Let’s get the disclosure out of the way:
Stefan Fatsis, author of the just-published “A Few Seconds of Panic” from Penguin Press, about his George Plimpton-esque turn as a placekicker for the Denver Broncos in 2006, is an old friend. Fresh out of the University of Pennsylvania in 1985, he interned at the Miami Herald’s Palm Beach County bureau when I was the prep sports editor there. Once I showed this fellow New Yorker the one good Italian restaurant within a mile of the office, we were friends for life.
The bureau was loaded with big-time young talent, folks who went on to work at the New York Times, the Boston Globe, and the Dallas Morning News. Stef fit right in. Even then, he was a smart, inquisitive guy with a knack for sizing up a situation quickly, asking the right questions and getting people to trust him.
Those qualities served Stef well with the Associated Press and the Wall Street Journal, as well as in his two previous books: “Wild and Outside,” about Northern League independent baseball, and “Word Freak,” a New York Times best-seller in which Fatsis immersed himself so completely in the world of competitive Scrabble that he became a high-level player himself.
In “Panic,” Fatsis shows NFL life from the inside. He persuaded Broncos owner Pat Bowlen, whom he cultivated as a source for his WSJ work, and Coach Mike Shanahan to let him try out as a placekicker. But it took some doing, and the NFL signed off on it reluctantly.
Plimpton’s “Paper Lion,” about his attempt to play quarterback for the Detroit Lions in 1963, established the template for the participatory journalism genre that, frankly, grew tired long ago. And if that’s all Fatsis tried to do with “Panic,” all ego and no substance, you wouldn’t be reading about the book here, friend or not.
Author gets inside the locker room and inside players’ heads
But Fatsis ingratiated himself so well with the Broncos players that, over time, many opened up to him. By going through mini-camp conditioning work and training-camp two-a-days with everybody else, and handling the infantile initiations with humor and grace (they made him sing the Penn fight song, for pete’s sake), Fatsis became one of them. Smaller and grayer-haired, certainly, but one of them. He sought a way behind the pigskin curtain, and found it.
“The fact that I had the guts to do this, I think, impressed them, and made them feel I wasn’t just another pencil,” Fatsis said in a telephone interview from his home in Washington, D.C.
“They believed my spiel: I want to understand how you do your job, and what it means to you. And I think they wanted to get it off their chests. A lot of those guys feel they’ve been misunderstood. Here was a chance to explain what their short careers as professional athletes are really like.”
Many of the insights are fascinating. Nate Jackson, a fourth-year tight end, reveals the difference between those who stick in the NFL and those who can: The survivors handle the non-stop pressure from coaches to perform.
“In the world there’s probably a hundred thousand guys, if not more, physically talented enough to play in the NFL,” he said in the book. “But mentally they don’t have it. You see it all the time. Guys come in here who are physically great but mentally break.”
Bradlee Van Pelt, the backup quarterback who loses his job to rookie Jay Cutler, breaks. Starter Jake Plummer, annoyed that the Broncos drafted Cutler after Plummer took them within one victory of the Super Bowl, survives. And then you have players like Kyle Johnson, a backup fullback who no longer loves the game he has been playing since he was a boy, beaten down by what he calls “the exacerbating process of always getting judged and evaluated.”
Fatsis introduces us to diverse and introspective players like linebacker Ian Gold, who keeps teammates and coaches at a distance because he understands the NFL’s cold mentality. “Don’t hug me, don’t touch me, don’t call me your buddy, don’t tell you me you love me, because I know you’ll (criticize) me as soon as I leave the room,” he said in the book.
Tim Brewster gets attention in book, too
For the provincial among you, Broncos tight ends coach Tim Brewster (yes, that Tim Brewster) comes under scrutiny in two places for his over-the-top style and profane berating of rookie tight end Tony Scheffler. Writes Fatsis: “Tony’s teammates sympathize. They think Brew’s old-school badgering is a show for Shanahan that doesn’t impress the coach and doesn’t work on players.”
But, Fatsis writes, the players understood the purpose: Turning Scheffler, a better receiver than blocker, into a multi-talented force like Antonio Gates, the raw talent whom Brewster developed in San Diego. In our interview, Fatsis said Brewster justified his methods to him two ways. First: “These guys are running around with my paycheck in their mouths.” And: “If he fails, I fail. He knows my style, and I can’t change. That’s what I am.”
Fatsis never kicks in an exhibition game — the killjoy NFL wouldn’t allow it — but his reporting and breezy narrative writing carry the book. Even for the casual NFL fan, “Panic” offers a rare look into a league that often dehumanizes its participants while amassing ever-rising stacks of cash. Few writers with this kind of access have brought back as much brutal insight as Fatsis delivers here, most of it from the mouths of the players and coaches themselves. Knowing Stef, that doesn’t surprise me one bit.
Stefan Fatsis will be in Minneapolis to sign copies of his new book on Tuesday, July 15 at 7:30 p.m. at Magers and Quinn Booksellers, 3038 Hennepin Avenue South.