For the past year, I’ve been dipping a mangled toe into the stand-up comedy waters around L.A. It’s hard, but not nearly so nerve-wracking as my very first gig: making fun of Mike Shanahan.
I was a football player and it was the end of July, which meant one thing: I had run out of things to talk about with my girlfriend. So I said goodbye—“Be back in January. Don’t wait up!”—and drove to work. It was training camp of 2008 and I was in my sixth and final NFL season.
I parked my Denali in the players’ lot and walked into the locker room whistling. After that many years I knew everyone in the organization—Flip! Kenny! Trae!—but there was a muscular stranger standing in front of a poster on the wall in our locker room. The poster had a drawing of a player in full uniform and indicated proper equipment protocol. I had never seen that poster before. I mean, I’d seen the poster, I just never read it. I never read anything at work unless I was tested on it. Which means I only read the playbook. Which is why I also never read the WARNING sticker on the side of the helmet, encouraging us not to do the thing that football coaches tell you to do—butt, ram or spear your opponent—because it may kill you. “Go ram his ass!” says Coach.
I introduced myself to the new guy, looking at the poster.
“Hey, I’m Nate.”
“Manuel. Manuel Padilla.”
Manuel Padilla was a linebacker, a Mexican national player, and because of his football prowess in the deepest south, had been given a roster spot for training camp. Manny had a thick upper body, thick black hair and a very pronounced unibrow. I mean very pronounced. He also had an eagerness that I admired for a guy in his position. He was ready for some futbol (Americano)! If I had been the best mariachi player at my Minnesota high school, and then I got invited to go be in the best mariachi band in Mexico, I’d probably shit my pantalones.
“Much gusto, Manny. Helmet goes on the head.”
“Yo se ... Pinche gringo.”
Soon we were all seated in the main room for the first meeting of the season. There was a buzz in the room—the product of a loud generator near the back. But there was an excitement, too, because every member of the organization sat in folding chairs before us, fidgeting in their seats as we hunted them with our animal eyes.
Yes, we were ready to eat, but the circus animals don’t feed themselves, and head coach Mike Shanahan wanted us to understand the breadth of the whole operation, so he sat us down on day one and had each department give us their spiel.
First was Greek, our head athletic trainer. The top of his head was bald as a cue ball with a kilt of brown hair around it and a walrus mustache. “If you get hurt, you have to tell us, then you have to come in for treatment, and you have to be on time and show up for every treatment, or else it’s your ass. If we give you medicine, take it.
“And drink a lot of water. Or Gatorade. You’ve seen the refrigerators around the facility. Drink up. There is a urine color chart above the urinals. You want your urine to look like lemonade.
“Street drug tests are happening over the next few weeks. They only happen once a year. Like I told you guys in mini-camp, if you can’t pass the test, you are either stupid or you are an addict, either way you need help. Now, it used to be, back in the ‘80s, that guys would be shooting up steroids in the locker room. You’d see them walking around with the little skin bubbles on their butts and the needles would be laying around. And guys would be doing cocaine in the locker room, too. But those days are over.” Not if I had something to say about it!
The next presentation was from Kent, the video guy. Every practice was filmed from two angles, sideline and end zone, by men hoisted into the sky on cranes. Pro football relies almost disproportionately on video tape; of practice and of games, our own and those of other teams. For four hours every day, we watched film. Imagine that! Every play of every practice I ever played in in the NFL, I watched on tape: two angles, slow motion. Nothing escapes the eye in the sky. It never blinks. Or winks. It is incredibly dry and itchy.
With so much riding on the film, a streamlined system is necessary. Each meeting room is connected to the database and you can pull up any play from any day, any practice, any game in the history of football, and watch it right there. Not only that, but if we wanted Kent and his team to create a DVD for us to take home and study, they could do that, too. If I wanted a clip of every time the Thundercats said “Hoooooo!”, he could produce it.
Kent was quiet and unassuming, ballcap always pulled low, going about his business. But as he took the podium to give us the above information, he adopted a different tone. As he described the video equipment, his voice got louder, as if he were firing us up to run out for the second half of a championship game. He stuttered and shook as he mentioned the DVDs they’d be happy to make us, then he became overwhelmed with emotion and abruptly wrapped it up and sat down.
The last noteworthy presentation was from former Broncos running back turned local sportscaster, Reggie Rivers. We got a media lesson every year on how to give a proper soundbite, and the last few years, Reggie was the one to give it to us. He showed us clips of what to say and what not to say. It was noteworthy because Reggie had a distinct voice. (This will be important later.)
After a few more boring presentations—scouting department, public relations, operations, groundskeepers, etc.—everyone went back to their respective offices and we were free to go out on the grass and turn each other into hamburger meat, which is what we did best.
Imagine screwing up at work, getting yelled at, then having to go watch it on video tape and getting yelled at again—by the same guy!
The rookies were always the most stressed—buried in their playbooks, saying “yes, sir” to everyone and scrunching their foreheads while they watched practice, trying not to make a mistake. They had no idea what to expect on or off the field and nothing they ever did was good enough.
I’d try to help them by explaining that they were breaking rules that didn’t exist, and if they didn’t obey them, they would face punishment.
“What? I don’t understand.”
“You’re not supposed to. Just survive.”
On many occasions, I witnessed rookies get held down and their hair shaved off, tied up and dragged into the shower, taped to a goalpost, cars moved and keys hidden, etc.—for not obeying a made-up rule.
Another made-up rule: The rookies had to entertain us every night. At the beginning of our 7:00 team meeting, the veterans would start pounding on the desks—BL-DA-BL-DA-BL-DA—and Coach Shanahan would call out a rookie’s name and he would have to walk down in front of the team and sing a song, recite a poem, tell a joke, anything.
Our first-round draft pick that year was tackle Ryan Clady. A huge, powerful, kind man, he got called down in front of us on night two and had absolutely nothing to say. The only thing he gave us of any interest was the size of his signing bonus, which we asked him to reveal—millions, if I recall. We booed him off the stage.
Next night was receiver Eddie Royal. The sweetest guy, you’d love him to date your daughter, but you’d be worried they’d underperform on game night. To his credit, Eddie would eventually come out of his shell, starring in a Taco Bell commercial in which a customer walked up to the counter and declared “Give me the Royal Treatment.” But we were to receive none of the Royal Treatment on this eve. He took a dump on stage (not literally; that might’ve at least garnered some shocked applause) and was booed back to his chair.
The next night was Kory Lichtensteiger; good guy, bad voice. He tried singing a song, but the timidity of his attempt insured that he didn’t get far. He was drowned out by relentless boos.
Next night was Peyton Hillis, from Arkansas. He was a sweet kid, too, played fullback, was muscular and shaved his body from head to toe and had obviously spent some time in a tanning bed. Unfortunately, this did not improve his storytelling abilities. He was booed off stage, too. Tough crowd. But it is important for you, dear reader, in assessing this scene, to understand the state of this crowd—the depth to which they’ve sunk. The crazed, rabid frothing. The lack of empathy or emotion. They are no longer human. They are lizards.
The next night, Coach Shanahan made an unusual announcement.
“Guys, I’ve never done this before, and I regret having to, but these rookie performances have been so bad, guys, so bad, that we are going to open the floor to any veterans who want to come down here. Each night, $100 will go to the winner.” He held up a $100 bill. “And at the end of camp, we’ll have a final round and we’ll up the ante to $1,000. We’ll start with that tomorrow night. Rookies, you guys ought to be ashamed.”
Coach then moved on to football stuff, and I imagine no one thought for one more minute about what he said. But for me, a light switch flipped. This was my big chance! A thing to consider besides my own misery. That night, back home, I looked in the mirror, squinted my eyes, cocked a half-grin, dropped my neck into my shoulders and chuckled. “What’s up, Shanny?”
Yeah, that’ll be it.
I didn’t have an actual joke, just an impersonation: the outgoing POTUS himself, George W. Bush. But I already knew my teammates liked it. You see, Coach Shanahan was friendly with G.W. Their daughters went to college together in Texas (or something) and Shanny and Bush had just been spotted hanging together at a wedding, smoking a cigar (or so we had heard).
Politics were on the brain. The Democratic National Convention was coming to Denver at the end of August. I had met Barack Obama the previous offseason at a fundraiser. Came to meet him. Shook his hand. But this time around, Hope and Change would play second fiddle to Orange and Blue. Barack’d be standing on our grass.
So that night, when everyone started pounding on the desks, my heart started pounding, too—like it hadn’t since I was a rookie. Like it hadn’t pounded in a football game in three years. “Any takers?” Shanahan asked. “We know the rookies aren’t going to help us out.” Fellow tight end Tony Scheffler, who sat next to me and who knew my plan, nudged me and I raised my hand. “All right, Nate, come on down.”
I stood up and walked to the front of the room. Coach Shanahan stepped to the side and gave me the floor. I stood at the podium, scrunched my forehead, squinted my eyes, dropped my shoulders and surveyed the room with a new smirk on my face—the G.W. smirk. A few guys chuckled.
“What’s up guys? … What’s up Shanny?” I pointed to Coach. Everyone laughed. “That was a good cigar we had at the wedding, huh? Good times … I want to thank you guys for having me here. I was excited to come to Denver because I’ve never been to Utah before. [chuckle like G.W.]
“I hear you guys are practicing against the Cowboys this week. I’m not going to be able to stick around … but I’ll be watching from Air Force One while, while I’m wearing my Air Force Ones … all white … Good luck boys, and I’ll catch you later Shanny.”
I walked back up to my seat—more like floated.
“Anyone else? Didn’t think so. Nate, come down and get your money.”
I walked back down and he handed me a crisp Benjamin. “The rich get richer,” he said. “We’ll see you in the finals.”
I folded the bill and put it in my pocket.
Over the next week, as our coaches dug into us over and over, football this and football that—get your eyes up, ass down, feet square, etc.—my mind was on the Talent Show Finals. The laughter felt good, so did the $100, but I was unsatisfied with my performance and thought I’d have to bring more to the finals if I was going to win the $1,000. A few of our team funny men had also landed on the bill—D.J. Williams and Keith Burns—in what I considered a backdoor entry.
D.J. was a linebacker with wide eyes, and expressive face and a dark sense of humor which came out in manic bursts. I once watched him take a bratwurst out of the cafeteria, tape it to his leg and walk into the training room wearing a towel and saying that he was tight and needed a stretch. He pulled the towel off, lay down on the table and the bratwurst flopped out of his short shorts.
Keith was a former linebacker and special teams ace turned special teams coach, but he had only been coaching for one year. My first year as a Bronco, Keith had been our team jester. He was one of our captains and always held court in the locker room. Sometimes on Fridays, he would dress up as The Tick, his spandex-clad masked superhero alter-ego, and go rolling through the locker room on a laundry cart. It was well known that it was a bad idea to get into a verbal sparring match with Tick.
Rounding out the finals were the only stand-out rookie performers, Jack Williams, and his partner Wesley Woodyard, who had impressed the masses by doing a Martin Lawrence skit about one of our defensive coaches. (It was a bit from his TV show about a karate master named Dragonfly Jones who always got his ass kicked.) Jack and Wesley deserved their trip to the finals, but DJ and Tick hadn’t been vetted in the prelims. They secured their spot on the strength of their reputations and a guarantee to Shanny that they’d be prepared. To ensure that, they each added $1,000 to the pot, which brought the purse to $3,000. Another reason for me to focus on writing good jokes. I had no idea what the other guys were planning, but I knew that I had, around me, a wealth of comedic potential just sitting there waiting for the G.W. treatment. If I could tease Shanny as G.W., I could tease anyone in the fucking building.
I began to see everyone as targets.
Out on the field, we were embroiled in a brutal three-day practice session with the Cowboys ahead of our preseason game against them. But this brutality was allayed every time I thought of a new joke. Each day that passed, I added one to my set. I watched my coaches and thought of how to chop them down, G.W.–style. I wracked my brain for foibles, past chuckles, things that had been seen but undiscussed, irregularities, low-hanging fruit.
I was planning a scorched earth campaign and didn’t want to tip off any of my jokes, so when Peyton Hillis, the good ol’ boy with penchant for manscaping, came into work the day after our win against the Cowboys, I pretended not to notice that his eyebrows had been replaced by two small caterpillars. He must have been celebrating the victory with a bottle of whiskey in one hand and a pair of tweezers in the other. Noted.
But he needed an anchor to serve as the contrast. Who could be the—got it. But how would I—got it. And who else would I—got it! Okay, I think I have it.
Let’s do this, Shanny.
On the night of the finals, D.J. went first. He had a video cued up. He explained that this was a video he had made as a teenager, and that we should just watch it and enjoy.
The video played and it was some sort of school project he made when he was in high school, in which he intended to show how much school spirit he had and how much he cared about the football program, by putting his mother on the field, putting shoulder pads and a helmet on her, and standing her back to receive a punt. She received said punt, and D.J. cleaned her out. No doubt some clever editing there, but he definitely put a lick on her. The room enjoyed this video, as did I, but it was nothing new. I wasn’t worried.
Next up was Tick. Tick took the stage and launched into a traditional stand-up comedy routine, in his own voice, and told a few average jokes, the most memorable was about going to a strip club, getting a lap dance and coming home with a shit stain on his shirt from the stripper, then explaining to his wife that it came from getting dunked on on the basketball court. It was a decent joke, but a poor delivery. The jester got frozen in the lights. To make things worse, later that year I was at home flipping channels one night, and I settled on some comedian, who told the exact same shit-stain stripper joke. What a coincidence!
That left Jack and Wesley, who had doubled down on their Dragonfly Jones act by preparing an accompanying video and acquiring costumes and another actor. They nailed it. This would be hard to beat. My heart was pounding as I got ready to—
“Okay, guys, we are already over our time. Nate, we’ll finish this tomorrow or the next day. See you guys tomorrow.”
Glory would have to wait.
The next day, I waited nervously for my name to be called, but, again, we did not have time. Then, instead of performing at the team meeting that night, we had the evening off. The anticipation was killing me. Sure, we had a preseason game against the Packers in a few days, but who cared about that? Since we had the night off and no real practice the next day, a few of us went out on the town, so the next morning at our 8:00 team meeting, when Shanny called me down to finish the competition, I was a little flummoxed. But G.W. probably got flummoxed sometimes, too, so here we go. Game time. I descended the stairs and took my spot, squinted my eyes and dropped my chin.
“What the hell’s wrong with that guy? [pointing at someone] … What’s up, Shanny? [pointing at Shanny] … I want to clear something up, I guess, uh, Utah, you guys aren’t in Utah. I was informed of that last time I was up here … I was never good at geology, I apologize.
“So now camp is over, right? You guys have been sitting here a long time, I’m sure it feels like just yesterday you were sitting here listening to presentations. Reggie Rivers was talking: [Reggie voice] ‘Hey, guys it’s Reggie Rivers here…..we’re live here at Dove Valley with the Denver Broncos!’ What the hell is wrong with that guy, too?
“Greek talking about guys doin’ blow in the locker room in the ‘80s. Who wasn’t doing blow in the ‘80s?…This guy was. [pointing to self]
“Then you got, uh, video guys getting all emotional and sappy trying to give you pep-talks and shit. [Kent voice, wavering] ‘Hey guys, we’ve got the best video equipment around [voice cracking] … If you guys ever need to come in for DVDs [crying].’
“Anyway, now training camp is over and you handed it to the Cowboys. I’m glad you did that, I don’t like Jerry Jones. He thinks he runs fucking Texas. I run the fuckin’ world.
“Anyway, Barack Obama ... they gave you guys tickets to that, huh?…I don’t fuckin’ trust that guy. Obama/Osama, do the math, all right? Speaking of Osama bin Laden, where the fuck has he been hiding? He could be in fucking Mexico for all we know, right Manny? [pointing to Manny]… Apparently the unibrow is big in Mexico … and, hey, check this out [pointing to Hillis], apparently in Arkansas, they don’t like eyebrows at all! I’m just playin, Peyton, you’re a good ol’ boy, I like ya. Anyway, that’s my time guys, I’m gonna be watching you over the next four months, five months. September, October, December and of course, November. November is my favorite month, because I love Christmas. Anyway, guys, take care.”
My teammates howled. I had unlocked the cages, for a brief moment, and let the animals out. I felt the pats on the back as the meeting adjourned and the defense left the room.
Later that day, we practiced at Invesco Field ahead of our game the next evening. One week later, Barack Obama would deliver a speech in front of 76,000 people. But before that, we’d play a preseason game in front of nearly as many, and I would score a touchdown on the opening drive. At the end of our walk-through practice at the stadium, Shanny called us up, as he always did, to close the practice with a few words.
“Guys, good week of practice, good camp, and hey, you put a lot of work into the talent show. It was a lot of fun. But I think I speak for everyone in saying that the winner of this year’s Talent Show competition is … Mr. President, George W. Bush!” He handed me the wad of cash as my teammates cheered. “Break ‘em down, George.”
I held my winnings in the air, the hands of my friends stacking on top of my tightened fist. “Broncos on three,” said George. “One, two, three,”
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.