Nate Jackson: Ex-Bronco's memoir, like its author, beats the NFL odds

There are plenty of reasons to read Slow Getting Up: A Story of NFL Survival from the Bottom of the Pile, Nate Jackson's breezy account of his struggles as a mostly backup player for six seasons. It's grimly funny, surprisingly well-written, bristling with backstage stuff without seeming gossipy, rueful without the self-pity and narcissism found in most jocks' memoirs. But Denver Bronco fans should find it particularly revealing, since most of Jackson's career was spent right here, scrambling to find a spot on the team in the deepening twilight of the Shanahan era.

An undrafted free agent from a Division III school (Menlo College), Jackson arrived in Denver after a brief training-camp brush with the 49ers. Between many, many injuries, a stint on the practice squad, and some penance served in the limbo of NFL Europe, he managed to play a little wide receiver and tight end for the Broncos, as well as special teams. He arrived in the throes of the post-Elway, pre-Tebow doldrums and picked up some receiver wisdom from the venerable Rod Smith shortly before the latter's retirement. He weathered the Jake Plummer-Jay Cutler quarterback controversy and the shock of Mike Shanahan's dismissal before getting the ax himself from new coach Josh McDaniels, whom Jackson describes as "a bro wearing a baseball cap and sucking on a red lollipop...a little kid sitting in the cockpit of an airplane."

Jackson's years with the Broncos amount to an eye-opening exercise in tenuousness, filled with the enormous hurdles that even deeply talented and determined athletes face in trying to hang onto a career that can often be measured in weeks. (Some of Jackson's early reflections on all this can be found in his 2007 blog posts for Westword.) There's the constant threat of injury -- which in Jackson's case, amounts to a catastrophic series of dislocations, sprains, torn hamstrings, groin pulls and worse. But there's also the temptations of too much cash too fast, the distractions of partying and winsome "jersey chasers," the complexities of contemporary coaching schemes and training regimens -- and, of course, the sycophantic but voracious media hacks, who must be humored but are generally fed bullshit. ("Do say: We're taking this thing one game at a time and we'll see what happens. Don't say: Man, I really would like to go home and eat a heroin sandwich.")

Slow Getting Up is less about superstars than the journeymen who, like Jackson, exult over every precious opportunity to get on the field, whether in preseason or the real thing. Some of the best passages deal with off-field excesses during all that down time -- like four rookies (including Jackson) getting stuck with a $26,000 tab at Del Frisco's for an annual veterans dinner, or a cash-sucking trip to Vegas that ends with huge bar bills and an entanglement with a cocktail waitress who turns out to be married. The dark side of all this indulgence is brought home to Jackson by the 2007 murder of Darrent Williams, after some New Year's Eve skirmishes with the wrong people.

Continue for more about Nate Jackson's Slow Getting Up. Yet the Broncos come off as a relatively sane, professional and decent operation compared to some NFL teams. After he's cut by McHoodie, Jackson finds himself briefly a Cleveland Brown, during the preposterous reign of Eric Mangini, "a doughy thirty-eight-year-old frat boy with parted hair and a butt-chin." In Jackson's version, Mangini's drills and team meetings have a great deal in common with Soviet re-education camps. After the Browns release him, Jackson sinks even lower -- to injecting himself with human growth hormone and a final run with the Las Vegas Locomotives of the United Football League. Still, his six years in the big time works out to twice as long a stay as that of the average NFL starter.

Jackson wishes that the coaches would do less micromanaging, let players truly heal instead of rushing them back into the fray, and that the league was less maniacal about testing for marijuana, which he regards as a better painkiller than a lot of the legal dope players are using. ("No one ever overdoses from weed. The problem is pills and booze.") But as long as his body holds out, he keeps coming back to the game:

"I rail against what I now see as years of mishandled injuries, against the emptiness of fornicating with jersey chasers, against my own inability to turn from the game...and against the entire bastardized commercialization of what to me is the most beautiful game on earth. And here is the crux of it: I still believe in the beauty of the game. This above all else is true."

The story Jackson tells rings true, wry and poignant. Check it out.

More from our A Week in the Life archive circa December 2007: "Day Two: Wherein Broncos Tight End Nate Jackson Gets Fondled."

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Alan Prendergast has been writing for Westword for over thirty years. He teaches journalism at Colorado College; his stories about the justice system, historic crimes, high-security prisons and death by misadventure have won numerous awards and appeared in a wide range of magazines and anthologies.
Contact: Alan Prendergast