What is it like to be a journeyman player in the NFL? How much do you make? How do you feel? How badly do you get hurt? What the hell are you trying to do? These are some of the questions answered in Nate Jackson's autobiographical account of his six years in the NFL. Extended review below.
Nate Jackson, SLOW GETTING UP: A Story of NFL Survival from the Bottom of the Pile, HarperCollins, 2013
Take your pick from this hodge-podge—high-minded idealism, crass cynicism, desperation, intense male bonding, intense physical violence, horrible injuries, martinets, men of honor, joy in your personal physical prowess, and play-by-play professional football; all are recurring elements in Nate Jackson’s autobiographical treatment of his six years in the NFL.
Presentation of this somewhat disjointed list is not a complaint about the book’s organization. It is simply a statement about the bizarre world of professional football in which Jackson survived. He survived, but never truly prospered, except in the most prosaic ways. He got more money, playing time in the big game, and more sex, but those benefits came at considerable costs.
My somewhat disorderly list above is also a statement about my own complex, schizophrenic feelings about the sport and this book. The glow on Jackson’s face in his moments of triumph jumps off the page. He pulls in a pass, crosses the goal line for the first time in his NFL career, and then spreads his arms and sweeps around the end zone like a supersonic jet lining up with the runway, holding the ball as he flies back to the bench. Any reader who has participated in competitive sports will have to suppress the urge to run out on the field and hip-bump with him. In moments like this, Jackson gives us a grand glimpse into the instances that are the joy of this strange and violent endeavor.
Of course, in the main, Jackson’s story leaves us with a much more complex picture of professional football, both the players and the game. As they say, “the devil in in the details.” This work enmeshes us in those details. Along the way, we find that much about the game and those in it, especially those controlling it, dramatically dulls the shine on those fleeting, but nonetheless golden and transcendent, moments of joy.
Nate Jackson came to the NFL after great success as a wide receiver at a small college in California. Cal Tech dumped him, but he landed in Menlo College amidst an array of coaches who were former professional football players. He also made contact with the man who would become his “rabbi,” the legendary Bill Walsh. His Menlo years were his golden years. He loved the campus and the college; he especially loved the football. At Menlo, he learned the intricate language of the wide-open west coast offense that Walsh pioneered, and he dominated as a wide-receiver.
Named an All-American in his senior year, he was invited to participate in the high-profile East-West Shrine Game, in part because of Walsh. Walsh had watched him for years and believed he could play at the “next level.” Who would know better? An injury kept him out of the game, but it did not keep him out of the NFL job fair at the site. This beginning was, in light of latter events, prophetic.
“I walk to the front of the stage and stop as instructed. I'm in my underwear. A trickle of sweat runs down my side. One hundred men sit in folding chairs with clip boards in their lap. They look me up and down and scribble notes.”
As was his reaction to not being drafted but picked up as a free agent by San Francisco and traded during first pre-season training camp to the Denver Broncos. Bill Walsh, no longer coaching but still involved, had seen that Jackson was not going to fare well at San Francisco. He contacted Mike Shanahan in Denver and arranged the trade. Jackson was grateful, but he understood his place in the scheme of things in pro ball.
“I am meat, traded to the highest bidder: the only bidder. Fine, I’ll be your meat. I’ll be whatever you want me to be. Just give me a helmet.”
Jackson proved Walsh was correct; he could play at the next level. During his six years in professional football, he was a player (at least in name) with the San Francisco 49ers, the Denver Broncos, a team in Germany in the NFL Europe, and the Cleveland Browns. He began this journey earing just over four thousand dollars a week, worked his way up to over 15 thousand a week with a signing bonus of over 400 thousand dollars. At the end of the downward spiral in his career, he signed on with a start-up team that was part of the short-lived United Football League.
“First we have to sign the contract. Get it in ink! ....The real salary, the one we will be receiving for our services, is $35,000: $35,000 to keep the dream alive. Look, Ma, I’m a Las Vegas Loco.”
Along with way he accumulated incredible experiences, including shoulder separations, pulled hamstrings, pulled groin muscles, Achilles tendonitis, injured core muscles (obliques), a strained chest muscle, a broken finger, a concussion, a neck injury, a deflated knee bursa, and a broken leg. When the average person thinks, if they do, about hamstring injuries, they think about a light strain. Here we are talking about some of the most powerful muscles in the body ripping completely lose from the bone to which they are attached.
You might want to call such gluttony for punishment stupid. It is not. If anyone doubts the intelligence required for professional football, especially in the “skill positions,” this book will open your eyes, widely. Getting what is probably close to a verbatim discussion of game and practice films is like sitting in on a lesson in a foreign language in which you grasp just a few words.
“—Nate, who are you supposed to block on this play?
—Depends on the coverage.
—What coverage are they in?
—Yes, but it’s a Three Cloud: we call that Four.
—I thought Four was quarters.
—Some places it is but we call quarters Cover Eight. You should know that by now. …….
—What you really have to watch for is that Cover Six: the quarter-quarter-half. That’s
Cover Two on half the field and quarters on the other half.”
And this conversation about one busted assignment and how this single play should be run against different sets goes on for pages
You might also find yourself surprised to discover the Bronco’s offense linemen were a deeply religious group of very large men who had Bible study meetings and had a prayer group meeting on game day to prepare for play. The non-believers among us may want to scoff. But, these are men who found their path and brought it into their professional lives. The world would be a much better place if politicians and mortgage bankers did the same.
Unable to tie down a consistent starting position as a wide receiver with the Broncos, where he spent most of his career, he committed himself and his body to “special teams.” No matter whether Denver kicked off or received the opening kick, Nate Jackson played the first down of every game he was healthy. In earlier generations, special teams were dubbed “suicide squads.” The name was well deserved. Racing down the field at close to top speed, which is something that rarely occurs in regular play, desperately hoping to collide head-to-head with someone who is running in the opposite direction at high speed, is not a prescription for good health. But, Jackson persevered through his anatomy chart of injuries, and Bronco’s head coach, Shanahan, continued to have faith in Jackson’s skills and determination not to be sidelined by injuries.
The mantra of professional football players who are not household names is “the more I do; the more chances I have to stay here.” This attitude “forced” Jackson into playing tight end, rather than wide receiver. This meant that someone whose true playing weight was somewhere south of 230 pounds was assigned to block defensive ends whose true weight was usually somewhere north of 300 pounds. Jackson sometimes wore ankle weights under his sweats when he weighed, so that his coaches would believe he was maintaining the desired weight. He should have been playing at something near 250 or 260, but that was an unachievable fantasy.
As his time with the Broncos lengthened, he became one of the many players whose continued presence on the field on game day depended on intramuscular injections of pain killers and anti-inflammatories on the night before a game. He was badly beaten down, but he was not defeated.
“Last night after meetings I lined up for the needle again: 60 milligrams of Toradol, a powerful anti-inflammatory and painkiller. Ten or fifteen of us rely on it every game, physically and mentally. We live in pain during the week. We want to feel good on game day, and adrenaline isn’t enough anymore.”
It was only with Shanahan’s firing as head coach of the Broncos that Nate Jackson lost all his anchors and became a free agent seeking a slot somewhere or anywhere. He spent a short time with the Browns. He is called to tryouts by Philadelphia and New Orleans. He landed in Las Vegas, where his journey finally ended with a final injury that stamped paid to his ticket to play professional football.
During the 2008 season, the NFL had almost eight billion (yes, that is nine zeroes) in revenue, none of it considered for Federal corporate taxes. Roughly 57 percent of that amount was paid out in player salaries. In 2013, base salaries for Denver Bronco players ranged from 15 million (Peyton Manning) to between 400 and 500 thousand dollars for the lowest paid 37 of the 53 players on the team roster.
Under the NFL retirement plan, Nate Jackson, by my calculations, is eligible for just over $2800 a month when he reaches 55, unless he has additional money in a 401k plan, which the NFL matched at two to one. The average number of years of play for those rookies who are on a team roster at the beginning of their rookie season is six years, according to the NFL. That was Nate Jackson. As for health insurance to combat the injuries sustained in his career, take a look at website of the “Gridiron Great Assistance Fund” for stories that will break your heart. Also, serious question are arising about whether the recent three-quarter billion dollar settlement between former players and the NFL includes enough money to cover injuries to the class of plaintiffs.
Many players, at the sunset of their career, will imitate Nick Nolte’s morning-after routine in North Dallas Forty. Nate Jackson certainly did. He and those others will be almost continual candidates for orthopedic surgery as they get older. Some players will survive their playing years with relatively intact bodies only to sink decades later into early dementia resulting of far too many head injuries. Some, like young Ryan Swope, will now see their lifelong dream of being a professional football player dissolve before their hungry eyes because of the utterly fearless way they played collegiate ball and the injuries that resulted from their combination of skill and courage.
Profession football is a dirty industry. Owners make tons of money. Cities give up more tons of taxpayer’s money. Players are maimed for life. It was our own version of Rome’s gladiatorial games, at least until ultimate fighting became the rage. It remains one of the distillations of our culture’s disturbing concept of manliness. Jackson often gives us a glimpse into that distillation. The hyperbolic description of his emotions during the last few plays of a game against Green Bay capture an important aspect of that distillation.
“I want blood. I want to taste the iron on my tongue as I rip the flesh from a safety’s bones and play Hacky Sack with his testicles.”
This is a well-done piece of writing. Jackson’s imagery is vivid. His honesty is refreshing. If you want an interesting and relatively enthralling look at professional football and some of those devoted to it, then Slow Getting Up will be very satisfying. If you want thoughtful introspection about why the boys and men in professional football endure what they endure or a discussion of the context in which a game becomes a major industry that rakes in billions while riding the bloodied backs of its players, then you need to find something else to read.
I am convinced the only way the game can be played safely is for it to be done in a virtual reality environment, one that integrates movement and power. That is not something that will makes fans swoon, owners rich, or players godlike. So, football, as we know it, must die. But, it will not go without kicking and screaming. It will take time. Remember, the appendix did not become a vestigial organ overnight.
In part it will continue because it is a source of revenue and adventure for powerful men. But, that is only part of why it will persevere. It will also continue drawing breath because there are young men today watching quarterbacks scramble and pass, receivers who seem like gymnasts blessed with hands covered in glue, and middle linebackers who prowl the line like enormous panthers and flex their hands because they want so badly to reach their prey.
After a televised game ends, front lawns and backyards will suddenly be populated by boys who saw the game. A football will appear, and they will play. Each boy will imagine himself on a field with thousands of people ready to cheer his prowess. Like Nate Jackson, these boys will be willing to sacrifice their bodies and minds to achieve that dream and stand with their fellows amidst those cheering throngs—for as long as they can.