Some NFL players will tell you the league is like prison—prison with paychecks. Each well-paid inmate has a reputation for violence, and every day on the yard, someone gets shanked. Every week, a few guys get released and a few guppies show up. The guys who leave feel a sense of relief, but they soon realize they’re ill-equipped for life on the outside, for a variety of reasons, and compared to the prospect of dodging millennials in AirPods and making plans that will only be cancelled via text, sharing a bunk with Bubba doesn’t seem so bad.
Yeah, I miss Bubba.
This summer marks 10 years out of football for me. Training camp 2009 was the end of my football story. People always say, “Oh, you’re retired!” And “How’s retirement? Must be nice!” I have to break it to them that I didn’t actually retire. It was a forced exit. I retired from football the way Harambe retired from the Cincinnati Zoo. The way Joe Takagi retired from the Nakatomi Corporation. “I am going to count to three. There will not be a four.” Hans Gruber could easily take Roger Goodell’s job and do just as well. The average NFL career does not reach the count of four.
So I feel lucky in that regard. I lasted six. I tried to make it seven but that ended in a disastrous Cleveland Browns training camp. It wasn’t until nearly a year later and a lack of offers that I accepted it was all over.
Most people think I am lying when I tell them I played in the NFL, because they’re racist. I tell them as much, then I pretend to have a migraine and stomp off.
I have heard the letters C T and E so many fucking times, the question becomes: When I am struggling in the “real world,” is it because I am conditioned for a different reality? Or because I actually have brain damage? Nobody knows, because frustration can read as dementia. It’s the world that drives us mad, not football! It’s the way people communicate: Vague. Non-committal. Via text. Email. Waiting for a response. Fake smiles and faker laughs. Superlatives and exclamation points and the making of plans that never come to fruition. Sorry for the delayed response, things are crazy over here. “Really?” I want to say. “How crazy?” Every conversation is a game of double-dutch and I cant seem to time it up.
Because in football, there is only one rope, and it’s tied around your neck. Everything is Clear and Direct. They look you right in the eyes and tell you where you stand. If you forget your assignment on a play for example, practice comes to a screeching halt. Everyone turns to you and watches your coach say something like: “If you cannot remember the plays, then we can’t put you in the game. And if we can’t put you in the game, then we can’t have you on this team!” Duly noted. You are evaluated at all times. Coached at all times. Encouraged at all times. “Encouragement” in football sounds like this: What the fuck are you doing? You call that a block? You’re better than that!
No matter what you do: You’re better than that. Sports is the only profession where people pay top dollar to come tell the best players in the world that they suck. Imagine going to see your favorite band and just booing the whole time. “You call that a guitar solo? Get your head out of your ass, Slash!”
Now it might sound annoying being constantly evaluated like this, but there is an unmistakable honesty to it that is refreshing and keeps you striving for more. These days, the only time I hear “You’re better than that!” is from my wife after sex.
I do think much of my frustration has to do with my current “occupation.” I am a writer. Which means I write emails and wait for a response. I schedule meetings. I craft pitches. I read the news. I go to coffee shops. Libraries. Watch people. Study their weaknesses. Figure out how to best attack them.
When I first became a writer, I was living in Denver. But they say you have to come to L.A. to reach the pinnacle of disappointment, so I moved to Venice, where I have lived for the last eight years. During this time I have made exactly one new friend. No matter how hard I try, I can’t relate to those around me. On their scooters. Wearing ear buds. Grabbing Postmates at the curb and scurrying back inside. Getting into double-parked Ubers stopping traffic. The only time anyone looks you in the eye is when they’re talking to someone else on the phone. When this happens, I assume they’re speaking to me and respond accordingly.
I am from California and I don’t belong In California. Everyone is a tourist here—especially the locals. Everyone is suspicious of each other. No one knows anyone. Everyone moved here alone to be someone. There is no generational frame of reference. No one knows anyone’s family, so you are forced to take people on their word, which is fabricated. Fake It Till You Make It. Whereas in football, there simply is no faking anything. You know exactly what everyone is made of because every day, you have to prove it. You know who you can trust and who has your back.
So how’s retirement? Aside from trying to get writing gigs and hanging out with my wife, I basically just wander around waiting for something to happen, something off-script, because it feels like I’m the only one without a copy.
If I hear a crash, I get excited. A scream. Yay! Glass breaks. Sirens ring out. Killer! Smoke fills the air. Tires screech. Someone yells fuck. A ball rolls out into the street. A crustpunk stalks a tech worker. A Lyft driver backs into a fire hydrant. These are the moments I live for. And when I think about it, I always have. I was a reckless child, always leaning forward, always banged up, stitches in my head, black eyes. I was perfect for football, but my participation came with a price. It rewarded my recklessness, made aggression a virtue, and disconnected me from the emotional reality of violence. Not only that, but it seems as if, even 10 years later, that my dials have been fixed.
The conversational rhythm of modern life? No idea. A potential employer told me to send her a link, so I mailed her some sausage. I didn’t get the job. But if I did, she would have been impressed with my punctuality. In football, if the meeting starts at 8:30, you are in your seat at 8:25. Everyone’s heard the adage: “If you’re early, you’re on time; if you’re on time, you’re late; if you’re late, don’t even bother!” That was our credo.
Out here, it’s: “If you’re early, you’re a weirdo; if you’re on time, you’ll be the first one there; if you’re late, just blame traffic.” I want to tell them to sack up and stop complaining, stop making excuses, stop telling me how busy you are, but when I try, they disappear. No one here on the outside can take the scrutiny.
Tough times don’t last, tough people do. That’s an old football cliché. I am hoping to use what I learned in football to help me succeed in L.A., but I keep hurting the Google employees when I knock them off their scooters. “You’re better than that!” I yell, but they never do listen.
Nate Jackson played six years in the NFL and has written two books, Slow Getting Up and Fantasy Man. He co-founded Athletes for CARE, a non-profit that advocates for the health and wellness of athletes. He lives in L.A.