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Books | Sports

August 3, 2008

Breaking the Writer-Player Divide

Stefan Fatsis infiltrates Broncos training camp and experiences life on the inside, which is neither so different nor so great.

Michael Gluckstadt

For decades, sportswriters have been feeding the public myths about the athlete. His body is the apex of the human form, his locker room a sacred temple. The distance between the fan and the player may only be a few feet at the stadium, but it's miles in our minds.

Stefan Fatsis is bridging that gap. The former Wall Street Journal writer trained with the Denver Broncos, and chronicled the experience of becoming an NFL athlete in his new book A Few Seconds of Panic: A 5-Foot-8, 170-Pound, 43-Year-Old Sportswriter Plays in the NFL. In the book, we see players as both profound and immature, mensches and jerks, but above all, as people.

The last time he spoke with Gelf, Fatsis told us about immersing himself in a different competitive game, and he drew on that experience of joining the ranks of professional Scrabble players in preparing for this endeavor. Seriously. NFL players, Fatsis says, accepted him when he showed them that he was serious about their craft. In the following interview, conducted by email and edited for clarity, Fatsis tells Gelf why the Broncos agreed to have him around, the reason Jake Plummer remains retired, and how sportswriters have mythologized the locker room. You can hear Fatsis and other sportswriters read from and talk about their work at Gelf's free Varsity Letters event on Thursday, August 7, in New York's Lower East Side.

Fatsis takes notes as wide receivers coach Steve Watson, wearing a cap in the huddle, addresses the Broncos. Photo by John Leyba.
"We overstate the divide between athletes and reporters, as if they're two different species."—Stefan Fatsis

Fatsis takes notes as wide receivers coach Steve Watson, wearing a cap in the huddle, addresses the Broncos. Photo by John Leyba.

Gelf Magazine: Most sportswriters wouldn't have dreamed of playing for a professional sports team. What made you think you could do it?

Stefan Fatsis: Hubris, I guess. Or naiveté. But also experience. I was pretty confident in my ability as a reporter to get people in an alien subculture to accept me. I'd already done that in the world of Scrabble, where I had to prove to the expert-level players that I was hanging around not as a writer but as an eager competitor.
Odd as this may sound, I was fairly certain that football wouldn't be much different. I believed the players would come to accept me because I was a decent guy, because I wasn't a typical sportswriter and because I would show them that I was trying on the field. But I also believed that in order for the players to consider me a teammate—and to talk openly and share their lives—they had to see that I'd had at least some training, and that I was willing to subject myself to the routines and rituals of the NFL. I knew I could kick a ball. I'd played soccer since I was a kid. And kicking a football is a solo act: It was totally within my power to develop the leg strength and to learn the technique and improve.

GM: Your proposition was turned down by more than half the teams in the league. Why do you think the Broncos said yes?

SF: The team owner, Pat Bowlen, liked the idea of a nontraditional sportswriter chronicling life inside the 21st century NFL—that is, someone who understood the business and economics of the game, who wouldn't be obsessed with the quotidian bullshit on which most reporters focus. Bowlen has spent more than 20 years developing the Broncos into an extremely well-run operation and he's proud of the quality of his business. He's also a smart guy who understands that the NFL is a $7 billion entertainment industry. If the public were to better understand the inner workings of the NFL, why not let them understand it through his team? This is an unpretentious, laid-back, intelligent professional sports owner who didn't have anything to hide.
The typical answer I got from the 20 teams that turned me down was that a writer roaming the locker room and taking up space on the field would be a "distraction." Broncos head coach Mike Shanahan thought, rather, that I could be a diversion from the brain-rotting drudgery of training camp. He told me he let me in because I asked to play, not just to have special privileges as a reporter. He said that was the only way the players would trust me.

GM: How did the players respond to having you around? Did their reactions surprise you?

SF: After they stopped laughing at the little old man—the first time I stepped on the field, someone shouted, "It's Martin Gramatica's dad!"—the players were mostly terrific. As Shanahan had figured, I was a happy diversion. When I was summoned to dance in front of the team or to tell a joke during a meeting or to kick a field goal with something on the line, it did break the brutal monotony. I was half mascot, half teammate. In a locker room of 90 people, it's not possible to get to know everyone, and not everyone was interested in getting to know me. But many were. So when I explained what I wanted to write—an unvarnished, unsentimental account of life in the NFL—a lot of guys were happy—in some cases eager—to cooperate. And when I kept showing up every day—practicing, lifting weights, attending meetings, riding the shuttle bus to the hotel—the players quickly saw me as one of their own. They forgot I was a reporter, or didn't care, or actually liked having me around. And when certain players, like the starting quarterback, Jake Plummer, went out of their way to hang with me—to play a board game sitting at his locker or give me shit about applying gels and wraps to my weary legs—that signaled to other players that I was okay. We mythologize locker rooms way too much. We also overstate the divide between athletes and reporters, as if they're two different species.

Fatsis facing the media

Stefan Fatsis faces the media. Photo by Jack Dempsey. The Broncos owner, says Fatsis, welcomed a reporter "who wouldn't be obsessed with the quotidian bullshit on which most reporters focus."

GM: Everyone talks about Brett Farve, but in this QB-starved league, why isn't anyone trying to get Jake Plummer to unretire?

SF: Because they know he won't do it. Jake wound up writing a check for $3.5 million to Tampa Bay to stay retired. The Broncos traded him to the Buccaneers after he'd told them he was retiring. Denver didn't believe him. So Jake was on the hook for $7 million of his signing bonus and the figure was negotiated down. I respect Jake for that. He said to me one day that some guys get into their 10th year in the league and they realize it might end soon, so they go harder and harder trying to hang on. He didn't want to be that guy, so he quit—healthy, wealthy, and excited about the rest of his life—and has never looked back. He had the most grounded attitude towards fame, money, sports, and society I've come across in a locker room. And he was a big-hearted guy who at once welcomed me and gave me a hard time and signaled to other players that I was okay. And he's a genuine badass, too. Teams would be lucky to have Jake in the locker room, and he was also pretty good on the field, despite what was often written about him. In four years in Denver, Jake went 40-18 as a starter. Only two NFL quarterbacks had better records in that time. But Peyton Manning and Tom Brady have won Super Bowls and Plummer didn't. By the standard media calculus, that made Jake a failure.

GM: I imagine that most NFL kickers, even in training camp, are the best from wherever they came from. Was there any resentment that you had just shown up there without having earned it?

SF: Not really, because I wasn't close to being good enough to pose a threat. No one mistook me for an actual kicker who had an actual chance to make the team, especially not a team with a 13-year veteran like Jason Elam, the Broncos' placekicker at the time. And none of the kickers felt like I was stealing "reps" —repetitions, or practice time—from them, because I wasn't. Believe me, kickers in training camp have plenty of time to get their work done. There could have been 20 of us and there still would have been plenty of reps to go around.
A punter named Todd Sauerbrun wasn't thrilled with my being there, but that was mostly because he'd just been suspended for four games for testing positive for ephedra, so you couldn't blame him for not wanting a reporter hanging around all day. He also had a reputation as a churlish jerk, though he was incredibly entertaining, too. Another punter, Tyler Fredrickson, a baby-faced wannabe from Cal Berkeley who was in his third training camp without ever cracking a roster, did remark one day that he was amazed I had managed to assimilate quickly. "Because you've done nothing to deserve it,'' he said. "You've never gone through the rigors of high-school or college football. And yet you are here." But Tyler worked with me on the field and hung with me off it. He was speaking mostly out of frustration over not having made a team. (He wouldn't make this one, either.)

GM: You recently wrote an article for Sports Illustrated about the difficulties facing NFL players. Did you find the players to be at all concerned with their short average career spans and the difficulties facing retired NFL athletes?

SF: Wouldn't you be? The average NFL career last three years. But that doesn't include players who never make a regular-season roster. More than a few of the 90-plus guys who were in Broncos training camp with me will never do that. So while everyone wants to land that multiyear, multimillion-dollar contract, most players know they won't. On one of my first days in camp, we rookies attended an introductory meeting. I remember the dark laughter when the team psychologist mentioned the three-year average. But the sooner the players are educated in the tenuous reality of the NFL, the better.
As for injuries, the players, especially the veterans, are acutely conscious of the damage they have already done to their bodies and are also aware of the damage that might not reveal itself for a couple of decades. One afternoon, 35-year-old center Tom Nalen mocked my physical ability, and I good-naturedly replied that I doubted he'd be on any field at age 43. "Why? Because I won't be able to walk?" he replied. Players don't like to cop to that reality, because there's no way they could do their jobs if they did. So they try to avoid unnecessary helmet contact, and avoid as much contact as possible, though they also know that avoidance isn't always possible.

Fatsis with Preston Parsons

Stefan Fatsis with Preston Parsons. Photo by Eric Lars Bakke of Rich Clarkson and Associates LLC.

GM: Have you maintained a relationship with any of the players or coaches?

SF: You bet. I just stayed in Denver with a tight end named Nate Jackson, who's still with the Broncos. I wrote Tyler Fredrickson a graduate-school recommendation; he starts at USC film school in the fall. I wrote another punter, Micah Knorr, a recommendation for a job as a school teacher. I talk to a quarterback named Preston Parsons all the time. The former general manager, Ted Sundquist, and I speak regularly, too, and he attended a book reading I did in Denver. One of my former special-teams coaches, Thomas McGaughey, came to a reading in New York (where he showed off the Super Bowl ring he won with the Giants the season after he was let go in Denver). I could go on. The point is, why wouldn't I remain friends with players and coaches? I mean, I'm still friends with many of my fellow Scrabble players. What's the difference?

GM: Are you still working for the Wall Street Journal? What do you think of the recent changes there?

SF: I'm not with the Journal anymore. After 13 years at the paper, I decided not to return from the leave of absence I took to write A Few Seconds of Panic. But my decision had nothing to do with the new ownership. The culture and content of the paper obviously are shifting, but where in the newspaper industry isn't that happening? Not to be too parochial, but I'm thrilled there's more sports in the paper—something I and a few other reporters and editors had long hoped for—with the possibility of more to come. So I'm looking forward to contributing to the Journal in print and online.

GM: What sport would you most like to infiltrate next?

SF: Synchronized swimming. Okay, so it's been done before. But George Plimpton wrote Paper Lion and that didn't stop me.

Michael Gluckstadt

Michael Gluckstadt is an editor at Gelf and host of the Varsity Letters speaking series.







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Article by Michael Gluckstadt

Michael Gluckstadt is an editor at Gelf and host of the Varsity Letters speaking series.

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