Forty-five years ago, writer George Plimpton tried out as quarterback for the Detroit Lions to test how an amateur would fare among professionals. The experiment made for great comedy—Plimpton fumbled twice and lost 30 yards in the five plays he ran from scrimmage—but the resulting bestseller, Paper Lion, established him as king of immersion journalism.
DC writer Stefan Fatsis is staking a claim as Plimpton’s heir. A few years ago, Fatsis plunged into the high-pressure world of competitive Scrabble for his book Word Freak. His quest: to break into Scrabble’s elite ranks. After three years of playing in tournaments and studying word lists, he earned an “expert” rating from the National Scrabble Association and is now the top-ranked player in the District.
Fatsis’s new book, A Few Seconds of Panic, is out this month. For this one, he spent three months as a placekicker in training camp with the Denver Broncos. The book, like Plimpton’s, charms with its tale of a five-foot-eight, 43-year-old Everyman in a jersey that reaches his knees. It’s also good for a few laughs, particularly when he’s introduced to NFL-style weight training and the postpractice ice bath.
But Fatsis’s quest to prove himself as a kicker is no joke. Despite surgically repaired knees, he trained for a year before going to camp and learned to kick with Paul Woodside, a former West Virginia University and Falls Church High School star who lives in Alexandria.
“Like millions of men my age,” he writes, “I daydream about one last moment of glory on a field, any field, no matter how far-fetched.”
Fatsis knows the NFL, having covered the league’s business side for more than a decade with the Wall Street Journal. But his time on the inside surprised him. Though the Denver locker room still featured the towel-snapping camaraderie that Plimpton chronicled, he found fear and paranoia eating away at the game’s joys. As much as Fatsis trained his body for the rigors of the NFL, he discovered that only the strongest of minds survive.
At his home in DC’s American University Park—where he lives with his wife, Melissa Block, a host of NPR’s All Things Considered, and their daughter, Chloe—he talked about his brief career as a pro.
Why did you choose football?
With Word Freak, I tested what my mind was capable of. For this one, I wanted to test what my body was capable of.
There aren’t that many things that an amateur athlete can do at a professional level. Because I played soccer and because I’m a reasonable weekend athlete, I felt like I could probably learn to kick a football well enough so that I would not be humiliated.
I had my embarrassments, but I made some 40-yarders. It was so rewarding—even when I was failing. I got to kick footballs for six months, and I got to do it for three months on these beautiful fields with these gifted athletes, these amazing coaches, and people who care deeply about this little craft that is barely understood by fans—and usually misunderstood.
Other writers have done insider books on the NFL without suiting up.
I wanted to show what it’s like to be a professional athlete, and I wanted to feel what it’s like. Part of the reason that athletes keep a critical distance from reporters is because they only trust people who’ve experienced what they’ve experienced.
I was there at 7 in the morning, and I was there at 9 at night. I demonstrated that I cared about more than the sound bite. At some point, players stopped noticing that I was holding a notebook. In fact, they liked it because I was a conduit through which they could explain and validate their lives.
There’s a point in the book where I’m called out to kick in front of the team. I miss two field goals in a row. It is humiliating, and it’s heartbreaking. It’s the most embarrassed I’ve ever been in my life.
Afterward, one of the guys came up to me and said, “Now you know. Write that down. This is what it’s like. Multiply it by 100. This is what we go through.”
The NFL is notorious for secrecy. How did you find a team willing to expose itself like this?
I started by calling the local teams. The Ravens tentatively agreed, and the front office and kicker Matt Stover were incredibly helpful. But the team had a bad season and the new owner, Steve Bisciotti, clamped down on media exposure.
Then I tried the Redskins. I know Karl Swanson, the team spokesman, pretty well; we worked together in an Associated Press bureau in the late 1980s. Karl loved the idea—but then he brought it up with Joe Gibbs. I’d be too much of a distraction.
After that, I called everyone I knew in the NFL—every owner, every general manager, every team president. I worked on it for a year and had almost given up when Broncos owner Pat Bowlen told me he’d go for it. His coach, Mike Shanahan, liked the fact that I wanted to play. That made it stand out for him. It also helped that I wasn’t a beat reporter; I was a business reporter, and I had never covered a team and wasn’t part of the Denver media. This would be a book about the culture of the NFL. Shanahan, to his credit, understood that.
How does Plimpton’s NFL compare with yours?
In 1963, the NFL was still a curiosity. It had signed its first national television contract only the year before, so it wasn’t in every living room the way it is now. There wasn’t 48 hours of draft coverage on some cable network.
There is a lightness about Paper Lion, a goofiness. But the NFL isn’t goofy anymore. There are funny characters in my book, and funny stuff happens because it’s a professional locker room where men are locked up together for a long stretch of time. But it’s not as carefree.
What was your biggest surprise?
The level of angst that players live with was shocking. It’s something I’ve never seen in baseball or basketball. In football, everything is compressed. You enter the league right out of college; there are no minor leagues or places where you can apprentice. It’s 90 guys in the locker room fighting for 50 jobs. And the physical nature of the sport means that even if you make it, you’re looking at an average career of three years.
This is in the back of the players’ minds every minute of every day—“I gotta perform.” Coaches and management constantly tell players, “You’re being watched. As soon as this practice ends, we’re all going upstairs, we’re turning on the video machines, and we’re going to scrutinize your every move.” The coaches and front office worry about losing their jobs, too.
Are there similarities between pro football players and the best Scrabble players?
Somebody once told me that you look at anybody who does anything at an elite level and you’re going to find an obsessive misfit. And while we want to think that pro football players are cool and supremely self-confident and have the world dancing on their fingers, they’re like any other obsessive misfit.
The reality for almost every NFL player is this hermetic, ascetic life. These are guys in their early twenties who live like suburban dads in these sterile developments near the team facility.
Do they go out and drink and party? Of course. Do they chase women? Yeah. But during training camp, they’re there for 15 hours a day and most go home to a little townhouse or to a hotel.
Most of the players regard the guys who screw up—Chris Henry, Pacman Jones, and those types—as idiots. In reality, a football player doesn’t live that compelling a life. It’s so narrowly focused from April to January that you have to have an unusual level of obsession to succeed.
Did you see evidence of steroid use?
It’s not like guys are taking needles out and shooting up. The urine collectors are in the bathroom every day. I watched guys drop towel and walk into the stall wearing nothing but their Denver Broncos ID. So there’s no getting around it.
Does that mean players weren’t doing drugs or hadn’t done steroids in the past? No. But their general response was “You gotta be an idiot to do this.” The number of players doing steroids, they believe, is minimal. They don’t think it’s the way it was in the ’70s and ’80s, when there was less policing and less knowledge of the dangers of steroids.
Will you watch Redskins games any differently now?
You’re assuming that I watch Redskins games. I grew up in New York as a Giants fan. Since moving to DC five years ago, I’ve been, um, fascinated by the local media’s page-one treatment of the Redskins. Remember the hagiographic, shot-from-below, light-radiating-from-his-head image of Joe Gibbs that the Post ran the day he was rehired?
I sort of understand it: local football team as quasi-government institution. But the general reverence and rampant optimism have always struck me as a little weird.
I do watch football differently now. I watch the kickers more as a technician. I focus not on the goalposts but on the hold, the leg swing, the point of contact and follow-through. I think I have a better understanding of what the choreographed chaos on the field means. Finally, I know that while the players don’t like losing, they also don’t dwell on it the way fans do. They’re more worried about staying healthy and keeping their jobs. It’s a much more realistic view of the sport.
What does Jim Zorn face as a new head coach?
The secret to doing well as a head coach is to be in total charge. The words “control freak” come to mind. In Denver, Shanahan borrowed a lot from the San Francisco 49ers and Bill Walsh—and not just the West Coast offense but smaller things like taping every meeting, which the 49ers had borrowed from Silicon Valley in the 1980s. Shanahan has a bank of monitors in his office and can tune in to any of his coaches’ position meetings.
In terms of scrutiny, Zorn will have to tune out the local media, which will be noisier than anything he’s experienced. If he’s at all like Shanahan, he’ll view dealing with the people holding tape recorders and cameras as part of his job and nothing more. Still, it’s his first. He’ll need a few years of trial and error until the organization functions in his image. But who knows whether he’ll be given that much time?
What did you learn about covering football?
That what we read and hear about teams bears only a passing resemblance to what the players and coaches experience. This is especially acute during training camp, when stories tend to be the product of talk but little observation. The drills are fairly dull, and unless you know the intent of each, it’s almost impossible to understand what’s going on. So reporters impose a narrative on the proceedings—who’s up, who’s down—when none really exists.
I also found that, on balance, most players don’t bother checking on how their words are used the next day. There’s a general disdain in the locker room about how football is covered. But that’s true anytime you read or listen to coverage of a world that you know more about than the writer or talker.
One more thing: I learned that I will never again criticize a kicker for missing a field goal.
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