Against the Colts Peyton Manning ended up three yards short of Brett Favre’s record. They had the champagne ready. The cannons loaded. The midgets were hiding in the cakes. The hookers were naked in the limos. Everything was ready. All we need is a few more numbers! C’mon, Peyton! Keep coming! Certainly, records are part of sports, and this record is one worth keeping. But this has become a common refrain in the world of sports:
For the first time ever!
Just because we measure it, that doesn’t make it novel. It’s physics. The farther back you pull the slingshot, the harder it will shoot. Players are the stones. As the Broncos and Colts game unfolded, the pregame narrative changed in real time. Peyton struggled in the Dome, and Andrew Luck, who was, by media accounts, a leper going into the game, played very well and led his team on multiple tough scoring drives with physical runs and accurate downfield throws. “Well, this is the Andrew Luck that we were hoping we’d see!”
Why are you holding shovels, then?
This excerpt from Fantasy Man: A Former NFL Player’s Descent into the Brutality of Fantasy Football by Nate Jackson is printed with the permission of Harper. Buy it here.
After the win, Andrew Luck was held aloft long enough to make today’s news of his lacerated spleen another tearjerker for the aw-shucks crowd, who hate to see a guy like that go down in the middle of the season right when he was starting to get it clicking again. Your heart goes out to Andrew for all of the—
Save it, Trey. But I wonder if the sharp edges of Luck’s three broken ribs had anything to do with the laceration of his spleen?
Peyton’s proximity to Favre’s record makes it a guarantee he’ll get it this week. The game is Sunday in Denver against the Chiefs, and I will be in attendance with a freelance writer called Mr. Green.
Mr. Green got someone to buy tickets and pay his way to Colorado so we can talk about ganja. I obliged his request. I’d like to see the Sleeve, my fantasy team packed with Broncos, perform in person, and see how bad the Broncos suck, and court some old demons, and have something to do, something to write about. I’m doing this for you, dear reader!
NFL wisdom is dispensed weekly. We don’t learn the nuance because we are fed the numbers, which we gorge on.
Here is the real wisdom: kill the narrative. That’s how you win games in the actual NFL. The narrative is the fantasy. And the fantasy is a lie.
I need to kill some narratives of my own.
One is that I am a victim. Let me explain. My first book received some Hollywood interest, enough to make me think that my six seasons in the NFL would be a good template for a television show following the rise and fall of a professional football career. I was working on a pilot script and talking to a few producers when I was contacted by a writer/director named Peter Landesman, or as we’ll call him, Hollydouche–Guy Hollydouche. He was working on a script about concussions and head injuries in the NFL and wanted to talk.
We met at a restaurant. He was wearing a deep V-neck shirt, had plentiful woven jewelry and an improbable tan. He praised my book. So authentic! So raw! You’ve got a real gift! He wanted me on board for the film, he said. Sony was greenlighting the script and Will Smith would star. Sony would option my book. I would work on the film, be in it even, be there on set, in the editing room, get a feel for how these things are done—then eighteen months later when the movie was out, Guy would help me write my TV show. We’d do it together! We’d be partners in this thing. He had never done that before but we’d figure it out!
My new Hollywood agent at CAA, presented to me by my literary agent in New York, told me that this was legit. It was happening, and contract negotiations started. I shelved my own television project as Guy pumped me for information about the NFL. I told him that I wrote twice as much material as what ended up in my book.
“Send it to me!” he said. “Send me everything you have!”
Skeptical of his flippant declarations, I visited him again to be assured that putting my project on hold and coming aboard his was the correct thing to do. I sat at a huge table in a conference room at the studio and he walked in five minutes later with a painted-on smile and high-arching eyebrows. He stroked my ego, told me what they were working on, how I could help, what legal snags they were running into, and what the schedule was.
A month later, at Guy’s request, I went into the studio, owned by the film’s wealthy producer, signed a nondisclosure agreement, and read the script. The script was good. Well-written and sad. I don’t know. It was the first script I had ever read. There were some anachronisms that I caught, and there was some football dialogue that came out very writerly—“C’mon, man! You pulled an audible on me!” Also the script never mentioned CTE, which is the name of the disease that the story is focused on. I gave an assistant producer my notes while her little dog ran around the office jingling its stupid collar. I left feeling part of the project, despite the fact that contract negotiations had stalled—some discrepancies in the fine print; standard logjams. Carry on! We’ll get this worked out!
Filming was to start in late October in Pittsburgh. In September, Guy connected me with Freddy Football, who was organizing the football scenes and said I could be in them if I wanted. This excited me very much. I get to suit up again? Smack it around a bit? Play catch? Yes! I started training for it: lifting hard at the gym, running on the grass in cleats, getting ready to play some football. This was a very bad idea, in hindsight. My body is and was wrecked. I have no business playing tackle football ever again. But there was something stronger at work, and I was all in.
But a week before shooting commenced, I still had no contract. My agent at CAA had said “any day now” every day for the last four months. But now it was time to shoot. And people don’t start shooting before getting paid. As we waited for the next response from Sony, I reached out to Guy and Freddy, because, despite all of the planning, no one had contacted me with flight information or lodging or anything logistical. The movie sounds great. I’m very excited. Can’t wait to suit up one last time. But could someone tell me where to go? Where I’m staying? Who is going to pick me up? Hello? Is this microphone on? Guess not.
Repeated calls, emails, and texts went unreturned. Guy fell off the map. So did Freddy. I called my agent. “What?” he said. “This never happens!” But the filming commenced a few days later without me. Finally an unfamiliar assistant producer wrote me an email and said that there was some kind of a mix-up, that they didn’t have it in their budget to bring me out there and that they had all of the spots filled. The film comes out on Christmas Day and is called Concussion.
“It’s the hard-c sound,” my agent said. “Hard-c sells more tickets. It’s appealing to the ear.”
The concussion topic is timely and important. It affects me and it affects my friends. It affects current and former players; wives, brothers, children, parents. But it does not affect Guy Hollydouche or Freddy Football or anyone else in the hard-c crowd. For them, it affects their IMDb page and their ability to get last-minute reservations at Spago, or wherever the fuck.
Concussion opens on Christmas and Sony is having several screenings of the film in advance of its release. “You’ll be getting credit as a consultant,” my agent wrote me. “Let me know if you want to go to any of the screenings and I’ll arrange to put you on the list.”
Time to grow up, Nate. You’re not a victim. I responded favorably to the offer. The screening I chose is tomorrow morning at ten on the Sony lot in Jimmy Stewart 23. I shall go and I shall be the model of benevolence and forgiveness. And if Guy is there then I’ll spring in the air like a panther and land on him with all of my weight, pinning him to the ground, and smashing down with a double hammer fist until I feel the bones in his face break, snap, and crack like bloody eggshells while the SAG members stand and watch.
I park in the Sony lot and walk to Jimmy Stewart 23—a one-hundred-seat screening room, which is mostly empty—and sit in the third row. Maybe twenty people are here. Guy is not one of them. Seems like press. The film starts and it is good. It’s surreal to watch it, to see how the shots came together, how it went from page to screen. I already read the script. I know how it goes. There is nothing surprising; it sticks faithfully to the story. Guy is a journalist. He took some heat a few months ago after the Sony hack. The media interpreted the leaked documents as Guy folding to NFL pressure. Didn’t seem that way to me. I was, in fact, surprised at the amount of NFL footage and logos and team references that were made. I thought the NFL would prohibit that.
The story is about a Nigerian doctor—Bennet Omalu—who discovered a brain disease in former NFL players. The disease is called chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). The conclusion of the film is this: football kills the brain.
Now talk amongst yourselves.
The implications are plain. I cringed a few times, felt a shock in my cortex. Sometimes my football life feels like another life altogether. It wasn’t me out there. I don’t know who that was or how I trained myself to do that: to be the attacker, to use my head as a weapon. But using the head as a weapon is the only way to survive a life of football, and you get used to it.
Put a hat on him.
Stick your head in there.
Knock him out.
Light him up.
The game is played with violence and strength, force and aggression. It’s about the final blow. That we have convinced ourselves that it can be made safe speaks to the power the game has over us. It represents something that we consider valuable and instructive, and therefore worth keeping around. We are not giving it up. Fine. But let’s not play double Dutch with uncooked spaghetti.
Football kills the brain. Yes, this kind of makes sense when you think about it. But does football have to kill the brain? No. But as long as those who control the game don’t get hit, and the rules and medicine stay the same, the game won’t change.
Until then, what’s the safest way to get hit by a truck?
The only thing that disappointed me about Concussion was the use of English actors for hardened American football player roles, like Dave Duerson’s character. You can’t throw, bloke. I can tell by looking at you.
One of my former Niner teammates, Matt Willig, has a role in Concussion. He plays Justin Strzelczyk, a former Steelers lineman who died a violent death after becoming demented. Matt is a huge man. Scary man. Nice man. And an actor man!
To me, the most visceral part of Concussion is not the power struggle between Omalu and the NFL, but the depiction of the downward-spiraling former football player that has become the all-too-common cliché. Every former player in the film dies a horrible death, either by suicide or something close to it. The implication here is that they couldn’t help it, that football drove them mad. So what is left to do but die? It’s a fatalist look at the plight of the former player. And it’s unhealthy to take it as the final word.
Remember when Rocky and Apollo Creed land crosses simultaneously at the end of Rocky III? Concussion builds to a similar climax. Two high school players run toward each other from a distance and it cuts away right before impact. Right before the damage. Right before the dinner bell.
The credits roll. Ha! There I am. Look, Ma! I’m Consultant-Douche.
Game day, bitches! Today I will revisit my NFL experience from the nosebleeds with Mr. Green, hoping to pick my brain clean. I park at a church (twenty dollars) and walk to the stadium and find my buddy Jake Plummer tailgating in the parking lot. Jake is the Broncos’ third-most-famous quarterback ever. All three will be here today. Jake’s hair is parted in the middle and floppy. He chuckles often and his hands hang open as if ready to grip the football and hit someone down the middle on a skinny post. He is doing the coin toss at today’s game. It’s funny, they’re hard on you when you play—especially the quarterback—but they love you when you retire.
The memory is sweet. Now is salty.
Now is an acquired taste.
Mr. Green’s photographer, Lenny, shows up first and takes me through a series of embarrassing photos at the bottom of a packed stairway. Broncos fans file past us holding beers and yelling. Mr. Green wanted to shoot video, too. Make this a big thing. I nixed that and agreed to still photos instead, which I’m now regretting, having already spent years as a circus monkey.
But simply by talking about cannabis, I have made myself an attractive proposition to guys like Mr. Green, who want the inside scoop and a check from a website willing to pay for original content.
“NFL guy smokes pot and is willing to talk about it” is original content. “Wait! You like weed, too?” Standing ovation. But I suppose we both have an agenda here. I am also writing about today. Mr. Green just doesn’t know it.
He walks up and introduces himself, straight from the airport; he is a short, affable fella with a beard and a baseball cap. I hand him a beer, Mama’s Little Yella Pils. He is holding his iPhone in a purposeful way. Ah. He is recording the conversation already. He will be recording the whole day. Whatever you say will be held against you—forever.
And off we go.
The Sleeve is here today at [Insert Corporate Logo Here] Field: Peyton, Demaryius, C.J., McManus, B-Marsh 2, and the Denver defense. I’m going all in on nostalgia.
We stand in a slow-moving herd near the stadium’s entrance, each person removing keys and phone and walking through a metal detector. What is usually an annoying formality takes on a new significance in light of the terrorists who blew themselves to smithereens outside the stadium in Paris the other day, right before their virgin buddies shot up a concert hall down the street.
When we reach the gate, Mr. Green is turned away because of his bag. He will need to get a locker for his bomb, they say. “Meet you at the seats,” he says, and we split up. I walk up the snaked ramp toward the summit, section 511, row 32, seat 7, and stand in line for pig meat as the game starts.
The pigskin flies from Peyton’s hand on the Broncos opening series. He is three yards away from the all-time record. The toots are in the limos again. The champagne is on ice again. But it will have to wait until the next series, because Peyton’s first throw is a fluttery, buttery ball down the seam to a streaking Vernon Davis, who has a step on his defender. But the football is shot out of the sky, falls short of Vernon, and is intercepted.
These seats are impressively high up. Just a few rows from the summit. It’s a workout to get up here. I’m out of breath as I find my seat, which is occupied by a woman in a leather jacket who assures me that she is in the correct seat. I tell her that she is mistaken, that she is in my seat in section 511. Oh no, she says, this is section 510; section 511 is one section over. No, I say. This is section 511; 510 is one section over. She looks over her shoulder at the big 511 behind us and then graciously relocates with her loquacious lesbian lover.
I sit down and scarf the hot dog. The Chiefs look sharp. The Broncos look blunt. They get the ball back on offense and Peyton completes a four-yard pass to Ronnie Hillman, which breaks the all-time passing yards (ATPY) record.
Yaaaay! screams the crowd out of one side of their mouths. Everyone stands and claps and play stops for a moment to honor one of football’s best ambassadors. One of its biggest moneymakers; its most illustrious passers; its most beloved; of the royal bloodline; the back on which the NFL’s narrative rides. He is the all-time leader. He is still going. He is dragging himself along. He cannot stop.
Peyton presses his lips together and waves to the crowd. He’s never been one to milk the accolades. He just wants to play football. He hurries back into the huddle to do what he does best: lead his football team to victory. But just a few plays later, he throws an incompletion on third down and the crowd cannot help themselves. They boo Peyton Manning—the ATPY record holder. They boo him off the field as the punt team comes on.
Mr. Green gets to the seats with two beers. We drink them and talk and Lenny joins us and Peyton throws another interception. Boos rain down on the immortal man. Peyton hobbles off the field with his head down. He looks hurt.
Mr. Green asks many questions and I try to answer them while watching the game. He is echoing conventional journo-wisdom and I find myself getting slightly annoyed when explaining things, but only slightly. I don’t want to hurt him.
“What’s it like down there? What are they thinking between plays? What’s the issue with pain? Are they all just hurting right now?”
“No, there is no pain on a football field. Adrenaline is too high to feel the murmurings of the body. This energy here, you feel it? All of this manic energy is being pumped into their bodies telekinetically. They are possessed...Look there. See that play? That guy just jumped as high as he could in the air and landed on his back, then popped up like nothing happened; a ‘routine play,’ some would call it. What do you think would happen if you jumped as high as you could and landed on your back right now?”
“I don’t know.”
“You might die.”
“And the ‘routine blocks and tackles’: normal stuff, right? Get up and get back into the huddle. Easy. Don’t be a pussy, yeah? But what would happen if you walked out of your house in the morning, and on your way to your car, I came at you full speed and hit you as hard as I could, driving you into the ground? Would you get back up and ask for another?”
“If I was making a million dollars a year, yeah!”
“I don’t agree. You’d quit after day two. The violence is ceaseless. Your visceral reality would trump any numbers in your bank account.”
The Broncos are getting smoked. Peyton throws another interception at the beginning of the second half, then is benched in the fourth quarter for backup Brock Osweiler when the game is all but lost.
The switch elicits cheers from the crowd. Nothing excites Broncos fans more than an unproven quarterback, and Brock is the epitome of this. He has been idling patiently behind Peyton for four years, waiting to unleash the cannon. The Chiefs win handily. The only points scored by the Broncos are in the fourth quarter and Brock is the one who does it. Peyton’s body is failing him. Brock is on the rise. The Sleeve is not.
RIP: Bunny Five-Ball Wizard Sleeve: killed by the Broncos. I’m 3-7.
This excerpt from Fantasy Man: A Former NFL Player’s Descent into the Brutality of Fantasy Football by Nate Jackson is printed with the permission of Harper. Buy it here.