Authors: Nate Jackson
© AP Photos/Jack Dempsey
SLOW GETTING UP
A Story of NFL Survival
from the Bottom of the Pile
“Wake the fuck up. It’s time to hit.”
“Look, Ma, I’m a Denver Bronco.”
“The grass is still green, the hits still hurt, and the ball in flight is still the most beautiful sight I know.”
“It takes a village to raise a jock.”
“The weight comes quickly. So do the bowel movements.”
“It’s hard to play quarterback with a noose around your neck.”
“One-liner small talk with approachable vampires.”
“God loves the NFL too much to crash one of its planes.”
“Whatever this is, it feels important.”
“The limp and the hop echo off the tiles of an empty shower room.”
“Every game a needle.”
“I am doing God’s work, after all.”
To Mom and Dad
Why did football bring me so to life? I can’t say precisely. Part of it was my feeling that football was an island of directness in a world of circumspection. In football a man was asked to do a difficult and brutal job, and he either did it or got out. There was nothing rhetorical or vague about it; I chose to believe that it was not unlike the jobs which all men, in some sunnier past, had been called upon to do. It smacked of something old, something traditional, something unclouded by legerdemain and subterfuge. It had that kind of power over me, drawing me back with the force of something known, scarcely remembered, elusive as integrity—perhaps it was no more than the force of a forgotten childhood. Whatever it was, I gave myself up utterly. The recompense I gained was the feeling of being alive.
Football is fun.
I hear the sound of children playing.
And I can feel the wind. I hear it rustling through the autumn leaves.
I smell the wet dirt and the long grass.
There is an iron taste in my mouth. This is where I belong.
Mom, tell me when it’s time—
—Don’t move, Nate. They’re going to a TV timeout. Just relax.
That’s Greek, our trainer. It’s Thursday night in November 2008 and we’re playing a nationally televised game in Cleveland. I’m a tight end for the Denver Broncos. I’m sure that, above me, the hit is being replayed over and again in slow motion. I also know that my mother is watching at home. With Greek holding my head and neck still, I move my legs and arms to let her know I’m not paralyzed.
After a minute, I get up and walk off the field, mad at myself for not holding on to the ball. I almost caught it. Had it in my hands. But Willie McGinest, a linebacker for the Browns, dislodged it when he buried his shoulder into my temple and spun me around in the air. I hit the ground like a dead body.
I stand on the sidelines as Jay Cutler finishes the drive with his third touchdown pass of the quarter. It goes to Brandon Marshall. After the score B-Marsh reaches for something in his pants but Brandon Stokley, another star receiver, stops him, fearing a flag for an unlicensed prop. The Browns receive the kickoff, can’t score, and we win. A much-needed win; we had dropped the previous three. The locker room afterward is raucous with reenactments of the end zone shenanigans. B-Marsh had been reaching for a homemade black and white unity glove he had tucked into his game pants, and now, in the safety of the locker room, Stokley’s standing on a bench doing his best Tommy Smith impression from the 1968 Olympics. It is two days after Barack Obama’s election and B-Marsh wanted to honor the moment. His president is black and he is proud. And like many proud black men who came before him, he got bear-hugged by whitey. Great gesture, bad timing. They call it the No Fun League for a reason.
On the airplane ride back to Denver I sit completely still and sip a cocktail. We used to have beers on the flights but NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell banned them. Legislate all you want, demand finds its supply. And booze is easier to smuggle past a tarmac TSA screening than a thirty-pack.
I go to our team physician, Dr. Geraghty, and ask him if he could give me something for the pain.
—I can’t move my neck, Doc.
He says the best he can do is one Vicodin and one muscle relaxer and hands me two pills in a small bag.
—That’s it? Two pills?
I hold up the nearly empty bag.
—You’re going to make me hit the streets for this one?
The two pills don’t make it off the plane. I lie in bed all weekend, unable to move my head. By the time Monday comes around I put on my sweats and drive into work, stiffer than a wedding night’s dick, as one of my coaches used to say. Business as usual.
Yes, I could have gone in for injury treatment over the weekend, but I’m sick of being treated for injuries, sick of spending time in the training room, sick of feeling fragile. It is my sixth year in the league. I’m well versed in the injury/rehab cycle of professional football. I know which injuries I need to treat and which ones I can handle on my own. This one I can handle. As long as I can run fast I’m fine.
deal with the pain all week and by game day I am ready to play. It will be the last game of my career.
It is in Atlanta against the Falcons. We win 24–20. I have three catches for 33 yards. I jump over a cornerback after one of them. Most cornerbacks tackle low. They shoot for the kneecaps or the ankles because that’s how you can bring down a larger man. The announcer says I shouldn’t have jumped over him. He says it was too dangerous. I could have been hurt. Worse, I could have fumbled.
Several days after our win in Atlanta we’re practicing in preparation for the Raiders game at home in Denver. Practice is dragging along. We’re running plays against our scout team defense. There are two tight ends in the huddle: me and Tony Scheffler. Our quarterback, Jay Cutler, calls a play that has us running mirrored corner routes on either side of the ball. Tony and I are always being scolded for not reaching our required depth on our routes. If the route calls for ten yards, we’re always breaking it off at nine. If it calls for twelve, we make it eleven. We’re the same that way: eager to get there and eager to get the ball. We break the huddle and agree to go for the full twelve this time.
I run it full and break to the corner. Jay throws me a fastball with an arc that leads me to the sideline. I burst to track it down and a lightning bolt strikes me from behind. My hamstring rips off the ass bone with a bang, the sound of my season ending right there.
A month later, after a three-game losing streak puts us out of the playoffs for the third consecutive year, our team’s season ends, too. And a few days after that, our head coach, Mike Shanahan—the man who brought me to Denver in the first place—is fired. There is zero job security in the NFL. Everyone knows that. But if there
anything close to job security, everyone thought Coach Shanahan had it. He had won two Super Bowls for the city of Denver. He was a close friend of the owner. He was building a new house. We were good every year. But good isn’t good enough in the National Football League.
After a two-week search, the Broncos hire Josh McDaniels, thirty-two-year-old offensive coordinator with the New England Patriots. He helped organize the most potent offense in the NFL while still in his twenties. A young Shanahan, some are saying. I’m still rehabbing at the facility every day so a few days after he is hired, I go upstairs to introduce myself. Check him out. See if he knows I’m on the team. We’re pretty much the same age. We both went to Division III colleges. I’m sure we have a lot in common.
The Denver Broncos facility is an ode to the Super Bowl victories of 1997 and ’98. Life-sized pictures of John Elway, Ed McCaffrey, Rod Smith, Shannon Sharpe, and Terrell Davis line the halls of the second floor, where the coaches’ offices are. The year before Shanahan was hired as the head coach of the Broncos, he was the offensive coordinator of the San Francisco 49ers, whose 1994 team was one of the most dominant in the history of the sport. It catapulted Coach to superstardom. He brought that 49er pedigree to Denver and changed the sports landscape of the city.
Just outside of his office there was an eight-foot photo of himself. It was the classic, intense, game-day countenance of the wizard behind the curtain. When you stood at the threshold, this face was a reminder of what was expected: accountability through tradition. Every time I had stepped foot in that office, it had been to sit down at Mike Shanahan’s desk.
But now he is gone, and so are all of his assistant coaches. The pictures have been taken off the walls. The halls are empty. Except for our general manager, Brian Xanders, who has somehow kept his job. And sitting behind the desk usually occupied by Shanahan’s longtime secretary is a bro wearing a baseball cap and sucking on a red lollipop.
His cap is severely bent, his striped polo shirt is fading, and the pockets of his cargo shorts bulge with what can only be more candy. Waxy wrappers are strewn on his desk. The NFL is supposed to be an institution of proud tradition, I say to myself, where battle-tested men carry themselves with class and dignity.
—An institution of what?
—Dude, do you have any Smarties?
am sitting in a chair in the hallway, dumbstruck at the change in fortune. I imagine young Josh McDaniels walking into Pat Bowlen’s office for the interview and tossing a jockstrap on the owner’s desk without saying a word. After a minute of awkward silence, he probably said something like, Go ahead. Smell it. This belonged to Tom Brady, Mr. Bowlen. That’s the smell of success. That’s the smell of the Super Bowl. That’s the smell of . . .
Done. The job was his.
—Josh will see you now.
I step into Shanahan’s old office and shake hands with my new coach. He looks like a little kid sitting in the cockpit of an airplane. For fifteen minutes he rattles off clichés about his football philosophy and his plans for the team. He says that everyone will have a chance to prove themselves on the field. He says he looks forward to seeing how I will digest his offensive system. But he doesn’t make eye contact with me and doesn’t laugh at my jokes. After an awkward silence, I grab my jockstrap off his desk and leave. I know I’m in trouble.
A few weeks later my rehab is almost complete. My ass bone has tentatively embraced the return of the tendons on my hamstring; a deal brokered by the bridge of goop injected into the bony insertion of my ischial tuberosity. The procedure is called a PRP injection: platelet-rich plasma. It’s my own blood, spun in a centrifuge to separate the good goop from the bad, then injected into the site of the injury: the insertion of hamstring to lower pelvis. It’s the second time in two seasons I’ve had a PRP shot.
Before I can go home, I have to be medically cleared. I submit to several strength and agility tests and Greek says that I look fine. All I have to do is sign an affirmation of health. For physically sound players this is done the day after the last game of the season. Any injury that’s in the books—meaning anything that received treatment in the training room—needs to be considered healthy in order for you to go home.
—How’s your left ankle?
—Your right wrist?
—Your ninth and tenth ribs on the left side?
—Your fifth and sixth on the right?
—Do you consider yourself fit to play football?
It’s one more piece of paper in an ever-growing injury file about the size of a dictionary. I sit down across from Greek and Dr. Boublik at the end of every season. It’s the only day of the year I see that file. By now, the thickness disturbs me. I wince a little and scribble my name on the dotted line. The dictionary slams shut. I’m free to go.
Early the next month I’m in San Jose, California, visiting my family. I’m leaving my sister’s house and my phone rings. It’s my agent, Ryan Tollner.
—Hi, Nate. Have you heard anything from the Broncos?
—They’re releasing you today. No one called you?
—Wow. All right, we’re going to find you another team.
I hang up and drive. My Bronco life, like a stack of images being shuffled, flashes in front of my windshield. I always knew this moment would come but there was no way to prepare for it. In the NFL, you are alive until you are dead. 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. And every day you return to work and see your name still posted above your locker is proof that you deserve that locker. 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.
When I get back to my parents’ house, my mom tells me there is a message for me on the machine.
—Uh, hi Nate, this is Brian Xanders with the Denver Broncos. Please give me a call when you can regarding your, uh, garble garble garble. My number is bleep bleep bleeble.
I call him and get his machine, leave a message, and wait. I sit on the bed in my childhood bedroom, looking out on the street where I fell in love with the sport. Out there I was Jerry Rice, streaking down the gutter line in the fading daylight. In here I am a twenty-nine-year-old man, waiting for my NFL coffin to be nailed shut.
Late into the afternoon: still no call from Xanders. I call him again; again his machine. Busy guy. After ten minutes, he calls me back.
—Hey, Nate. So you probably know by now. We’re releasing you today. It wasn’t anything you did, necessarily. We’ve gone over every player in detail and we’ve decided to go in another direction. I want to thank you for all your hard work and if there’s anything I can do to help you from here on out, let me know. I’ll have nothing but good things to say if we are contacted by another team. Oh, and if you want a better explanation, feel free to call Josh. He’d be happy to talk to you. Okay. Good luck, Nate.
Going in another direction. Bang! The final nail was a cliché. I call Josh.
C’mon, Josh, tell me I’m too old. Tell me I’m too slow. Tell me I’m damaged goods. Tell me I’m not good enough. Tell me something. Just don’t bullshit me.
—Coach McDaniels’s office.
—May I speak to Josh, please?
—Who can I tell him is calling?
—Okay, just one second.
Thirty seconds later.
—Nate, yeah, he’s, uh, he’s in a meeting. But he said he’ll call you right back. What’s the best number to reach you at?
—The same number you have on file. My cell: 867-5309.
—Okay, got it. Thanks.
He never called.