Football is a lie unto the body. The better you tell it, the better you play. Whether running routes, disguising coverage, juking a defender, or pretending you aren’t hurt: Football is about deception. The Alliance of American Football began its inaugural season last weekend, when eight new football teams scattered around the country and made up of college and NFL washouts took the field. The league’s rollout reminded me of that deception’s many faces; namely, that the end may be disguised as a beginning.
The AAF, a professional football league not called the NFL, is a remake of a movie that’s already flopped. I had a role in one of those films and died in the first scene.
It was 2009 and I was on my way out of the NFL. I’d been cut by the Broncos after the 2008 season, then had spent the next four months rehabbing a bad hamstring with needles full of HGH and intense training. I belonged on a football team, I told myself. The three workouts I had—Philly, New Orleans, and Cleveland—made me think I was still wanted. Then the Browns signed me. I was wanted! Then a week later, they cut me. IDIOTS!
Then the NFL season began and I was unemployed. But I’d been training. I was ready to play. So where else could I swing my axe?
How about the middle of the desert?
The Las Vegas Locos of the newly formed United Football League had drafted me and owned my rights. The tight end coach had been calling all summer, selling me on this opportunity. All of the NFL teams would be watching, he said. They’d be plucking guys off of teams and right onto NFL rosters because we’d be in game shape. There were ex-NFL coaches coaching us. Jim Fassel would be our head coach. There were ex-pro bowlers and ex-first round picks playing in our league. Plus, the NFL had a labor dispute on its hands. There might not even be an NFL a few years from now. This may be the only gig in town!
The same narrative is being sold to AAF players: The NFL will be watching your games, guys, trust us! And when they need a player, they’re not going to pull some guy off the streets, they’re going to come here, to the AAF, where they know you’ll be in shape and ready to help their team win!
Whether it actually happens this time remains to be seen. When I was in the UFL most of what they told us would happen didn’t, including how much we’d be paid.
I agreed to come to training camp after being told I had a six-figure contract waiting. Not quite NFL money, but over a hundred thousand dollars for three months of work was good!
Either way, it wasn’t about the money at that point. The bottom line was that somebody wanted me to play football, so I packed my car and drove to Arizona for training camp with a body being held together with safety pins and Mexican HGH. My hamstring was still FUBAR, but everything else was strong. Let’s see what happens!
Upon arriving for physicals and introduction meetings, we were all informed that the six figure contract they promised was actually a bit lower.
“How much lower?”
“The contract is for 35k.”
“For the season. You will earn $35,000.”
35k to keep the dream alive. There were no other options, because I had no other ideas in my head. I just wanted to be told what to do again. To be handed an itinerary for the week. To fall back in to the routine of football practice and preparation. I held my breath and signed the paper.
Our lodging was the Holiday Inn, with a roommate, unless you wanted to pay for your own room, which I did, because I had money (then). We practiced at a half-completed multi-sports complex underneath a biblical swarm of mosquitoes attracted to the freshly laid sod of our field.
There was not enough equipment to go around, and the way you found your gear was to sift through piles of facemasks, knee pads, chinstraps, etc., in piles on the floor, and play tug-of-war with the one you wanted.
Fuck you, man! That’s my jockstrap!
And so on.
The self-loathing was at an extreme high, but, as always when it comes to football, once the pads get clicked in, the optimism wins out. Because Football Action is powerful. It transcends the mundane. It draws your attention. Nay, it demands it.
Easily we fell back into the familiar: helmets cracking, whistles blowing and coaches yelling. The symphony was the same at any level, and it was comforting.
“C’mon, Jackson, get your head out of your ass!”
“Yes, coach! Removing head from ass, coach!”
Everyone’s technique was understandably rusty. What hadn’t rusted? The reflex to explode into another human when the ball is snapped—to “put a hat on him,” as they say (and I don’t mean place a fedora on his head).
We hit. Boy, did we hit. Every morning and every afternoon, we strapped up the pads and put on our still-damp clothes (the dryers broke), and kept hitting each other, hoping for a spark. This was our Death Rattle. For all of us in the UFL, it was the end of the line.
Funny thing was, none of us knew it. The same stubborn will that made us successful on the way in was poison on the way out. We couldn’t see the storm brewing, so we pushed into the tornado.
In the second week of training camp, mercy finally befell me. My hamstring snapped off the bone, and I was officially done. From my bed, laid up with a surgically repaired hammy, I watched the UFL season kick-off to a whimper. What was so intense for those of us involved didn’t seem to stir anyone. Not the way it did when the logo on the helmets were more recognizable, that’s for sure.
The NFL’s Brand Equity is lodged in America’s taint. You had New York Giants pajamas as a kid, not Birmingham Whateverthefucks. It may be too late for new football-hero costumes, but it won’t stop people from trying. The UFL couldn’t do the trick, and now it’s the AAF’s turn to take a crack at it. Next it will be the XFL. Then someone else. All of them will have ex-NFL coaches, ex-NFL players, the promise of being signed to NFL rosters, and the ever-present optimism of a football team with an opponent on the schedule. There is something comforting in that, no matter how dark the clouds overhead.
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 also co-hosts the Caveman Poet Society podcast with former NFL offensive lineman, Eben Britton. It is available on iTunes. He lives in L.A.