Nate Jackson’s new book, Slow Getting Up (Sept., Harper), explores everyday life as a player in the National Football League. The former San Francisco 49er and Denver Bronco spent six seasons as a wide receiver and later tight end, sustaining both injury and angst. His honest, riveting account makes for a great read.
What do you love about the game of football?
I love the competition, performing against the best athletes in the world. Catching a football is my best skill. I always knew I was going to catch it; I sacrificed my body for it. I like the physicality, pushing my body. There’s something freeing about conflict.
What’s the best moment?
There’s a lot of electricity running onto the field, a lot of energy. For three hours on game day, you play a game you loved as a child—no coaches, just you playing the game. But there’s always an urgent feeling about the present game that leaves no time to appreciate the moment. The train is rolling and you roll with it or get thrown off.
What about the mean guys?
Nastiness is intentional, brought out by coaches and the industry. Football is intentionally a very violent game; sometimes the lines get blurred by animal instinct. Today the long arm of the media is able to see more going on—things that have been going on for years—but now science is catching up. No player complains that he has been hit too hard.
You talk a lot about injury in your book, how hard is it to deal with pain?
Pain is a big part of the NFL experience. When I was on the field, I was able to block out the pain; the switch was flipped. Maybe it’s fight-or-flight, adrenaline, or stress, but there was no time to doubt myself. It’s ingrained in the psyche. In the morning when you get up, you’d hurt like hell or when you’re sitting in the facility, but once you get your gear on to go practice and get warmed up, it’s okay. All football players push their pain down. Imagine walking down the street and seeing someone get hit like this; an ambulance would have to come. But on the field, you pop up; it’s a reflex.
What’s rehab like?
Rehab gets monotonous. All players get injured, so the injury-rehab cycle is familiar. Your entire self worth is based on performance, so now you think, “I’m worthless. I’m fragile, weak.” The coaches don’t come into the training room; they’re out dealing with the healthy guys. It’s a daily climb up the ladder. Fortunately, I was always a fast healer, which was a little bit of solace. When you’re on injured reserve, you feel like a leper.
What makes a good coach?
There are 32 different coaches in the NFL and each has a different approach. Players need to be treated like men. Football can get too complicated with intricate game plans and so many rules. I’ve witnessed complicated game plans fall flat. Players, all athletes, are instinctual. Too much mumbo jumbo gets in the way. A coach has to be stern and inspire hard work, but there has to be some element of give. He has to be on the players’ side, throw them a bone.
You mention the constant meetings and videos. Why so many?
Football is an over-produced product. There’s constant hype around the big game week after week and game day after game day. You can’t script every moment. Some coaches allow a little more flow. Every team spends hours in meetings, reviewing video, hearing the same coaches over and over. The meaning of a mistake in football is actually messing up the coach’s plan.