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A Few Seconds of Panic: A 5-Foot-8, 170-Pound, 43-Year-Old Sportswriter Plays in the NFL Hardcover – July 3, 2008
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From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. Fatsis (Word Freak) is dwarfed by any of the NFL athletes who put their bodies on the line each Sunday. But that doesn't stop him from asking to attend the Denver Broncos' training camp in hopes of learning one very specific athletic skill—that is, placekicking—and not to become an NFL-caliber kicker, but to become a credible one. Fatsis is treated like any rookie, from having to sing his alma mater's fight song minutes after stepping into the locker room to carrying the team's duffel bags and bunking in the hotel with all the other rookies. But his vibrant enthusiasm for improving his kicking ability helps his Bronco teammates accept him as one of their own. With that, the reader gets a glimpse of the true NFL, in the tradition of George Plimpton's Paper Lion. We see the crippling injuries that are kept secret for fear of losing playing time; the heartbreak of standing on the sidelines in camp, just aching to prove one's worth; the tears that come when the NFL dream could be over. Fatsis, too, has his own personal highs and lows through camp, enduring the long days, the trainer's visits and the sting of failure in front of coaches and players. It's an incredibly fascinating read for football fans, squashing the notion that the life of an NFL player is always glamorous. (July)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Fatsis, who took up competitive Scrabble for Word Freak (2001), shows again that he’s no slouch at participatory journalism. Like George Plimpton (Paper Lion, 1966), Fatsis decides to try out for an NFL team (as a kicker for the Denver Broncos) and then write about the experience, but he soon finds that pro teams today aren’t as ready to let a journalist take the field. The NFL has become much more concerned with public image and security, and athletes are altogether more imposing now than they were back in the day. Still, he has a good (if sometimes painful) time in his stint with the Broncos, and the book, like Word Freak, is more about personalities than the game itself. Fatsis’ journey from a curiosity to a teammate is rocky at first, becoming smoother as he demonstrates he isn’t just some writer guy but someone who is committed to performing, if briefly, as a fellow athlete. Not just a modern-day Paper Lion (though it holds up admirably by comparison), this book stands on its own two feet as an insightful and entertaining glimpse behind the scenes of the NFL. --David Pitt
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I reviewed Paper Lion, which was enjoyable largely because of its novelty and humor. Plimpton was the first journalist to embed himself with an NFL team, and his self-deprecating humor shone through. Also, Plimpton had the incomparable Alex Karras and his hysterical stories for material. More than 40 years have passed and sportswriter Stefan Fatsis is the first since Plimpton to go behind the scenes and document the NFL of today as a player. Much has changed.
Football is supposed to be fun, but the NFL of today comes across largely as a grim business. As a Denver Bronco, Fatsis encounters firsthand the adversarial relationship between players and management. The 1990's brought free agency to the NFL, which benefited players financially by enabling them to switch teams, selling their talents to the highest bidder. An NFL career is short, and players scramble to make as much money as they can in their few top earning years as a professional athlete. As Fatsis points out, the problem lies in the fact that since "players were less loyal to teams, so teams were less loyal to players." The result has been that players are loyal only to the team who pays them the most, and teams use players like meat, often using them only to secure a win (or to motivate other players to win by threatening the starters' jobs) and ruthlessly discarding them when no longer needed.
Fatsis learning to kick is fun, and it is interesting meeting the players in the locker room and getting to know them. We see firsthand the cold ruthlessness of Mike Shanahan. Chad Mustard is a great Scrabble player (a fact which Fatsis uses to plug his book on competitive Scrabble, Word Freak). We watch as punter Todd Sauerbrun intimidates his competition in training camp and becomes a cancer in the locker room. All-time great kicker Jason Elam talks about his hunting exploits and Christian mission work. We also see how the tragic murder of cornerback Darrent Williams mere hours after the last game of the season effects the team. Far from passionate collegiate athletes, most of the pros presented here are just doing a job, trying to provide for their families, and trying not to get hurt in the process.
The "everyman" angle in this book is fun up to a point, but it seems a bit self-serving after a while. The book also highlights a problem with participatory journalism. As a journalist, Fatsis is hesitant to bite the hand that feeds him. One of the biggest problems faced by the NFL today involves reported rampant drug use. The author broaches the subject only briefly, limiting his observations to Todd Sauerbrun's 4 game suspension for ephedra use.
The book feels light. Fatsis doesn't dig too deeply, and as a result it seems that he is not giving us the full story on the team that allowed him this rare access.
Fatsis wanted to experience camp and the accompanying thoughts & emotions like a regular NFL player. Rejected previously by a number of NFL teams, he finally finds a willing partner in the Broncos, who prove to be an accessible and open organization. He has extensive conversations with Pat Bowlen (the owner), Ted Sundquist (the GM) and Mike Shanahan (the long-time, all-powerful head coach).
Fatsis spends a lot of time with the kickers and punters, who describe their camp experience as "eat, play video games, go on the computer" (40). Jason Elam, co-holder of an NFL record 63-yd FG completion, is described as "the kid in high school who gets along equally well with the jocks, the brains, the geeks and the slackers, and influences their behavior." (113) Elam is a right-wing Christian who hunts in Africa, writes Armageddon-based novels and gives friendly advice (and roots for) Fatsis. Micah Knorr is a journeyman punter who is brought in after Todd Sauerbrun is suspended for 4 games because positive test for ephedra. Todd lives in "Toddworld," doesn't like football anymore, and he gives a cynical perspective about life in the NFL.
Fatsis attends a rookie orientation with 14 other players. When asked the age that the average NFL career ends, Jay Cutler guesses 27. "Twenty-six," (72) is the correct answer. Life in the NFL is brutal, and except for Sundays, not at all glamorous. Fatsis compares Ben Hamilton's fingers to "cracks in a shattered windshield. Not a single digit remotely straight." (116). Players don't report little injuries, and more often than not, they don't seek treatment. Players live in fear of getting cut or replaced, and most of the 70+ players that report to camp each summer do not make much money.
Ian Gold describes football as just "a money making machine" (203) and that "they're looking for your replacement the day you step foot in this door." (203) Chapter 12 describes the experiences of Kyle Johnson (back-up fullback), Gold (starting outside linebacker) and Adam Meadows (an offensive lineman who came out of retirement for another shot) at length. While grateful for the opportunity and the money, all of them have had some trying experiences.
Shanahan thrusts Fatsis into the spotlight in the middle of practice one day: "He's going to kick. If he makes it, meetings will end at nine instead of nine thirty." (146) He misses the kick and collapses in disgrace on the field. A couple of players race to him and ask the coach for another kick. Fatsis misses again, costing the team a total of "45 hours of freedom" (149). His teammates alternately rip him (with some hilarious vulgarity on page 151) or ignore him. Because of the pressure and failure, Fatsis begins to get an idea of what life is like as an NFL player at training camp.
Jake Plummer (starting QB), Preston Parsons (4th string QB), Nate Jackson (DB), PJ Alexander (back-up OL), Tony Scheffler (rookie TE) are all entertaining characters who open up to Fatsis throughout the book. All of them come off as extremely genuine and likeable.
Fatsis leaves the team at the end of training camp, but he continues to follow the Broncos (and the players from camp that end up on other teams). In the Epilogue, he describes the 2006 and 2007 seasons. Cutler replaces Plummer; Darrent Williams is murdered on New Year's; Elam leaves for Atlanta, Sauerbrun is cut, resigned and then cut again; Plummer retires; Sundquist is fired. "This bit of where-are-they-now about my Broncos is, I realize, kind of depressing...," he writes (but it is fascinating). "Of the more than one hundred men who spent time with the Broncos while I was in Denver, just half are in training camp in 2007, less than a third on the roster in September" (330). Life in the NFL is fleeting indeed.
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Plimpton, you might recall, wrote a book in the early 1960's called "Paper Lion" on his experiences when he participated in...Read more