Gelf Magazine - Looking over the overlooked

Books | Sports

January 3, 2011

Any Given Wednesday

The NFL looks a lot less like a videogame, and more like 'ER,' when the cameras are off midweek. Anthony Gargano offers a closer look at the brutal, brilliant sport.

Graydon Gordian

In the prologue to NFL Unplugged: The Brutal, Brilliant World of Professional Football, his frank, behind-the-scenes look at the National Football League, Anthony Gargano tells the story of a right tackle—"the bland side," Gargano calls it—who, while climbing into a cold tub after practice one day, slipped and fractured his tailbone. It's difficult to read Gargano recount the pain-filled nights during which the hulking, anonymous man was unable to sleep, or the games he played in a narcotics-induced, slightly less pain-filled haze.

Anthony Gargano. Photo by Laura Novak.
"I want fans to appreciate the part of the game that is glamourless and maybe even a little repugnant."

Anthony Gargano. Photo by Laura Novak.

I broke my arm and injured my back during a brief, unremarkable stint as a high-school football player, and my bones ache just thinking about it. As I contemplated what he put his body through each week, I felt both respect and sympathy for the man. It was one of the more harrowing anecdotes about life in the NFL that I had ever read—or at least it qualified as such before I reached the end of NFL Unplugged and experienced many more instances of sympathetic pain.

Everyone understands that football is a tough game. However, as Gargano, a senior writer for and the host of a sports-radio show on Philadelphia's 610 WIP, describes the pain endured and painkillers ingested in graphic, gut-wrenching detail, a portrait emerges of an NFL that is more punishing than you may ever have imagined. As brief vignettes about broken bones, gouged eyes, and popped pills pile up, you realize that the men who have an opportunity to live out their boyhood dream of playing professional football must survive their fair share of nightmares along the way.

In this interview, which was conducted by email and has been edited for length and clarity, Gargano talks about how, even as a veteran sportswriter, he didn't really comprehend the game's brutality; the access it took to get such a hard-boiled take on the league; and why it's important fans see football players as people, not protagonists in a videogame.

Gelf Magazine: What led you to write this book? Was there a myth that you intended to break down—a conception of the NFL that you thought was false?

Anthony Gargano: NFL Unplugged began over a couple of beers. I had become close with a couple of players with the Eagles and they regaled me with stories of real life in the league. It was this snapshot of their world. Slowly I began to collect their stories, until I had a gallery so unique that I had to write the book.
I will tell you that I love the game. I love its makeup and the makeup you need to play it successfully at the highest level. I'll tell you, quite frankly, that I admire the players, but not in the way of fandom. I admire their self-discipline and fortitude and commitment. Because Sunday for them doesn't happen without the drudgery of preparation during the week. In every other sport, the game is a frequent occurrence. In football, the game is the reward. And in football, the game is epic.
In truth, I had no motive to dispel any myths about the game. We all can discern it's a brutal game. I simply wanted to write about their world. I wanted to share with you the story that a player told me about sitting alone in his kitchen in the middle of the night, following a game, with a water glass of vodka because he needed to dull the ache that always showed up at the same time after a 1 p.m. kickoff. And how, after the game was history and the fans went about their daily lives, the player would have to get up by 6 a.m., take 20 minutes just to get to the bathroom, then get dressed and drive to the complex to have treatment on his various injuries and then to watch the film of the game. And how that was just the beginning of his week.
I wanted to live the week with him, simply because that's when the cameras stop rolling.

Gelf Magazine: NFL Unplugged is full of anecdotes that made my stomach churn. Did you know, when you began reporting, how trying the life of an NFL player is? Everyone understands that an NFL field is a rough-and-tumble place, but I'm sure many readers of your book are surprised to see just exactly how rough it can be. Were you?

Anthony Gargano: I covered football as a sportswriter in Chicago, New York, and Philadelphia, so I had a passing knowledge of the game's brutality. But somehow I didn't see it. I didn't fully comprehend it until I listened to the players. I interviewed close to 100 players for the book. One of the guys tried to estimate how many times he would be stuck with a needle during the course of a season. He had no idea, he said.
As a sportswriter, I used to write about injury updates and not even think about how that injury affects their life, let alone what it feels like everyday. I wrote about guys getting surgery like they were going to the filling station. For the book, a player told me that he had surgery on both shoulders done at the same time, so his mother had to wipe him after he used the bathroom. It happened again later in his career, and his wife had to do it that time.

Gelf Magazine: Is there a particular story in the book that really shocked you, even after having heard so many graphic stories?

Anthony Gargano: I never knew that many players on the field stuff a towel down their pants and pee, or just pee in their pants—that they view it as no big deal. "What?" they say. "Because we're hydrating so much, it's just water."

Gelf Magazine: You appear to have spoken with countless football players. Tell me a bit about the reporting process. How long did it take you? Did you approach the interviews differently than when you're speaking with players for Fanhouse or 610 WIP? Was it a challenge to get players to open up about this kind of information?

Anthony Gargano: It's odd—I began filing material away as early as 2002 and 2003. Those years I was afforded the opportunity to spend quality time around the Philadelphia Eagles. I spent time in team meetings, film sessions, at their meetings at their home hotel and on the road. I had complete access on game day. I saw halftime speeches and postgame speeches. Andy Reid was gracious enough to grant me the access for a series of magazine pieces I was doing. As I broadened the project to other teams and players, I used relationships I had forged around the league. Players had no problem opening up—because I think they understood that I was genuinely interested in their lives—and their plight.

Gelf Magazine: I felt that, despite the players' swirling opinions about one another, you withheld judgment in writing the book. I didn't get the impression that you were looking to demonize the dirty players or lionize the guys who fought through the pain. Was that your intention?

Anthony Gargano: That was exactly my intention. I just wanted to tell a story through a series of vignettes. I wanted readers to make up their mind. My aim was to describe what I saw and what players told me and just take the reader along. I found their world fascinating, and I guess I just hoped the reader would find it at the very least interesting. It wasn't my place to editorialize. I wasn't looking to break new ground on the game. I just wanted readers to actually see what they may or may not have envisioned: Here is the game's underbelly, and in many ways, it's ER meets Law & Order.

Gelf Magazine: Did you find yourself having much higher or lower opinions of certain players after hearing what happens in the training room or at the bottom of a pile?

Anthony Gargano: Mostly, I came away with empathy. See, there aren't a lot of loafers in the league. Some of the players did really well: They got that one big contract. But outside of a few quarterbacks, that contract isn't nearly as big, nor as guaranteed, as NBA or MLB players get. And some of the players who are recently retired, like Kyle Turley, are physically ravaged. They are in constant pain. Walking is a chore. And it's nearly impossible for them to collect disability. Turley and I were talking on the phone one day and he made me listen to his bones clicking.
To be honest, I actually felt guilty for not being outraged at some of the stories I heard. Perhaps it's because there's context. Because there's a code. Because they all sign off on it. I think when you spend so much time with subjects, you really begin to see it from their eyes.
And on that note, some of the most vile things are said between players during games. Everything from wife/girlfriend sexual taunts to racial flouts. People are aghast. My response is: What are they supposed to say? It's a brutal game built on physicality and gamesmanship. Some of the biggest, meanest men are supposed to hurt one another in the context of the game, and they're supposed to be politically correct? I didn't want to prostitute the language, but I wanted to speak in their tone and quote them as men in the trenches speak. I wanted it to be real.

Gelf Magazine: What do you hope football fans take away from your book? Should we be appreciative of what these guys go through for our entertainment? Should we be horrified by what they go through and how they often treat one another?

Anthony Gargano: I just want football fans to see football players as people. Dressed in armor, wearing numbers, ripped, they seem like videogame protagonists. That is the not image on Monday morning. I want fans to appreciate the part of the game that is glamourless and maybe even a little repugnant.

Gelf Magazine: In recent years, and this season especially, player safety has been a major concern. The league has focused on head injuries, but your book makes it clear that players experience countless kinds of pain. Do you see productive ways to make the game safer and less grueling for the players while still preserving the physicality that makes the game great? Do you think the league is taking the right steps to protect the health of the players, or has it responded poorly?

Anthony Gargano: I love the aim of the league, even if it's not for the noblest of reasons. Players will always be the equipment. That was the infamous line uttered in North Dallas Forty, and that will never change. The league may be preparing defense for future lawsuits or for its looming labor battle with the players, but I'd also like to think there is genuine concern that players' non-playing days aren't spent with a limp or much worse. I applaud the league for trying to curb helmet-to-helmet hits and being diligent in keeping off the field players with concussive signs. Just five years ago—not 50—that was commonplace: The mantra was, take a sniff of an ammonia tablet and get back out there.
Of course, like with anything else that undergoes major alterations, there will be snags. There will be frustrations as the rules are re-deciphered. But at least things are heading in the right direction.

Graydon Gordian

Graydon Gordian is the founder and editor emeritus of 48 Minutes of Hell.

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Article by Graydon Gordian

Graydon Gordian is the founder and editor emeritus of 48 Minutes of Hell.

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