Eric Kester may be the only guy who's come out ahead from Ballghazi so far.
Over the past week, as the broadcast media have desperately tried to pump air into the deflated-balls scandal, Kester has been the near-ubiquitous voice of firsthand ball-boy expertise. Handsome, personable, and the author of a well-received book (once excerpted here at Deadspin) about his experience at Harvard, he has been brought on by CNN, ABC's Good Morning America, and NBC's Today Show to speak about his extensive work touching, squeezing, and roughing up balls on the sidelines for the Chicago Bears. As he tells it, his career with the Bears gives him unique insight into just what professionals like Bill Belichick, Tom Brady, and their minions may or may not have done ahead of the AFC Championship game, and just what advantages they may or may not have derived from it.
Kester's views haven't always been consistent. When talking to CNN's Anderson Cooper, he said, "It really would take a pressure gauge to truly tell that big drop in pressure occurred, whether from the weather or something else." In a sound bite from the same interview that moved on CNN Newsource, he said, "Quarterbacks are particular about the way that the footballs feel in their hand, and a change in pressure can be detectable if you really are feeling for the pressure." Hard to tell, easy to tell; who can say?
No matter: Kester still looks like a winner, because despite any contradictions, and amid all the talk of softer balls and harder balls and rubbing and squeezing hard and soft balls, he speaks as a member of that previously unspoken-for and expert demographic: the ball boys. An op-ed he wrote for The New York Times last fall identified him not only as a former Bears ball boy, but one who is now "writing a book about his experience as an N.F.L. ball boy." What television booker wouldn't want to bring viewers the insights of such an authority?
There's only one problem: according to sources with the Bears, his résumé is, well, pumped full of air.
In his Times piece, Kester related memories from what he described as an "extended period of time behind the NFL curtain" as a 17-year-old ball boy for the Bears. He depicted himself as a gridiron Gunga Din, who as a young man witnessed enough pain and suffering to make anybody "understand how the physical and emotional toll these players endure is devastating enough to erode the morality of a good man or exacerbate the evils of a bad one."
Kester, in his telling, didn't walk away from the job unscathed. He wanted readers to know about the guilt he's carried ever since his extended stay behind the curtain, and how he remains haunted by the "eerily subdued postgame locker rooms filled with vacant stares" and "anguished screams echoing from the training room."
On game days my pockets were always full of these tiny ammonia stimulants that, when sniffed, can trick a brain into a state of alertness. After almost every crowd-pleasing hit, a player would stagger off the field, steady himself the best he could, sometimes vomit a little, and tilt his head to the sky. Then, with eyes squeezed shut in pain, he'd scream "Eric!" and I'd dash over and say, "It's O.K., I'm right here, got just what you need."
As fans high-fived and hell-yeahed and checked the progress of their fantasy teams, and as I eagerly scrambled onto the field to pick up shattered fragments from exploded helmets, researchers were discovering the rotting black splotches of brain tissue that indicate chronic traumatic encephalopathy ...
When not serving as a sort of battlefield medic, in breach of all known NFL medical protocols, Kester apparently saw lots of shit, not figuratively but literally:
One of my jobs was sorting through postgame laundry. Cleaner uniforms would be set aside for football card companies to purchase for their line of "game-used inserts." Dirty uniforms, meanwhile, like all the girdles filled with blood and feces because some hits are savage enough to overpower the central nervous system, I'd put in a special bin for disposal.
Kester says he "stands by" what he wrote in his Times op-ed and what he's said in his many appearances on television since the ball-inflation scandal began, no matter how implausible it all sounds.
"Like anything, it's my own recollection of what happened," he says. "I can see people can quibble with that."
Count the Bears among the quibblers. In fact, team sources pooh-pooh pretty much all of the recollections of game-day ballhandling that Kester has expressed on TV, and blast every syllable of his Times opus. In the team's view, Kester would have trouble filling a pamphlet with his actual NFL experiences, let alone a book.
According to a team source, employment records indicate Eric Kester was a training camp assistant for "three weeks" during the summer of 2003 in Bourbonnais, Ill., worked "at most two preseason games" that year, and never returned. The files support assertions by longtime sidelines personnel that Kester never worked a regular season game for the team. (A photo provided by a source with ties to the Bears training staff and described as a shot of the game-day crew from the 2003 season shows a 22-man group; Kester is not among them. This source requested that the photo not be published.)
Past the Bears' assertions, cursory Googling reveals reasons to question the depth and breadth of Kester's knowledge of the NFL's inner workings.
Kester attended Middlesex School, a snooty boarding school in Concord, Mass. A profile of Kester on the school's website lists him as Class of 2004, and as captain of the football team. The Middlesexers, like most elite preps, play most of their games on autumn Saturdays. (Friday night lights are the folly of hoi polloi footballers.) The schedule would have made traveling to Chicago and other NFL cities for a fall of Sundays quite hectic—San Francisco, Seattle and Denver were among the Bears' road opponents his senior season.
(A full day of checking in with Times people on what their fact-checking apparatus turned up ahead of running this op-ed ended in the following, from Times spokesperson Danielle Rhoades Ha: "I know they are reviewing the matter and will let you know when there is an update." We are still waiting.)
A Bears source tells Deadspin that the team's training staff was extremely peeved by the Times story when it first appeared, but ultimately chose to keep their opinions private, in hopes the story would go away. "The claims in there were so outrageous, it carried no weight with us," says this source, adding that the feeling was any attention the article got "would help him sell his book."
According to the team source, no media members called them asking for a response to Kester's dispatch from the war zone. Had anyone called, they would have been told that ball boys are not permitted to administer ammonia or provide any sort of treatment to injured players; that ball boys would not be permitted to run out on the field to pick up "shattered fragments from exploded helmets," and not just because helmets don't really explode or shatter into fragments; and that Kester's memory about players' pantloads is a pantload.
"We don't have a poop bin for clothes," says a Bears source. "I think guys would notice if players were crapping their pants."
The training staff, the source says, is perplexed both by the renown Kester has gained lately, and by the scenarios he's depicted himself as being involved in. Kester told NBC, for example, that he "worked meticulously" with quarterbacks to make sure that on game days the balls would "match their particular preferences," and the network's report alleged that two hours before kickoff, Kester "would bring the balls to the referees' locker room for inspection."
"My thought process," Kester told NBC, "was, 'Let's get the balls exactly the way our quarterback wants them, and if the refs reject one or two before the game, no big deal. But there's no harm giving them our ideal balls and hoping they make it through inspection."
A Bears source says that, as common sense would have it, nobody whose ball boy career amounted to three weeks' worth of summer practice would ever be involved in pre-game meetings with referees or working with quarterbacks to prepare balls on game days.
Kester, given a chance to rebut these rebuttals, repeats his assertion that the op-ed and TV appearances reflect his memories and what he wrote in his journal during his time with the team.
"I was 17 and wasn't the best note keeper ever," he says, "but I stand by what I said."
He says he got the summer job with the Bears because his father was longtime friends with then-coach Dick Jauron. He admits that he was only with the team for the preseason, but adds that he thinks it was more than three weeks. He denies that claiming to have spent "an extended period of time behind the N.F.L. curtain" misrepresents his actual credentials.
"I would consider several weeks doing these things is an extended period of time, to the average football fan or New York Times reader," he says.
Kester says he has not yet gotten a publishing deal for his ball boy book. He's been busy instead, as he tells it, with his studies at Columbia University, where he is pursuing a masters in creative writing.
Additional reporting by Tim Burke. Anything we should know? You can reach us at firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com.