Nate Jackson's memoir Slow Getting Up: A Story of NFL Survival from the Bottom of the Pile shares what life in the NFL is like for the hundreds of everyday "expendable" players. In the book Jackson wrote, "football was never about money to me. I want to get hit. I want to hit the ground hard and get up shaking myself off because I think I'm dead." Author Nate Jackson joined Bill Littlefield.
Highlights From Bill's Conversation with Nate Jackson
BL: I've heard lots of players say they play football because they like to hit people. But you're saying here that it was getting hit that you enjoyed. Explain, please.
NJ: Well, that particular passage referred to my year on the practice squad where you practice, but you don't play in the games and there is a definite difference between the two. In practice, it is physical, it is violent, but it lacks that full physicality of the game and I wanted to prove that I was physical enough, tough enough, violent enough, to take those hits in the game. So that passage came when I was eager to prove myself worthy of the competition at that level. Football practice is not fun. Football practice is monotonous, it's a bit repetitious, preceded by about three or four hours of meetings every day. And the game is really the cherry on top — not even the cherry on top — it's just the payoff. It is the reason we go through all the practice. When you are on the practice squad you don't get to do any of that and it is very frustrating. By enlarge, all practice squad players want to prove themselves on game day.
BL: In the pros, you had one coach you admired enormously: Mike Shanahan in Denver. You had one whom you apparently detested: Eric Mangini when you were briefly with Cleveland. Tell us a little about what made Shanahan great and Mangini awful.
NJ: I did spend the majority of my career with Coach Shanahan and I believe that he's the model of the way a coach should be in the NFL as far as treating his players like men, leveling with a player — if I had a problem, I could talk to Coach Shanahan and he would be honest with me. If he was going to cut somebody or fire someone, he would bring 'em in to the office himself, sit them down, and tell them why. He was hard on himself just like he was hard on us. Oftentimes after a loss he would stand up in front of the team and say, "This one's on us. It was our fault. We messed up this one."
BL: Meaning the coaches?
NJ: Meaning the coaches, yeah. Whereas Mangini didn't really do that. He belittled his players. He would call them up in the middle of meetings to recite mantras he had written around the room or recite arbitrary statistics that he required them to memorize. He filmed the warm-ups and then would cue up the film of warm-ups and excoriate certain players for not trying hard enough during warm-ups which I thought was crazy. But Eric Mangini had a very, very specific idea in mind of what he wanted to see at every moment and he was so rigid with those expectations that anything that fell on either side was wrong.
BL: During the 2006 season, there occurred a moment when you permanently lost faith in sports media. Tell us how that happened.
NJ: Well, our starting quarterback Jake Plummer was benched in favor of a high draft-pick rookie, Jay Cutler. The previous season we went to the AFC Championships, we were one game away from the Superbowl. Jake Plummer was our undisputed leader. He led us through a 13-3 record and then Jay Cutler was drafted. And that was a decision that Coach Shanahan made because he and Jake did not work well together. The media was clamoring for Jay to win the starting job. Jake was benched when we were 7-4. That's really rare to see a quarterback benched with a winning record after going to the AFC championship the year before.
But the moment after the game we lost to put us to 7-4, the media, who already knew that Jay was about to win the starting job, rushed to Jay's locker after the loss to ask him if he was ready for this new job. And they wanted to crown him right there with the grass stains still on Jake's butt and so Jake could see it. Jake was a good friend of mine and it was hard to see that and to see the excitement in the media's eyes at this man's misfortune.
BL: A little later, you refer to ESPN's commentators as "talking heads in clown suits." What prompted that?
[Laughs] I do think its gotten a little out of control with the analysts, and the game around the game has become more important than the game itself. The talking heads in clown suits have a tendency to wear some ridiculous suits with some ridiculously large Windsor knots and I just think its kind of a silly circus sometimes on ESPN with all these quarterbacks or former quarterbacks and former quarterback coaches and the coaches and they are all doing the macho thing: "This is what you got to do and he can't do that! He's got to do this and he can't do that!" There's too much time spent harping on mistakes and telling 'em this guy's not good enough and this guy's got to get it done and this guys got to be fired and replaced and this guys the best. I think its gotten a little out of control.
Bill's Thoughts on Slow Getting Up
When Nate Jackson made the Denver Broncos' practice squad in 2002, he yearned to get into an actual game so he could "hit the ground hard and get up shaking myself off because I think I'm dead."
[sidebar title="An Excerpt from Slow Getting Up" align="right"]Read an excerpt from Slow Getting Up by Nate Jackson.[/sidebar]In Slow Getting Up, Jackson maintains that most players on practice squads around the NFL probably feel the same way. He also says that he never told his coaches about the head injuries he suffered once he did get into actual games, because he knew those coaches would replace him with somebody who kept his head injuries to himself.
Jackson was not a star. He scored only twice in a career that lasted six seasons, three of them cut short by injuries. He was, however, a thoughtful observer of his surroundings. In Slow Getting Up, he provides an insider's critique of one particularly childish and witless coach and what Jackson considers an even more witless media, part of which he characterizes as "talking heads in clown suits."
Much of what Nate Jackson has to say won't surprise people who've been following the stories generated by pro-football over the past decade or so, but his first person account of how his injuries were sometimes mistreated with electrical stimulation, powerful anti-inflammatories, and painkillers when simple rest would have better served him and the team are compelling, as is his characterization of himself as "meat-on-a-stick."
This segment aired on September 28, 2013.