A Few Seconds of Panic
A 5-Foot-8, 170-Pound, 43-Year-Old
Sportswriter Plays in the NFL
Penguin: 340 pp., $25.95
GeORGE PLIMPTON, the longtime editor of the Paris Review, enjoyed a second literary career when he turned Walter Mitty-like athletic fantasies into reality. He pitched against Willie Mays and other All-Star baseball players (recounted in “Out of My League”), sparred with lightweight champ Archie Moore (“Shadow Box”) and played goalie for the Boston Bruins (“Open Net”).
In the summer of 1963, Plimpton infiltrated the Detroit Lions’ training camp as a third-string quarterback and, with “Paper Lion,” produced his finest work of participatory sports journalism. Here was the Harvard-educated jester, mucking it up with the hard-hitting behemoths of the NFL. He survived by detailing, with deadpan hilarity, his many mishaps (including not knowing where to place his hands to receive the snap from center). “Paper Lion” remains a classic -- ranking eighth on Sports Illustrated’s list of the top 100 sports books -- and was later turned into a film starring Alan Alda.
Plimpton was following in the footsteps of Paul Gallico, the acerbic New York Daily News sportswriter who challenged Jack Dempsey and swam against Johnny Weissmuller. But it’s Plimpton’s jock musings that have inspired a generation of Mittys: Gary Paulsen raced sled dogs in the Iditarod (“Winterdance”) and Joshua Davis grappled with sumo wrestlers (“The Underdog”). Warren St. John’s “Rammer Jammer Yellow Hammer” was a road trip into the mania of fans of the University of Alabama’s Crimson Tide.
Plimpton’s true heir may well be Stefan Fatsis. In 2001, the Wall Street Journal writer (and National Public Radio commentator) scored with “Word Freak,” an alphabetical adventure through the competitive Scrabble subculture. Now, for “A Few Seconds of Panic,” Fatsis joins the Denver Broncos as a place-kicker at their 2006 training camp.
Since the publication of “Paper Lion,” professional football has come to rival Major League Baseball as our national obsession. In 1963, the NFL had 14 teams (including the Los Angeles Rams), and CBS paid $4.6 million annually to televise the games. Pete Rozelle, the whiz-kid commissioner from Compton High, hadn’t yet invented the Super Bowl. Today, there are 32 teams (none in the L.A. market) and their various television contracts are worth more than $3 billion a year. Put another way: After practice, Plimpton sipped homemade lemonade. Fatsis guzzles Gatorade, an official corporate sponsor of the NFL.
Fatsis deftly explores how business permeates every aspect of the NFL. (He even manages to explicate the dreaded salary cap.) In Plimpton’s era, salaries were so low that many players had to take off-season jobs, such as selling insurance. Now, their agents negotiate contracts and endorsement deals. What hasn’t changed is the power structure: Unlike Major League Baseball or the NBA, the NFL doesn’t guarantee contracts, leaving coaches and general managers in control of players’ fates.
Today’s 24/7 media culture presents Fatsis with a more difficult challenge than Plimpton faced. How to uncover nuggets of new information -- and give an “insider’s perspective” -- when seemingly everything about the NFL is already known?
Fatsis solves that quandary with exhaustive coverage, beginning with the kicking game. He found that, like other professional leagues, the NFL has specialized. In the 1960s, linemen and even quarterbacks (in the case of the Oakland Raiders’ George Blanda) handled booting duties. But those players proved too valuable for scoring mere extra points. At the same time, with the ascendancy of soccer-style kickers in the 1970s, accuracy and longevity improved markedly. The result, Fatsis writes, is that kicking is “the most isolated and isolating task on a football field.”
The book excels when he breaks down the minutiae of the kicking craft. The key is consistency, requiring “the same motion every time, with maximum leg speed created by the drawback, downswing, and follow-through.” He dissects the unique pressure kickers face -- those “few seconds of panic” when they’re sent into the game with time winding down, the outcome at stake and a stadium of screaming fans. “In the NFL, you always feel like you’ve got to prove yourself,” says then-Broncos starter Jason Elam. “Every day. . . . Because you are a replaceable part.”
Fatsis sketches intimate mini-profiles of the brethren he practices alongside. He admires the professionalism of Elam, a veteran with two Super Bowl rings and co-record holder of the NFL’s longest field goal (63 yards). Elam uses every second of down time -- and kickers have hours to kill. He’s a licensed commercial pilot, a licensed real-estate broker and a big-game hunter. Oh, and he’s co-written a novel with his pastor, Steve Yohn (“Monday Night Jihad”), and is working on a master’s of divinity degree.
In contrast, punter Todd Sauerbrun comes across as a brilliant talent with a prickly disposition. (His teammates call him, variously, “Boom,” “Sourpatch” and “Toddler.”) On the eve of training camp, Fatsis writes, Sauerbrun tests positive for ephedra (a banned substance). He is suspended for four games, which costs him $325,000. He lashes out and tells Fatsis that “he hates the culture of the league. He hates the way players are treated.”
Sauerbrun isn’t the only dissatisfied Bronco. Starting quarterback Jake Plummer enters the season upset that the team picked up another quarterback in the college draft. Later in the 2006 season, Plummer is demoted to second string. He sits with Fatsis and rips coach Mike Shanahan with an expletive-filled diatribe. It comes as no surprise when, before the 2007 season, Plummer decides to walk away from the game (and millions of dollars) at age 33.
Fatsis is able to penetrate the players’ psyches in a way that few sportswriters have. These athletes still relish the competition come Sunday, not to mention the game’s perks (specifically, money and celebrity). But much of what happens in the so-called No Fun League, according to Fatsis, is “a largely joyless, stultifying, demoralizing, infantilizing, breakdown-inducing drag.” As the Broncos’ then-fullback Kyle Johnson puts it, “It’s a good job that pays extremely well. Or, really, it’s a bad job that pays extremely well.”
Perhaps the biggest difference between “Paper Lion” and “A Few Seconds of Panic” is approach. Plimpton was a dilettante with a Brahmin accent. He joined the team on a lark -- it started as a magazine assignment -- and prepared by tucking a football under his arm and jogging in Central Park, “bringing the knees up high, then launching into an occasional sprint, with the arm held straight out to ward off an imaginary tackler,” he wrote with Mitty-like elan.
Plimpton faltered in his only scrimmage appearance, but he knew that his ineptitude enhanced the tale. His it’s-just-a-game attitude also loosened up the Lions; he was accepted almost as a mascot. He played liars’ poker with the coaches and listened to Dinah Washington records with defensive back Dick “Night Train” Lane. He produced the annual rookie variety show with theatrical vigor.
Fatsis is also an Ivy Leaguer (University of Pennsylvania), but there’s no hint of the entitled elitism that occasionally affected Plimpton. Rather, Fatsis is a grinder. (In “Word Freak,” he memorized thousands of obscure words to attain “expert” status.) Determined to prove that he belongs on the field, the former soccer player works with a personal trainer, consults a sports psychologist and monitors every ache in his legs. He practices, practices, practices. “I don’t want to be a writer embedding with the Denver Broncos,” he notes. “I want to be a Denver Bronco.”
Like Plimpton, Fatsis fails his initial gridiron test. Unlike Plimpton, he gets a chance for redemption. That he succeeds -- from quite a distance -- is testament to his perseverance. In so doing, Fatsis shows that he has absorbed the hard-won lessons of the locker room. In today’s NFL, what matters is results.