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

When Jackson’s career ended after—you guessed it—another one of his muscles ripped from the bone (this time it was a hamstring), Fatsis encouraged him to start offering his services as a writer with a unique insider’s perspective on America’s most popular sport. That led Jackson to pen op-eds on hot-button topics like painkillers, concussions, and labor shortages in the NFL in high-profile publications such as the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and Slate. But the idea of a book didn’t coalesce until a couple of years later. He had liked Fatsis’ book, especially the way in which Fatsis took pro sports “down a peg.” But he also knew it was missing a perspective only someone like him could offer. “I knew there were places I could go that Stefan just couldn’t,” Jackson says. “There were tactile experiences I had that he didn’t.”

For the first year after he got a contract from HarperCollins Publishers to write the book, Jackson took the same approach he employed when writing reported opinion pieces for the Times or Slate: He tried writing about the divisive issues facing the sport. It wasn’t working. “I didn’t really understand the story,” he says. “Then I realized the more personal the writing, the better it got.” That led him to the conclusion that a memoir tracing the arc of his career would be the most compelling way to help fans understand what it’s actually like to play in the NFL.

That simple decision put Jackson into something of a literary category unto himself. NFL players don’t often write memoirs. Instead, football books generally fall into one of two categories: the ex-coach’s or wise observer’s strategic guide to winning championships, or the big biography about the retired superstar. Jackson says he was partially inspired by two memoirs—Dave Meggyesy’s Out of Their League and Michael Oriard’s The End of Autumn—that were released in the 1970s and early ’80s, but that was at a time when the game’s cultural influence was a fraction of what it is today. Because of the dearth of memoirs by pro players, Jackson’s voice is singular; he’s a knowledgeable and trustworthy guide into mostly unexplored terrain—like the minds of men who relish the opportunity to hit other men at top speed with the crowns of their helmets.

“Football players are conditioned for violence,” he writes. “We are at home in the melee. We may have moments of quiet reservation and doubt when lying on our living room couches, but on the field we are pulled toward the mayhem. The feel of the helmet and shoulder pads, the sound of the whistle, the taste of the mouthpiece, the smell of grass and sweat: sacraments for bloodshed.”

Football is mythologized and glorified by commentators who fling around war metaphors and ESPN broadcasts that feature ultraslow-motion, rock ’n’ roll soundtracked replays. It’s refreshing, then, to read a book that humanizes a sport which does its best to make its fans forget that the people playing it are in fact human beings. Apt anecdotes grace almost every page of Slow Getting Up, each one reminding the reader that this brutal game is played mostly by young men—Jackson dubs them “mandolescents”—who respond to their surroundings accordingly.

Jackson recounts the time when, standing on the sidelines during a game, a fellow injured Bronco handed him a Gatorade bottle full of cognac, and the two proceeded to swill it while their teammates played. He tells other captivating stories: one, for example, about sweet-talking his way into a party at the Playboy Mansion during his early, brief stint in San Francisco; another about how, on his first trip overseas to play for NFL Europe, he was warned by a veteran that the continent didn’t have oversized condoms so he best bring his own.

But Slow Getting Up is not a dishy tell-all (though Jackson does for the first time reveal his own scary, late-career experience of injecting himself with human growth hormone). It is a journal of the day-to-day football life Jackson tolerated. And much like a real football game, the sensational moments in his career came sandwiched between long stretches of tedium: airplane rides to exhibition games in Japan; depressing rehab stints in Birmingham, Alabama; and meetings—tons and tons of meetings. “The NFL, it turns out, is mostly talking,” he writes, recalling the end of another 13-hour day. It’s also about the anxiety of knowing no one lasts long in a sport where muscle and bone are so routinely separated from each other. “To be in the NFL, you can’t be in awe of the NFL,” Jackson writes. “You can’t appreciate it while you’re doing it. There’s precious little time for self-reflection.”
That’s one reason, at least, for Broncos fans to be happy Jackson’s career was cut short. It finally gave him the time he needed to reflect—enough time to write the kind of football book that can be described by a word that never described him when he was playing: indispensable.