Back On His Feet

Retired Denver Broncos tight end Nate Jackson pens a true rarity: the football memoir that depicts what life is really like in the NFL.

September 18 2013, 4:14 PM

We’re all familiar with the canned quotes most professional athletes give when they’re talking about an injury. “We’re taking a wait-and-see approach.” “The doctor says to take it day-to-day right now.” “It’s something I’m pretty sure I can play through….” Rare is the player who can talk in eloquent detail about the real pain and suffering he endures—which is why the first time you read about a muscle ripping off the bone in Nate Jackson’s memoir, Slow Getting Up, which was published on September 17, you’ll flinch. The second time you read about the same thing—this time, a vivid description of a powerful groin tear—you’ll recoil again. And that’s the point of Slow Getting Up.

Jackson spent the entirety of his six active NFL seasons with the Denver Broncos and suited up with the likes of Jake Plummer and Rod Smith. He took orders from legendary coach Mike Shanahan. But Jackson is not the kind of era-defining athlete—like, say, Peyton Manning—most fans would clamor to read about. Even the jacket of his book, which shows him splayed on the ground, face mask in the grass, suggests his career arc landed well short of Canton, Ohio. That, however, is exactly what makes his memoir—written without the help of a ghostwriter—a book worth reading. It turns out, the less time the fans, the media, and the coaches spent looking at Jackson, the more freedom he had to make sense of the complexities of the National Football League.

As a result, he has a few insights to share with fans; primarily that the existence of a professional football player is an exercise in pain management, literally and figuratively. Sometimes the ache you feel comes from realizing that your boyhood dream job can be just as tedious as any other. But more often than not, it comes from a twisted ankle or a pinched nerve—or those muscles being separated from bone.

Nothing about Jackson’s career was preordained. His journey to Denver began in Northern California, where he was the only devoted athlete in a family of schoolteachers. (His parents wouldn’t allow him to play football until he was in his early teenage years.) Jackson was unrecruited out of high school and cut by Division I-AA Cal Poly before landing at Division III Menlo College, not far from San Jose, California. In Slow Getting Up, he suggests that the biggest reason he got an NFL tryout was because he’d caught the eye of renowned 49ers coach Bill Walsh. Jackson was signed by the San Francisco ball club as an undrafted free agent but was ultimately waived by the team. Denver picked him up for the 2003 season. In short, Jackson was the longest of long shots, which made him acutely aware of the fragility of a football career.

Not that his was especially tenuous. Jackson’s career lasted far longer than those of most undrafted free agents because he was willing to adapt. When the Broncos asked him to put on 30 pounds in order to make the transition from a speedy wide receiver to a bruising tight end, he gladly fixed himself egg, ice cream, and chocolate-sauce shakes every few hours to bulk up to 245 pounds. When simple gluttony wasn’t sufficient, he slipped on ankle weights underneath his sweatpants before coaches asked him to step on the scale.

Looking back, Jackson realizes he did these seemingly ridiculous things because working for the NFL means living inside a harsh reality: “In the NFL, you are alive until you are dead,” he writes. “There is no in between, and no way to put yourself on the other side mentally. You fight every day to keep your job by convincing yourself that you belong.... Then one day, fate sneaks up behind you, taps you on the shoulder, and breaks your nose—or blows out your knee. Then it’s over.”

If that sounds more insightful and infinitely better-expressed than the typical anodyne athlete sound bite, it should. Football wasn’t Jackson’s only marketable talent. Jackson has always liked to write, a skill he spent years nurturing. He took classes at the University of Denver during the offseason, and he penned the Broncos Insider blog during the regular season. And he was encouraged to write by his friend and mentor Stefan Fatsis, an NPR reporter who embedded as a kicker with the Broncos during the 2007 training camp for his own book, A Few Seconds of Panic.

In Fatsis’ story, Jackson was a minor character. Yet Fatsis expertly used the dark-haired, bearded then-28-year-old as a sledgehammer to help dismantle the dumb-jock stereotype. A particularly poignant scene in A Few Seconds of Panic comes when Fatsis observes Jackson reading How the Other Half Lives, a landmark 19th-century work of muckraking photojournalism, while Jackson sits in a locker room ice bath nursing yet another injury.