Preseason doesn't matter. For fans, training camp and exhibitions are patiently endured, on the way to the games that are real—games that count for standings, for fantasies, for anything, really. The stories of professional football ambitions go untold. What is interesting about interviewing Peyton Manning again about his neck? Nothing. What is interesting about a rookie free-agent offensive lineman who will never make the team, thrashing around his room naked in the midst of a terrible nightmare while his free-agent wide-receiver roommate curls up in the corner on his squeaking metal twin bed and prays for it all to end soon? Everything.
I was the one curled up in the corner, about halfway through my first NFL training camp, with the 49ers. Desperation had taken hold of everyone, and during the night our defenses were down. My roomie started off as a heavy snorer, then a heavy sleep-talker. Then one night, I awoke to a violent commotion in the empty space between my bed and his. Moonlight through the blinds illuminated his shaking, nude body as he pounded on his bed and screamed for mercy from a vengeful God.
Then, just as quickly, it was over. He was back to his snoring, and I was back to mine. He was a gentle giant and meant me no harm, I hoped.
Our training camp was in Stockton at the University of the Pacific and we stayed in the dorms. Everyone had a roommate except the veterans who paid to have their own room, presumably so they could masturbate. Jerking it during training camp represents a very sad, yet very real form of repossessing one's own body from the clutches of football hell, escaping briefly to gaze upon a meadow of a thousand porn stars, only to be yanked back to a painful reality before the Kleenex has a chance to harden.
Every morning, bright and early, a coffee-drunk assistant with an air horn walked through the halls and laid it on thick. If I was lucky enough to be having a sweet dream, it was murdered in cold blood. Wake the fuck up. Time to hit. Waking up in the morning during training camp is a miserable experience, not because you wish you could sleep longer, but because that moment represents the first conscious moment of recognition that you are not in a happy place. That waking moment is the realization that you must get up and go perform a task that will hurt.
Football fans often say things like, "Man, if I was you, I would be so happy to be playing a game for a living. I would fucking play for free! You don't know how lucky you are." And that may or may not be true, but that certainly is not how the human mind works, especially when you are in pain. Fan pandering aside, most players don't skip around smiling and thanking God they get to be there. Football games are fun, but we're talking about practice, and that's what training camp is all about: practice. Everyone is just trying to make it through.
I had come to the 49ers from Division III Menlo College. As a receiver at Menlo, I never had to work much on my line-of-scrimmage release techniques. I just went where I wanted to go. But in the NFL, it's not that easy. Everyone was strong and fast and, most importantly, had excellent technique. As I stepped to the line of scrimmage, I realized, simultaneously, that I had achieved a life-long dream, and that no one on that field gave a fuck about my dreams. There were men here with dreams of their own that sure as hell weren't going to let some Division III receiver make them look foolish.
The first few times I tried to get off of a cornerback jam, my manhood was tested. I don't even remember who it was, insert name here. It didn't even matter. Everyone was good. I came to a knife fight with a dull blade. I had to sharpen it quickly or else I was going to get cut. That's when I started really watching the veterans. A rookie can learn a lot about the NFL just by paying attention.
Terrell Owens was on the Niners at the time, and we were of similar size. He was far less muscular and defined than I was, but he was someone I could model my game after. The good position coaches tell you to be yourself out there on the football field, to do the things that you're good at and not try to be someone you're not. This applies to receivers especially because there are big receivers and there are small receivers. Typically, the small receivers are faster and quicker. Big receivers are stronger and more physically dominant.
The worst thing a big receiver can do is forget that he has this size advantage over the smaller corner and try to dance around on the line of scrimmage and make a bunch of moves. This wastes time and gives the quicker defensive back an easier time jamming him up. The best thing for a big receiver to do is to make one small move, or no move at all, and then aggressively go where he wants to go, using his hands violently to move the DB out of the way.
Terrell Owens was the most dominant line-of-scrimmage receiver I had ever seen. Most of it was by pure strength and ability. He used the forklift technique: At the snap of the ball, he caught the wrists or elbows or shoulder pads of the defensive back and hoisted him out of the way. That's how strong he was.
DBs were afraid to get up in his face and try to jam him because he would toss them aside like small children. He did this so often that as time went on in training camp, the DBs were almost expecting to lose when they faced him, and it became, for Terrell, a walk in the park. During one on ones, he would look back at the receivers before his route and wink and smile and say, "Watch this." That's how confident and relaxed he was.
I envied that. I wanted that, and I would never have it. Only a select few get to the point where they never have to worry, where they can relax and have fun. For me, every snap required my total focus and devotion. Every snap was agony. I couldn't wink at my teammates. What if I winked and then I got my dick ripped off? I didn't have that luxury.
T.O. did, because he'd earned it. What the forklift didn't take care of, his reputation did. Once you develop the reputation as a badass in the NFL, it becomes easier to be that badass, because everyone thinks you are that badass and subconsciously they tighten up and prepare themselves to fail when they face you.
The same phenomenon existed around Randy Moss. He was so good as a rookie and made so many veteran NFL players and coaches look foolish that for the rest of his career, people were backing off of him and stumbling all over themselves when the ball was in the air. It doesn't hurt when you run like a gazelle and have great hands. But the reputation goes a long, long way.
It happens on the other side of the ball, too. If you earn the reputation as a "shut-down corner," like Champ Bailey did in Denver, you are going to have a lot easier time on the football field because no one is going to throw the ball to your side of the field. Even if Champ blew his coverage and the receiver he was covering was streaking down the sideline, all alone, the quarterback wouldn't even see him, because he wouldn't be looking. The offensive coordinator is calling plays away from Champ because Champ fucks people up and intercepts passes. He does that in games and in practice so coaches won't even risk it. They work the other two-thirds of the field and Champ can relax and grab a margarita if he wants. No one is going to throw his way, because if they do, and he gets a pick, the coach looks stupid. If they throw his way and complete the pass, he looks lucky. Coaches hate looking stupid or lucky, so they don't bother.
Reputation can also work to the advantage of a player like me trying to make an impression on coaches. If you stare down a proven veteran and you don't blink, that does a lot to prove you belong.
We watched the brawl on videotape several times in slow motion, happily dissecting the performances of everyone involved.
By the middle of training camp, though, I was running into some problems. I had dislocated my shoulder at the end of my senior season of college, a pretty severe injury. It needed surgery, but I had no time for that. I was already a long shot. If I'd had the shoulder operated on in December, it wouldn't have been ready until April at the earliest. I needed to be working out for teams so they knew who I was. No one was going to sign a Division III player who couldn't practice.
But when I went through the physicals after being signed by the Niners, they determined that my shoulder was unstable. In order to get on the field at all, I had to sign a waiver for the shoulder. That meant that if I hurt it again, they didn't have to help me fix it, and they could cut me while I was hurt.
Sure enough, one morning half way through camp, we were running routes "on air," meaning no one was covering us, and as I made my break on a square-in route, my feet slipped out from under me on the dew-covered field. I put my hand down behind me to catch myself and my bad shoulder popped out of its socket.
I lay there dumbfounded, the head of my humerus folded on top of my chest muscle, cursing my fate. I had no time for this. The trainer came over and popped it back in, and I spent the next two days rehabbing it. I had to be on that fucking field, and I'd signed a waiver anyway, so there was no point in milking it. I strapped a brace on it and went back to practice.
I was at about 10 percent strength with my left arm, not a good condition to be forklifting DBs. Still, I did my best, and I managed to play well enough during the first few preseason games to make it through the early cuts.
Training camp was winding down, and another issue that had been a minor annoyance now started to come to a head. There was a safety named Ronnie Heard who took a great deal of pride in talking shit to me from time to time. He thought himself something of a tough guy and never missed an opportunity to tell me about it.
I didn't understand it. Was it something I did? I couldn't figure it out. Is this how it is in the NFL? Pick on the lowly rookie? As camp wore on, I started to realize that it wasn't me, it was him, and I started defending myself verbally.
When he realized that his taunting wasn't subduing me anymore, he started hitting me harder on the field. That was fine with me too. I didn't mind the contact, and I gave it right back to him. The fact that he was a safety and I was a receiver meant that we rarely hit each other, unless there was a run play that called for it.
One of the last days of training camp, there was a run play that did call for it. My assignment versus the coverage they were playing was to go block the safety. That safety was Ronnie.
I came off the line of scrimmage under control and sized up my blocking assignment. I wasn't trying for a kill shot. No one does that, especially in practice. It's wild and out of control to approach a downfield block in a sprint.
But when Ronnie saw me coming for him, his eyes widened and he pinned his ears back, dropping his stance lower and sprinting to meet me. So I did the same. We met at midfield in a nice, healthy, brain-juicing football head-crack and stalemated.
Our momentum had us twisting, and instead of me falling to the ground, I decided that he should be the one to hit the dirt. I had long since stopped being scared of him, so I used his leverage against him and slammed him to the ground. He jumped up and gave me a swift right jab to the facemask. I pounced back with a hearty shove to the middle of his chest, intending to follow it up with, I don't know, something.
I didn't get the chance. We were engulfed by our teammates, offensive and defensive, who used our fight as the spark to initiate a bench-clearing brawl of their own. The frustration of training camp had boiled over for everyone, and the melee at the 50-yard line was proof that we had all been stretched to our limits. There was nothing malicious in it. The offensive guys came to my aid and the defensive guys came to Ronnie's. Terrell Owens was at the forefront of my defense, along with Garrison Hearst, smacking defensive players with jubilant right hooks and smiles on their faces.
Coach Mariucci addressed it briefly during the team meeting that night, dismissing it as a sign that we had a good, competitive camp. Then in our receivers' meeting room, we watched the brawl on videotape several times in slow motion, happily dissecting the performances of everyone involved. Watching practice film is boring. Watching practice fights on film is fun. Ronnie never talked to me again.
That night, Mooch gave us the evening off, and some of the position groups went out for a celebratory dinner. My roommate stumbled in minutes before curfew very drunk, the victim of some good-natured hazing. He sat on his bed contemplating how it was he had gotten so drunk and what he was going to do about it as several of us looked on and offered words of encouragement. He began to sputter and hiccup and reached for a small water bottle, into which he attempted to vomit. Most of the discharge, unsurprisingly, missed the small opening and ran down his hands and wrists onto our floor. I implored him to try another method. He implored me to "Shut the fuck up, Nate!" to everyone's delight. We eventually got him into the shower, where he sat curled in a ball for the next hour, a similar shape to the one I had taken weeks before as I witnessed the physical manifestation of his night terrors. We had come full circle.
The next day I was cut. Coach Mariucci told me he liked me, and he wanted to keep me on the practice squad, but with my shoulder in shambles, he couldn't do it. "We can't have a practice squad player who can't practice. Understand?" And I did. Of course I did. And with that, my first NFL training camp was over, ending with a pink slip and a handshake and a shoulder in desperate need of repair. I went back home to San Jose the following week and moved back in with my parents, where I would live for the next six months, rehabbing from the shoulder surgery I finally had the time to get, and staring at the walls of my childhood, hoping for another chance to go through hell.
Nate Jackson played tight end for the Denver Broncos from 2003 to 2008. His writing has also appeared in Slate and The New York Times. He is working on a book about life in the NFL.