Features & Columns

A Football Life

Nate Jackson's memoir, Slow Getting Up:
A Story of NFL Survival from the Bottom of the Pile
Photograph by Duncan Roy

Nate Jackson's memoir, Slow Getting Up: A Story of NFL Survival from the Bottom of the Pile, is so good it makes me ill. Physical specimens who risk their bodies and minds for the roar of the crowd—and the adulation of ravenous fans and the "mob of bloodthirsty jersey chasers," or groupies—aren't supposed to possess this degree of self-awareness and wit when it comes to the written word. Especially in their first book.

A modern-day gladiator who spent six seasons playing football at the highest level for the Denver Broncos, Jackson didn't so much defy the odds as he snuck in the bookies' back door and held the oddsmakers hostage until his body gave out. A skinny, overlooked receiving prospect out of Pioneer High School in San Jose, Jackson, 34, went on to star at Division III Menlo College before getting his shot as an undrafted free agent with the assistance of late coaching legend Bill Walsh.

Survival of the fittest is a maxim that seems laughable when Jackson peels back the professional football curtain. Health is merely a matter of luck and pain tolerance; a willingness to endure injuries, surgeries and injections, all to retain a roster spot and chase a child's dream that seems distant when clinging to the wave. But all waves come crashing down, and Jackson starkly lays out his extensive injury history—his file is said to be as thick as a dictionary—and the physical and psychological trauma that accompanies the fight to get back on the field at all costs.

The humor of football, no doubt the most militarized of sports, is often lost on its participants at the time, but Jackson restores balance by looking back and exploring the absurd—such as a teammate whose biggest fear about playing football in Europe isn't paralysis or brain damage but the supposed dearth of Magnum condoms in Germany. (He brought a duffel bag full.)

No one seems more surprised, and happy, to be a part of it all than Jackson, who is now being hailed as the author of not only one of the best football books on record, but perhaps the best sports memoir ever. Now living in Los Angeles, Jackson spoke with Metro's Josh Koehn on the last day of the regular NFL season about his career, a personal tragedy that led him to writing, the beautiful and vicious game, and the shameless overlords of the billion-dollar industry.

Josh Koehn: I got to say, man, you are an excellent writer. Just like athletes, writers can be very jealous of each other—and I think you've got something good going. The interesting thing is because you went to Cal-Poly (San Luis Obispo), left there and went to Menlo—I didn't even know there was a Menlo College until I was reading up on you. .... You somehow, against all odds, made it to the NFL. Being that guy, being the San Jose kid, how did you actually get to that point, because it seems like such a long shot?

It was a different route to get into the NFL, for sure. I went to Cal Poly and got cut. My high school coach suggested Menlo. I didn't know about it either. I didn't even know it existed.  ... The next thing I know I came out to visit and it was crazy—I come back to the Bay Area and it felt right. They had a bunch of ex-NFL players as coaches there and it was a crazy experience. I really felt true to the Bay Area roots and had the right people believing in me all along. And that's what it takes, especially coming from a small school. You've got to have the right people pulling for you.

How did you get to the level of writer that you are?

In high school, as a kid, I was always a good writer, but I didn't have any aspirations to be a creative writer. It wasn't until I was probably 19. There was a tragedy. A friend of ours killed himself. It was really an emotional experience for all of us and my mother gave me a journal. As to that point, I had never kept a journal. I started writing in the journal and putting the words together and trying to emote through the page and get it out. I learned that I enjoyed doing it and it was really cathartic for me—that I enjoyed diving into the word.

When I went to Menlo I wrote for the school newspaper there. Menlo is such a small school that you could try those things. You didn't have to be a journalism major, stuck in a real stringent journalism program, to write for the school newspaper. You could just be someone who wanted to do it and talk to the teacher and get enrolled in the class. That's what I did. I started writing creatively with no restrictions, and it helped me facilitate my own style and write about things that were important to me. That was a good start.

Then I went to the Broncos and they allowed me to do an online journal for their website every week, and that was interesting, as well. I was able to work on the craft of writing and all along keeping journals, so I was tinkering with style. I stopped doing the journal (for the team) after two or three years and in a couple consecutive offseasons I enrolled in a writing class. One was a creative writing class and one was a poetry class.

Ultimately it's been a really cathartic experience after playing football to figure out what it meant. I do that through writing. I was able to unearth it all and figure out what the memories meant, with a pen. I started writing freelance pieces about what the average experience in the NFL was and got a lot of good attention, and the book deal came from there. It was something I always had on the back burner, but when I was playing in the NFL, you can't really express yourself artistically. You can't do something really creative. You can't even put your heart into it, because football is so consuming... continue reading