profusely and out of breath, I drag them into the showers, turn on the cold, and leave them to fend for themselves. It doesn’t take long before some sympathetic loser is cutting them free.
Like any human being, Jackson contains multitudes. His charming, prosaic reveries do not preclude clichéd hallmarks of meatheaded jockularity, complete with astoundingly detailed accounts of paying for bottle service on the Vegas strip. Jackson’s forays into the after-hours NFL lifestyle never get out of control, but even in the retelling, each party seems to carry on with more underlying sadness and/or sexual neediness than actual fun.
For the purpose of his new op-ed career, however, Jackson’s greatest strength is his ability to give thoughtful voice to what it means to have your body slowly demolished by each new day spent in the NFL. Jackson’s snapped hamstring with the Locomotives was the finale in a depressingly long list of injuries that kept him on the sidelines in sweatpants as often as he was on the field in uniform. It’s not a huge mystery why Jackson constantly got injured: after playing wide receiver (a position of finesse and raw speed) at Menlo, the Broncos eventually moved Jackson to tight end (a position that requires slamming into or getting slammed by a 300-lb. defensive lineman on the majority of plays).
This is Jackson’s chance to give nuanced perspective on the physical damage that the NFL naturally inflicts upon its players. The investigative book and PBS documentary League of Denial is the latest and most significant bodyslam to public perception of the NFL, both scientifically detailing the damage that football does to the human brain and condemning the league’s (lack of) response in medically treating its former players. It is currently in vogue for sports columnists ’round the nation to caricaturize the NFL as a logic-averse, totalitarian regime, with league commissioner Roger Goodell as the lever-pulling dictator scheming unfathomable destruction behind the curtain. (Following this screed, sports columnists will usually give their picks for this Sunday’s games, because boy do we have some barn-burners this week!) It’s just about impossible to follow football in 2013 and not be confronted by a smattering of thorny philosophical issues: Are we somehow complicit in all of the terrifying brain damage these largely faceless men suffer? Will a football player die on the field, on TV, and what happens then? Would you let your kid play football—and if yes how could you and if no do you realize that you’re helping make the game an endangered species 20 years from now?
While the NFL was not particularly excited about the release of League of Denial, it should be noted that their overarching agenda is neither hidden nor sinister: get as many people paying as much money as possible to watch football. The NFL is also really, really good at fulfilling this agenda. So good that even if one of its hundreds of obscure, totally publically unrecognizable players writes a book about what it was like to work, briefly, for the NFL, said book sells like so many hotcakes.
Technically, the NFL doesn’t have a monopoly on the game of football. It does have a monopoly in every practical way conceivable. Jackson inadvertently acknowledges this issue as he discusses receiving his lowly contract with the Locomotives:
Football is fun when you don’t know any better. But when your body starts to break, unless you are getting paid well, there is no incentive to continue. There’s a reason why you don’t see grown men at the park in full pads playing football games. They claim to love the game so much. They claim that the pros are so lucky to play it. Well, you, too, Johnny Crotchscratcher, can play the game you love. Put an ad on Craigslist. Start your own league. Go hit somebody.
What’s fascinating about Jackson biting the hand that used to feed him is that nobody, ever, has been coerced into a relationship with the NFL. If we want to dedicate an afternoon or even our careers to something as specific as the game of football, options do (theoretically) exist. The legions of Southern Californian fans who make the pilgrimage to San Diego Chargers games could have easily headed up to Vegas to see the Locomotives. But they didn’t. Every top collegian with professional prospects could avoid getting unceremoniously cut by an NFL team and become a big fish in the smaller ponds of the Arena Football League or Canadian Football League. (In both of those leagues, elite players still pull down six figures, which is not an outrageous fortune but boy would that be nice to have right out of college.) But none of them ever will. Any of the 32 billionaires who own the 32 NFL franchises certainly have the capital and acumen to start their own football league, a league that integrates taking care of its players post-retirement into its infrastructure. But they didn’t.
And why would they? Even the nicknames of NFL teams are enough to stir real feelings in the hearts of grown-ass men. You have to admit that “Pittsburgh Steelers,” “Green Bay Packers,” or “Oakland Raiders” et cetera, have a poetic roll off the tongue. “Las Vegas Locomotives” sounds pitiful, like an amateur roller derby team from an episode of Reno 911! But it only sounds sad because none of us have an uncle that’s been their season ticket holder for two decades, each Sunday’s new kickoff a blessed beacon at the end of the workweek’s long, dark tunnel. When meager crowds watch the Locomotives win and lose, there is no ecstasy or agony behind it, because we don’t know what a loss in the UFL even means. We feel real and powerful emotions when NFL teams lose because the NFL is the only football league that has built the history and context and memories that combine to give fans a thrilling sense of high stakes. The Super Bowl trophy is only prestigious because we’ve decided it is.
So if you look past—and it’s hard, but a lot of us find a way, and we’re glad we do—look past the numbing volume of advertising and sponsorship, the knowledge that the dollars of your shockingly large ticket will be shoveled straight into the bank account of the ineffective, malcontent lineman that your team never should have signed in the first place, the guilt you may or may not feel as you implicitly encourage so many perfectly healthy young men to irreversibly injure each other, you’ll find that we all show up for the exact same reasons at Nate Jackson. The NFL brings us a beautiful game, played and coached at the highest possible level of individual expertise and dedication. What a great game does to our emotions—as hundreds of thousands of people watch that same tiny football, and not a single one knows what will happen next—is more than enough to make all the bullshit recede. We can’t get enough of the game, of the NFL. We Love it.