The Broncos start training camp today, and, sure, you could go watch. But unless you sneak into the locker room and hide behind Brandon Marshall's ego, going to camp won't give you even a hint of what life is really like for the Broncos. For that, you'll have to hit your favorite bookseller.
Almost exactly three years ago today, the Broncos started the 2006 training camp with 3/4 an extra body in camp: Author Stefan Fatsis, who somehow had managed to persuade the team to let him go through camp as a kicker, to see and feel and smell (and write about) what it's like to endure the six weeks of hell that precede each NFL season. The book -- A Few Seconds of Panic: A Sportswriter Plays in the NFL, which comes out in paperback next week -- is a uniquely fascinating look at what it takes to be an NFL player, told through the trembling legs of Fatsis and the shockingly loose lips of such introspective characters as Jake Plummer, Ian Gold, Nate Jackson and Preston Parsons.
It's the best dissection I've read of what it's truly like to play in the NFL. But just in case my endorsement doesn't convince you, I harassed Fatsis via email for the short Q&A below. He lives in DC, by the way, with his excessively cool NPR-hosting wife, so presumably he answered these while smoking a tobacco pipe and arguing about the relative merits of a single-payer health system, and whether the Car Talk guys are really brothers. Just in case you needed a mental image.
Westword (Joe Tone): Is there anything new in the paperback version? Like, anything at all?
Stefan Fatsis: You didn't hear about me signing with the Falcons over the winter? They were tired of that Elam guy's antics, and I had a helluva tryout. Nailed everything from inside 20 yards. There's much new in the paperback, dude! Like a snappy new orange cover! And a new, shorter subtitle! And a new eight-page afterword! I do write about Shanahan's firing and McDaniels' hiring and the ensuing chaos that culminated in Cutler's departure, and I update readers on some of the more prominent characters in the book. (Jake Plummer went to Machu Picchu!) Oh, and it's much, much cheaper than the hardcover.
WW: The book was marketed as a first-person account of your experience as a kicker. But it's much more than that, and the most compelling parts had little to do with kicking. How would you try sell it to a football fan if you had, I don't know, 150 words in an online Q and A to do so?
SF: I'll let ESPN analyst and former Cardinals and Seahawks lineman Ed Cunningham make the case for me: "The best description of the mental and emotional challenges of playing in the NFL that I have seen in print." Yes, hilarity ensues when I become just the second writer in league history allowed to join a team for training camp (after George Plimpton in 1963). But putting on the pads was always just a means to an end -- to understand and describe the hidden reality of life in the NFL. Because, and only because, I was willing to eat with the players, lift with the players and humiliate myself in front of the players, those Broncos came to respect and trust me. Then they were not only willing but eager to open up to me about what it feels like to play this physically and psychologically brutal and operationally dysfunctional sport. Here's a response that I received from an ex-Bronco that you won't find on the book jacket: "You so eloquently captured the mind-fuck that is the NFL." I couldn't ask for a better endorsement than that. (That was 186 words. Sorry.)
WW: Very few (if any) of the Broncos you spent substantial time with for the book are still with the team. Do you stay in touch with any of them, and are any doing anything interesting with their lives?
SF: Actually, none of the players I wrote extensively about are still with the team -- and of the more than 100 guys who passed through that training camp in 2006, just seven are in Dove Valley now. That says a lot about the impermanence of life in the NFL. I do stay in touch with several of my ex-teammates: I talked to Plummer a few months ago and, as you might expect, he's happily moved on from football. Long-snapper Mike Leach is glad to be with the Cardinals. Tight end Nate Jackson and I attended the Obama inauguration together; Nate was drafted by the new United Football League but is hoping to get back in the NFL. (Mike and Nate have some interesting things to say in the new afterword about their release from the Broncos.) My friend Preston Parsons, the former practice-squad quarterback, is selling spinal-surgery equipment in Denver and regularly observing operations, which is pretty cool. My fellow locker mate Tyler Fredrickson is attending USC's prestigious graduate film school. See how smart kickers are?
WW: So: The Broncos are going to suck this yeah, eh?
SF: I learned long ago never to make predictions about professional sports teams.
WW: You're a former sports reporter for a newspaper called the Wall Street Journal, which I hear is huge in New York. In other words: You know a lot about sports journalism. Is it just me, or is going to shit?
SF: I also learned long ago never to relieve yourself where you live. I actually don't think apocalypse is upon us. Yeah, I wish the New York Times hadn't shut down the intelligent and sophisticated Play magazine (not only because I'd just started writing for it) and I wish Sports Illustrated ran more of its traditionally excellent long-form stories. But both of those examples are less about the state of sports journalism than the state of journalism in general. Sure, there's plenty of dreck out there. But there are still terrific sportswriters telling terrific sports stories. The risk is that the business climate continues and fewer outlets remain in which they can tell them. As a corollary, I don't have any problem with the rise of the sports interwebs; some very smart commentary and good writing resides there -- Have you read Joe Posnanski's blog? Does he ever write a bad sentence? -- and frankly, the web is forcing daily media to rethink what they do. (Can we kill the morning-after game story already?) But the pay online is lousy -- even from the name brands; trust me -- and that could force more and more real sports journalists to find something else to do.
WW: Along with football, you've written books about Scrabble players and minor league baseball. What's next?
SF: Full-contact cribbage. It's sweeping the land. Either that or team handball, which, as my friends know, actually is one of my favorite sports. No, I'm starting work on what I hope will be a new book, but I ain't talking about it yet. Look for it in fine bookstores everywhere in 2012! (If there still are bookstores in 2012, that is.)
WW: What are you reading this summer? Should other people read it too, or is it some weird Greek-Scrabble-Kicker-Guy fiction?
SF: I have not read Elam's new Christian football thriller. But I have read a surprisingly large number of actual sports books, most of them by friends, three of them about soccer. Since you asked:
-- The Beckham Experiment, by SI writer (and friend) Grant Wahl.
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-- Heart of the Game, by SI writer (and friend) S.L. Price.
-- Ladies and Gentlemen, the Bronx Is Burning, by (friend) Jonathan Mahler.
-- Outcasts United, by (friend) Warren St. John.
-- Brilliant Orange: The Neurotic Genius of Dutch Soccer, by (stranger) David Winner. Sure, that title sounds a bit narrow, but this is a fantastic examination of how sports mirror society, and vice versa, whether you know anything about Johan Cruyff or not. And the Dutch like orange, just like Broncos fans!