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Stress Management

John Feinstein's season with the Baltimore Ravens gives an intimate look at the pressure of NFL life

NEXT MAN UP: A YEAR BEHIND THE LINES IN TODAY'S NFL

by John Feinstein

Little, Brown and Co., 502 pages, $25.95

In the tense minutes before the Baltimore Ravens go out to do battle on the field, a kind of lunacy grips their locker room as players holler out their rage and anxiety. In the midst of one of these shouting sessions last year, defensive end Terrell Suggs suddenly confronted All-Pro linebacker Ray Lewis and yelled, "Ray, what does pressure do?"

"All I know," Lewis shouted, "is that it breaks a pipe. So imagine what it does to a human being!"

John Feinstein did not set out to write a book about stress. For years he has embedded himself in one sporting culture after another--tennis, baseball, golf, college football, college basketball--and produced books on the intense, intimate dramas that take place over the course of a season. But none of his previous adventures prepared him for what he calls the "constant tension" in the NFL. Next Man Up, Feinstein's chronicle of the Ravens' 2004 season, doesn't quite rise to the high standard of his classics, A Good Walk Spoiled and A Season on the Brink, but it is nonetheless one of the most compelling portraits of NFL life ever written.

The NFL, Feinstein writes bluntly, "is the most insecure world there is in professional sports." The 16-game schedule (which makes nearly every game meaningful and any mistake potentially disastrous), the relentless aggression, the frequent injuries and the ever-present pain all help make pro football a stress factory. But Feinstein suggests that what may cause players the most anxiety is the lack of guaranteed contracts. When a baseball or basketball player signs a contract, both he and management are usually bound to honor it, barring extraordinary circumstances. But in football the only money most players can be certain of getting is their signing bonus. Players frequently go "from starting to cut in one year," writes Feinstein, or are presented with a grim choice about their pay: "Take a cut or be cut."

No one need feel sorry for football players, of course; they are more than adequately compensated for the stress they endure. But Feinstein makes a persuasive case that it's impossible to understand today's NFL without knowing something about the emotional lives of the players. Ravens coach Brian Billick apparently agrees. Feinstein found that Billick periodically makes detailed handwritten notes about how his coaches and various players are feeling. For instance: "[Quarterback] Kyle Boller is starting to feel pressure because of all the criticism.... [Special teams coach] Gary Zauner's feelings are hurt because I yelled at him twice last night."

The good news is that coaches and players have come a long way toward understanding their emotions. At the same time, old-school fans who worry that players might be getting soft will be reassured by Feinstein's revealing stories about what passes for sensitivity in the NFL.

For example, during last year's opening day coin toss, Ravens tackle Orlando Brown, acting as offensive captain, repeatedly called his Cleveland Browns counterpart, Andra Davis, a motherf-----. Davis replied sharply in kind, and the two players nearly came to blows. Afterward Davis learned that Brown's mother had died the day before the game, and he sent an apology to Brown through team officials.

"He didn't do anything wrong," Brown said, moved. "It was all me.... That motherf-----'s got nothing to be sorry for."

The Decline and Fall of Romo

ROMO: MY LIFE ON THE EDGE

by Bill Romanowski, William Morrow, 314 pages, $24.95

BY NOW nearly everyone knows the unpleasant story of Romo. A veteran of 16 NFL seasons, Bill Romanowski was widely detested for his dirty play--once, he recounts, New York Giants receiver Ed McCaffrey was lying on the turf after a play, and Romanowski pressed his cleats into McCaffrey's testicles "pretty hard" and called him a "wussy." Romanowski has also admitted using steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs.

Indeed, Romanowski reckons that over the course of his career, he spent about $1 million on various nostrums and training regimens designed to give him an edge. Nonetheless, he considers himself to be an inspiring leader whose primary flaw was not "settling for mediocrity." He expects that readers, too, will believe this, because ... well, as it turns out, Romanowski is as gullible as he'd like us to be. For instance, even now he sees no reason to doubt the bodybuilder who told him that he once hung 100-pound dumbbells from his scrotum. Romanowski was so impressed by this tale that he eagerly took whatever pills the bodybuilder handed him. And later, when someone else told Romanowski that injections of "live cells" from a sheep's pancreas (and a dozen other types of sheep cells) would help prevent inflammation, Romanowski paid a whopping $38,000 for the treatment.

Ultimately, Romanowski writes, he was forced to leave football because "my brain failed me. Or maybe I failed my brain." For once--and once only--Romanowski is absolutely right.

PHOTO

LEON HALIP/WIREIMAGE.COM

 HEAD COACH

Billick keeps detailed notes on his team's emotional state.

TWO PHOTOS