As football fans, we're conditioned to treat kickers with the same mix of disdain and dismissal their teammates and coaches do. Those goofy facemasks, those almost-normal physiques, that curious inability to make every last kick they attempt – they're so helpless, it's sometimes hard to even get mad when they screw up. Except when they miss extra points, of course, at which point we'd like to take them into the locker room and beat them with their special little kicker-cleats.
The point is: Who cares about kickers? I never have, so when I picked up Stefan Fatsis' new book, A Few Seconds of Panic, I honestly didn't expect to get through it. Granted, the premise was intriguing enough: Fatsis, after successfully infiltrating the Scrabble world for his book Word Freak, convinced the Broncos to let him embed himself with the team for the 2006 training camp. Fatsis sought to become a sort of modern-day Plimpton – only in this win-or-die era, no team would let a writer cut into the reps of its precious quarterbacks. So Fatsis wisely asked to play the one position for which even the famously anal Mike Shanahan might unclench himself: kicker.
It worked. After nearly every team in the league turned him down, Fatsis spent several weeks practicing and – more importantly – hanging with the Broncos, alternating between trying to become a competent kicker and trying to gain access to the usually-closed-to-the-public minds of NFL players.
I'll leave you to discover how he fares in his kicker-quest – that journey is the book's driving force, and it's simultaneously gut-busting and gut-wrenching. But in his quest to get players to share their feelings about life in the league, I assure you: Fatsis splits the damn uprights.
Simply by putting on shoulder pads, by experiencing just a sliver of what they do during training camp, Fatsis manages to get not one, not a few, but several Broncos players – and even, at times, Shanahan – to talk more honestly and freely than you could hear in five seasons worth of post-game interviews. Former quarterback Jake Plummer dishes on the team's decision to draft Jay Cutler. Tight end Tony Scheffler, a rookie at the time, talks about the unhinged approach of his position coach, Tim Brewster, now the head coach of the University of Minnesota (and, according to Fatsis' portrayal, a very committed dick).
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But no one lets his down his guard – hell, chucks his guard over a freeway railing -- more than former Pro Bowl linebacker Ian Gold, who tells Fatsis that a season-ending injury was God's revenge against the Broncos for not signing him to a long-term deal. It's the start of a mighty soliloquy on loyalty in pro football:
“The hard part for me is dealing with the lack of loyalty, dealing with people who have such a lack of integrity that it's just sickening. You have coaches who will smile to your face and then shit on you the next second. ...
This is business. ... Don't hug me, don't touch me, don't call me your buddy, don't tell me you love me, because I know you'll motherfuck me as soon as I leave the room.
That's how I deal with it personally. I keep everybody at a clear distance, more than an arm's length away. Since I've been in the league, I've befriended maybe two guys. Coaches? No. You've got a dinner over at your house. For what? What are you having the linebackers over at your house for? This is bullshit to me. Everybody thinks I'm an asshole because I am this way... I hate to say it, when we're on this field, we'll play together and we'll play our ass off together. But when we leave this facility, peace out.”
It's stomach-socking moment in a book stocked with them, and it demonstrates three things: The NFL, it seems from this and other passages, should really stand for the “No Friends League.” The word “motherfuck” is highly underused as a verb. And, wouldn't you know it: Kickers are sort of useful after all. At least ones with notebooks. -- Joe Tone