The Hard Life of an N.F.L. Long Shot (31 Longreads in 31 Days, Day 17)

For most of us, NFL preseason games in August are meaningless. Few of the starters play, the games are sloppy, and nothing much seems to be at stake. The Hard Life of an N.F.L. Long Shot by Charles Seibert for the New York Times Magazine shows us that for a handful of college stars hoping to cling to a dream of making it as professional player, everything is at stake.

Pat Schiller

Photo credit: Christaan Felber for The New York Times

The story follows the summer and fall of former Northern Illinois University star Pat Schiller as he tries to make it onto an NFL roster. When his name doesn’t get called during the NFL Draft in April, his fate comes down to impressing coaches during offseason workouts and preseason games. Like many other athletes who are close enough to be considered for the league, but not quite good enough to get a guaranteed spot on a roster, it’s a uncertain time. His future swings in the balance: are his football days behind him, or can he make a few key plays at the right time that will earn him a chance to play in front of thousands of screaming fans in a regular season NFL game?

Seibert does a good job showing us the conflict and uncertainty around Schiller, the stress he faces being a hometown hero at the same time that he’s fighting for an unlikely roster spot on and NFL bench:

Later that evening, my last night in Geneva, Pat and I stopped into a few of the local haunts along his hometown’s historic main street (a location for the period film “Road to Perdition”). Wherever I went with “Mayor Schiller,” as one friend called him, drinks materialized and tabs disappeared. Owners, managers, friends and friends of friends all stopped by to ask how Pat was doing and to wish him well.

“It’s weird,” he said to me during a rare lull. “For some reason I’m cool because I’m able to play a game. And they don’t realize how hard and cutthroat it is now. They’ll say things like, ‘Hey, worst-case scenario, you’ll be on the practice squad.’ And I’m thinking, Are you kidding? That would be unbelievable. But these people are really counting on me, and I feel a lot of pressure to not let them down. That’s a big part of what drives me. And I like being the interesting guy, you know? I want to be talked about and turn heads when I walk into a place. Who doesn’t? It sounds so egotistic, but it’s what it is. And to think this is all going to be done one day, probably sooner than later, and I’ll have to face reality. Have a 9-to-5 job, not be Mr. Interesting anymore and never have the rush that I get before games. That’s scary to me.”

Like hundreds of other would-be NFL players, Schiller struggles with the possibility that at 22 or 23, his career as star athlete has peaked, and it may be time to drop a lifelong dream.

As Schiller continues to struggle to make the squad, his hopes start to hinge on the health of other players, and the reader gets to see the macabre but real aspect of the game: an injury to one player is an opportunity for someone else:

Somehow it wasn’t until we were watching postgame highlights that either of us noticed the backup linebacker, Robert James, whose former place on the practice squad Pat now held, had come into the game sometime during the fourth quarter. Pat sat bolt upright, grabbed the remote and scrolled back through the game to determine the precise moment James entered. He then went to the Falcons’ game thread on his computer, eyes narrowing, lips slightly parted in anticipation.

“Stephen Nicholas,” he muttered. “Ankle.”

For the next two days of my visit, we were on the Stephen Nicholas ankle watch. Texts and calls came from all directions. Everyone Pat knew, it seemed, was aware of Nicholas’s ankle. Gruder, with whom Pat had only exchanged a couple of text messages since Gruder was released in August, wrote, “You getting called up this week?” Chris Browning of ProForce phoned to ask the same thing. Over dinner the following night, the number of Dave Lee, Pat’s agent, flashed up on Pat’s cellphone. Pat held the phone to his ear. A protracted silence.

The story is a revealing, inside look at what it takes to make it as a pro athlete. Seibert lets us see the physical and psychological toll it takes on the players on the edges of the game.

Read The Hard Life of an N.F.L. Long Shot →

A little narrative goes a long way

Kevin WilliamsIn last night’s NFC Championship game, which the Giants won 20-17 in overtime, the outcome pivoted twice on turnovers by San Francisco punt returner Kyle Williams. Williams muffed a punt late in the fourth quarter, which gave the ball back to the Giants, who shortly after took the lead. San Francisco managed to tie the game and send it to overtime, but six minutes into that extra quarter of play, Williams fumbled the football during a punt return, and again, the Giants pounced on it. Minutes later, New York kicked the game-winning field goal that sends them to the Super Bowl.

Yahoo Sports writer Les Carpenter posted a short article about William’s night and the aftermath. It’s a good piece of reporting, but what struck me was a great little scene he captured at the end of the story, an excellent bit of narrative:

Yes, Kyle Williams was alone on the day he was introduced to the rest of the country. At one point, as he dressed, he noticed a man with a television camera filming him and he gave the man a cold glare. Otherwise, his eyes focused on nothing. He pulled on a White Sox cap and blue-hooded sweater, draped the hood over his head and quickly walked out of the locker room, into a tunnel filled with delirious Giants players, family members and eventually into the parking lot where he blended in with the fans and disappeared.

Outside the lot a line of red brake lights stretched up the hills. He would be going nowhere but at least nobody was going to know who he was.

What a great (and sad) little cinematic moment Carpenter captures in a very economical bit of writing. 125 words. We see Williams, alone, getting dressed, being filmed, putting a hood over his head, then walking out into a tunnel, where he passes members of the Giants celebrating. And then we see him drive off. It’s subtle, understated, and powerful. You don’t expect something like this in a quick sports story, but Carpenter shows that great narrative nonfiction can be done quickly and on deadline.

Dissecting Gladwell’s take on Football and Dog Fighting

Malcolm GladwellOne of the writers I most admire is Malcolm Gladwell, a regular contributor to the New Yorker and the author of the Tipping Point, Blink, and Outliers. His insightful writing explores big ideas through deep research and reporting, linking together seemingly disconnected events and ideas. In one piece, he ties together the biblical story of David and Goliath, Lawrence of Arabia, and a girls basketball team in northern California… and it makes sense.

His most recent New Yorker article, “Offensive Play” asks the question “how different are dogfighting and football.” The piece is alarming, fascinating, and effective. It doesn’t just try to provoke the reader with a provocative comparison for the take of being sensationalistic: Gladwell reveals that football, at almost every level, is much more brutal and damaging than most of us fans would like to realize. He doesn’t just make an argument: he tells stories, and builds a case, piece by piece.  Gladwell would have made a fine prosecutor.

Tim Wendel,  one of my mentors at Johns Hopkins, once advised us that when we see an article that blows us away, we should go back and rip the story apart, dissecting it to see how the author put it together and why it works so well.  Wendel described how earlier in his career, he literally cut up good nonfiction magazine stories into chunks of paper and spread those snippets out on a table to study how it all fit together.

So let me briefly do my dissection of “Offensive Play” here.  First here’s a brief outline of the piece:

  • Scene: former NFL player Kyle Turley melts down at a bar
  • Description and background on Turley
  • Turley’s experience isn’t an anomaly: background and description of other NFL players who suffered from similar mental and physical problems after their careers
  • Quotes and more first-hand stories from Turley
  • Shift to background and summary of Michael Vick dogfighting trial and sentencing, followed by his recent reinstatement into the league
  • Background on dogfighting
  • Detailed, graphic description of a dog fight
  • Transition: back from dogfighting to football: what is a “morally acceptable” sport?
  • Shifts to medical research on dementia & Alzheimer’s; physical indications of neurological problems caused by head trauma
  • Introduces researcher who found connections between ex-boxers and ex-football players and brain injuries
  • Introduces second researcher who further found links between football players and high frequencies of neurological disorders; symptoms described echo those of Turley in the opening scene
  • Description of how findings of symptoms match Turley’s breakdown
  • Description of second researcher & her office.  Would she advise her own son to play in the NFL?  She’d tell him no, “Not if you want to have a life after football.”
  • Transition: moving from research of sports injury risks and how other sports handle them. Is the injury risk inherent to the sport, like dogfighting, or can it be reduced?
  • Example of how NASCAR improve safety after death of Dale Earnhardt
  • Background, history on football and long-standing concerns about injury risks
  • Examination of football injury research at UNC; how researchers determine that a routine tackle or a block can be the physical equivalent of being in a car accident
  • Key take-away from UNC research: it’s not just one or two big hits that damage players; it’s the cumulative effect of countless “little” hits as well
  • Also: Helmets can only help so much:  players today are too big, too fast
  • Transition:  back to Vick’s surviving dogs; how the most prized dogs were bred & trained for “gameness” and willingness to fight
  • Transition: linking the “gameness” of dogs to the “gameness” of NFL players;  back to Turley and the pressure to play “all out” despite injuries; anecdotes from final, painful days of his career
  • Transition: Ira Casson, chair of an NFL committee on brain injuries, and the limits of what can be done
  • Closing thought that the sport won’t be changed or eliminated any time soon, as so many fans love the sport, in spite of what it does to the players
  • Echoes his closing thought with a quote from a book on dogfighting that describes the passion of the spectators

The story is just short of 8000 words, but it’s a fast, gripping read.  Why does it work?

First, reporting matters. Gladwell doesn’t just sit at his laptop and argue against the brutality of football and warn that it does lasting damage to players.  Above all else, the story is reported well.  He talks to three medical and science experts, two former football players, a trainer who is trying to rehabilitate Vick’s former dogs, and an expert on the business of NFL football.  He also digs into the history of football, the nature of dog fighting, NASCAR safety issues, and the Michael Vick case.  He can quote both what the NFL commissioner said about Vick and what Teddy Roosevelt said about the sport in 1905.  In short, Gladwell dug through old documents, talked to people, and asked a lot of questions to collect the raw materials for his story.

Second, scenes move the story.  The piece is loaded with science, research data, and historical information, but scenes drive the narrative.  By my count, there are at least twelve scenes in the story, moments that he vividly recreates for the reader.

Third, characters count.  Gladwell doesn’t merely quote the people he interviews; he shows them. The reader gets a vivid idea of what Turley looks and sounds like.  We see researcher McKee’s office, which includes a statuette of Brett Favre on a shelf.  We don’t just hear about Vick’s dogs; Gladwell shows them playing with a trainer in Utah.  All of this humanizes and deepens the story.  The human characters put a face on the scientific, medical side of the story: he uses Turley’s experience as bookends to the piece.

Finally, he shows more than he tells.  Gladwell doesn’t rail against football or dogfighting; rather, he lays out the evidence and the connections and largely lets them speak for themselves.  He closes with the disturbing idea that we hate dogfighting because of the suffering and harm it does to the dogs, but love football, despite the apparent long-term suffering it inflicts on many of its players.  He paints the connections that he discovers, but doesn’t overstep his role and hammer those findings into his audience.

Gladwell leaves the readers in a troubling spot: he doesn’t provide any real solution to the problem, but nonetheless makes the compelling case that the sport is possibly every bit as cruel and harmful as dog fighting.  He shows that the reader complicit in the problem, then leaves them on their own to decide what should happen next.

Defending Michael Vick

Baltimore Sun Columnist Susan Reimer spoke to my graduate class last week giving us some tips and suggestions on writing columns, including:

  • ask a lot of questions
  • write what you know
  • simplicity and clarity are key
  • read other writers
  • if you’re not an expert, admit it
  • be a contrarian
Michael Vick

Michael Vick is a bad man.

The last one, “be a contrarian,” came to mind when I read her latest column for the Sun, Call off the dogs; Vick’s paid enough. It’s a good read, and well-argued column that makes the case that as bad as NFL player and dog-killer Michael Vick might be, the punishment for his crimes have been excessive:

This country is completely schizophrenic in its treatment of animals. Not only do we eat them, we treat them with inhumanity before we do. And we hunt them for sport. There was a lottery for the pleasure of killing bears, for heaven’s sake. The winners celebrated their good fortune. The bears? Not so much.

Dogs, unlike cows, pigs, chickens and deer, had the good fortune to respond to domestication centuries ago, and for that reason we label them friends, apparently in better standing that the wives, girlfriends or random hotel workers and night-clubbers who happen to get in the way of other sports stars.

I asked Reimer if the column was what she really thought, or whether she wrote it to “be contrarian,” work up readers, and try to spark a strong reaction. She sprang to life, arguing her case to me, raising her voice and gesturing dramatically. It reminded me of many loud, animated dinner table debates I had growing up in an Italian-Jewish family. Her passion suggested that her argument was her argument, not just a devil’s advocate position whipped up to generate web traffic. Her defense of Vick works well, in part, because it’s based on a genuine opinion, not some reflexive effort to flip expectations and take the unpopular side of public sentiment.

So a lesson to take from this: being contrarian is an effective tactic as a writer; being a contrarian with conviction is even better.

Theme: Esquire by Matthew Buchanan.