December 12, 2013
Football has its own language. This defensive term describes players, usually linebackers, making legal contact with potential pass receivers crossing the field within five yards of the line of scrimmage. Beyond five yards, collisioning someone is a penalty. Since football is a game of precise timing and geometry, the point is to disrupt the pass route by diverting the receiver. The real inspiration of the phrase is how instantly it evokes the most basic elements of the game—speed, aggression, the interplay between space and time, plans that likely won’t come to fruition, how there’s always someone out there waiting to ruin your life. I like terms that imply a fresh, strange world existing within a world that seemed previously understood. Full Metal Jacket; Zero Dark Thirty; Collision Low Crossers.
What’s would shock most fans to know about the NFL?
The level of detail that goes into any NFL week. It is an astonishing thing to behold. Another is the apparent futility of all that preparation; only 10% of the time do all eleven players execute their roles properly in any given play call. There were for me so many small surprises. Football players never tackle in practice during the season. Risk of injury is too great.
You spent an entire season deep in the locker room, day in, day out. What’s the one memory that sticks with you from this time?
Football is a game of process, a relentless day to day immersion and in all those hours there were so many signal moments. I’ll never forget talking with the young cornerback Julian Posey about our fathers. I’ll never forget Antonio Cromartie losing it during a meeting, and then the way he and the coach he wanted to kill made up. I’ll never forget calling a touchdown during an exhibition game—mostly because of the way the other coaches reacted. I’ll never forget the way Rex Ryan spoke to a team after a horrible loss. The man could be a blues singer or a preacher. Don’t believe what you hear; he’s a completely original American character.
I know you can’t make a blanket statement, but collectively, comment on what you saw character-wise from professional football players and coaches.
The huddle is the country and football teams have a little bit of everyone on them. Ryan has a riff that he uses when addressing the team in this respect. He’ll say: We got every kind of guy, handsome guys and ugly guys, Christian guys and wild guys, etc. At the end he tells them they don’t have to like one another but they do have to respect each other. My experience was very fulfilling and I owe that to so many coaches and players who showed me the sport in all its nuances and also showed me themselves as characters in full. I think it took a lot of character to do that with some guy who drives a Cooper, eats beets every day at lunch and played baseball. To them, I was different. One thing I’ll say about the coaches on whose staff I was essentially a shadow member. NFL losses are devastating. Monday in an NFL facility after a defeat is like the street after a terrible storm. Depression and wreckage everywhere. NFL coaches know how to suffer that and then move forward. They put everything into the game to the exclusion of the rest of life and then when their plans go awry they can handle failure well enough to move on forward. Not easy. Failure is the inevitable result for most of them, but being able to remain optimistic defines them.
What do you think about the concussion situation? A neurologist buddy of mine swears the future of the NFL is an all-flag league. Was he pulling my leg?
He might believe it, but I don’t. The dangerous game will evolve—will became faster, more spread out, with even more offense (it will become a boundary to boundary video game, in the words of Mike Pettine, the former Jets defensive coordinator who is now the Bills defensive coordinator). As the game becomes more transparent about head injuries they will become rarer. But football will always involve tackling and the risk that goes with it. It’s too good a game, offers players and spectators too much, has too many virtues.
In reading the book, I got the impression that professional football might require as much mental toughness as physical. Bottom line, what’s the National Football League about?
It’s about practice. Games are the exceptions. The life is process. The incredible immersion is crucial because how well a team studies and practices is the coefficient of how well it plays. If the Jets won after a lousy week of practices, I don’t recall it. And why such weeks happen, nobody knows. Football is a game of mystery, though less mysterious if you have Tom Brady or a P. Manning. Those guys are fiends for practice and film study.
You mention HGH. I had a friend in the NFL who told me the average player was hitting about 6 IUs a day—on top of other juice. More if injured. What were your observations as far as performance-enhancing drugs? Or regular drugs—cocaine or pain pills or uppers/downers. I would think in any situation with this much pressure, a person would grab for any edge.
I was with the coaches in whom the players didn’t confide their experiences with the dark side. The coaches didn’t want to know. I spoke with plenty of players who said they’d never risk HGH. When someone on any team recovered fast from a terrible injury, I know people thought He Got Hurt and so He Got Healthy. As for the partying, what the players were up to I don’t know because I was still at the facility with the coaches, watching them build the game plan. The coaches were completely immersed in football to the exclusion of all else, and since mine is predominately a book about coaches, so was I. The linebacker Bryan Thomas told me I had to have “cocaine and hookers in there” or nobody would read it. Hope B.T. for once is wrong about something in football. That man has a high, high football IQ. The Jets missed him badly after he was injured.
In the book, you state that “disappointment is the foundation stone of football.” That’s a pretty philosophical. Can you elaborate?
Only one team can win, 31 will lose. Disappointment is nearly inevitable, but the belief that you can control your destiny if you just plan ahead well enough—that’s what keeps everyone up all night.
Nicholas Dawidoff is the author of four previous critically acclaimed books, including the bestselling The Catcher Was a Spy and The Crowd Sounds Happy. He has been a Guggenheim Fellow, a Civitella Ranieri Fellow, a Berlin Prize Fellow of the American Academy, and an Anschutz Distinguished Fellow at Princeton University, and is now a Branford Fellow at Yale University. A Pulitzer Prize finalist (for The Fly Swatter), Dawidoff is a contributor to The New Yorker, the New York Times Magazine, and Rolling Stone. He lives in New Haven, Connecticut, with his family.
Excerpt from Collision Low Crossers by Nicholas Dawidoff. Copyright © 2013 by Nicholas Dawidoff. Reprinted with permission of Little, Brown and Company.