Department

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.

October 2013

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.

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.