IN A couple of weeks, NFL training camps will open. T.O. and his new sidekick Pacman—sorry, make that Adam—will star in the new season of HBO's Hard Knocks. The 24/7 media machine will air endless loops of players in mesh cutoffs jogging, throwing and catching. Millions of pages and pixels will analyze the season ahead.
And none of it will convey the emotional reality of life inside the National Football League.
Two summers ago, after two decades on the business end of a notepad, I joined the Denver Broncos as a player. My goal was to write a book about the NFL. My inspiration was George Plimpton's Paper Lion, which offered the first inside glimpse of the growing sport of pro football (SI, Sept. 7 and 14, 1964). Plimpton quarterbacked for the Detroit Lions and wore number 0. I placekicked and wore number 9. Neither of us was very good.
Paper Lion was groundbreaking sports journalism, but it was a product of its time. Plimpton devoted the bulk of his book to football's then obscure strategic machinations, mythmaking tales from the trenches and training-camp hijinks—seven pages alone on rookies singing their college fight songs. A Brahmin intellectual in an aboriginal tribe, Plimpton made professional football sound like fun.
There were, to be sure, sophomoric diversions during my days in Denver, like the time a punter's keys were taped under a toilet or when coaches promised to abbreviate meetings if a certain kicker made a field goal. A 300-pound offensive lineman, P.J. Alexander, even made me sing my alma mater's song. (I spend one page describing that.) Those antics stanched the boredom of 15-hour days. But they didn't obscure a surprising truth about the NFL: A lot of players hate their jobs.
Once they stopped laughing at the gray-haired guy in the size-7 cleats, my teammates saw me as a megaphone: I could correct the vast public misperceptions about what they do. The players wanted me to understand that apart from Sundays, which are simultaneously terrifying and exhilarating, their working lives are a seemingly endless string of unpleasantness: injuries, reminders from coaches that their jobs are on the line, distrust of their bosses, disgust over being scheduled like preschoolers, unfathomable psychological pressure. "You're just seeing the worst part," wide receiver Charlie Adams said to me about training camp. "Although the season kind of sucks, too."
Bronco after Bronco compared college to the NFL. In the former, players said, coaches tried to maximize their potential. In the latter, coaches sucked them dry. Starting linebacker Ian Gold had a lucrative six-year deal. But he wore a shell of embittered indifference that he blamed on an institutional lack of integrity and loyalty. "You lay it on the line for these people, for this organization, and all it is is a moneymaking machine," Gold said. "They're looking for your replacement the day you step foot in this door."
The NFL rolls that reality into its Lombardiesque image of toughness. From the absence of guaranteed contracts to the revolving locker room door, players are kept on an emotional knife's edge in an attempt to breed desire and desperation. The players want compassion and communication. They get pressure and paranoia instead. As the Broncos camp wore on, the No. 2 quarterback, Bradlee Van Pelt, crumbled before my eyes, his every mistake compounded by a racing mind. "[The coaches] could calm your fears or calm your anxiety," he said to me late in camp. "But they don't choose to do it."
In Paper Lion, Plimpton touched on "the nerves, and the newness and uncertainty of the situation." In terms of introspection, in 1963 that was about it. Were my Broncos self-absorbed? Or is there no room for sentiment in the modern NFL?
My teammates praised club owner Pat Bowlen for providing first-class amenities and coach Mike Shanahan for his football intellect and humane practice regimen. "There ain't no pressure, Stef," defensive tackle Gerard Warren told me. (My own kicking adventures said otherwise.) But most Broncos were conflicted about their career choice, worried about life after football and struggling to cope with the indignities of the business. To escape, they hit downtown clubs on off-days and partied hard in the off-season. "You want something to feel good about, something you feel like you're in charge or in control of," fullback Kyle Johnson told me.
So why do the players bother? The money entices everyone, but it disappoints most. One of my fellow kickers, Tyler Fredrickson, had earned $12,000 in three years trying to make the league. Fourth-string QB Preston Parsons made $600,000 in two seasons as a backup in Arizona, bought a house and car and various toys, and was jobless the next two seasons. When we met he was earning $400 a week, the standard NFL off-season pay. "Flipping burgers you make more than that," he said.
Ultimately, the players play because they can, because it's what they've spent years preparing to do, and because they are as irrationally hopeful as any of us—that they'll hit the contract lottery, that their inevitable injuries won't be too serious, that the game won't grind them under like so many others. And, they find, there's nothing like bonds forged while enduring football's physical and mental horrors together. Take offensive lineman Adam Meadows. After starting for seven years in Indianapolis, he joined Carolina as a free agent in 2004. But he struggled to recover from shoulder surgery and was unable to play; he retired and voluntarily returned a $2.5 million signing bonus. Meadows was a rational guy with a ton of money in the bank, a wife and two adorable girls and a thriving real-estate business. But here he was with the Broncos, attempting a comeback. "I missed it so much, man,'' he told me. "I love the locker room. I love the guys. I love Sundays. The competition is impossible to replace. You can't do that in real estate."
This, I decided, is what it means to be an NFL player: You don't necessarily want to be on the field, but you can't think of anyplace else you'd rather be.
Stefan Fatsis is the author of A Few Seconds of Panic: A 5-foot-8, 170-pound, 43-year-old Sportswriter Plays in the NFL, out this week.
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The surprising truth about the NFL is that many players HATE THEIR JOBS.
ILLUSTRATION BY FRED HARPER