Features & Columns
A Football Life
You said a couple things that stood out to me when reading the book. You are a poet. There are some sentences in there—and you mentioned you mistakenly told your teammates you wanted to be a rapper, which I thought was pretty good—but there's just some beautiful sentences. You wrote, "Every crease and every line, every grunt and every pop, I'm playing the game I love. The grass is still green and the ball in flight is still the most beautiful sight I know. I will chase it to the ends of the earth." That's just a killer fucking idea about the chase of the NFL and being that guy who's trying to cling to every opportunity and sustain a career.
Thank you, man. It was true, though. The ball in flight for me, since I was a kid, that's what I've loved about the game—a football flying through the air and me having a job to do, which is go catch it. That was something that pushed me through all the special teams, changing [position from receiver] to tight end, blocking, sitting in meetings—doing all this crazy bullshit. Really, all I wanted to do be doing was catching passes. There was this idealism. You can see as the book goes on I started to be more jaded, seeing things as they're happening. ... Still, if we were to go out to the park and we played catch, I would take it real seriously. It's ingrained in my psyche. I think there are a lot of untapped artists who are athletes, maybe even pro athletes who are so confined in the system that they don't have an opportunity to express it.
I also like the idea when you're saying that you get so revved to hit somebody and have that physical contact that you want to play hacky sack with a safety's testicles. I was dying over that.
How's your body holding up now? I read the piece on Deadspin about your injury file, which you said was as big as a dictionary.
My body feels pretty good now as long as I stay in shape. I kind of have to stay on top of it. I had so many injuries that if I don't stay in shape my lower back starts to hurt a little bit, my hamstrings and hips and that area hurt a little bit. The interesting thing about looking back on it and the way that injuries are treated, the player doesn't have much say whatsoever. He's not involved in the process. He's just told exactly what to do. ... The purpose of the "injury file" in the book and in the Deadspin piece was to show the impersonal way these injuries are handled and the dumbing down of information, so that by the time it gets to the player he is never up to speed on what's really going on with his body. He's just a piece of the machine.
What are your thoughts about concussions and how the NFL has gone about addressing concerns, and how people can and can't be hit?
I think it's a PR nightmare for the NFL when they pull out the scientific dangers of playing the game. Guys are getting stronger. They're more explosive. They're coached to attack. To attack, you lean forward. You can't attack standing straight up. So you lean forward, and your head is the tip of that spear. Collisions are always head first. What I find interesting, now that I've stepped outside of the game, is that all the players—for all the rules or regulations or new measures—they don't get to vote on it. They don't control their bodies. They don't control the media. They don't control the gameplan. They don't control anything. Until the players have a say on how the game evolves, I don't think it will evolve to suit their best interest. It will only evolve in the interest of the PR people of the NFL.
At the lower level they're going around to pop Warner and doing this whole dog and pony show about doing a safe tackling technique. [NFL Commissioner] Roger Goodell is going to talk to mothers and demonstrating this safe technique that purportedly keeps the head out of the tackle, and it's just a shameless PR move to convince these mothers that the game is safe. It's fucking not. The point of the game is it's violent and dangerous.
You didn't play football until high school. Is that your stance: no one should play tackle football with helmets until high school?
I think that would be the healthiest thing for everyone. Aside from the fact that just smashing heads is not healthy, you don't want 8-, 9- and 10-year-olds cracking skulls.
Do you still have a problem with Vince Vaughn? (A passage in the book references a long-distance relationship tested when Jackson finds out his girlfriend stayed the night at Vince Vaughn's house while her friend supposedly hooked up with the actor. The writer's takeaway at the time: "Fuck Vince Vaughn.")
(Laughs) No, I don't blame him at all. That was more for comedic effect: Fuck Vince Vaughn.
I had a moment like this once. I was dating a girl and we were watching a Sacramento Kings game and I shouted at C-Webb. And she turns and says, 'Ugh, Chris Webber.' And I turned to her and said, 'What does that mean?' So now I'm pretty sure she slept with Chris Webber, and I don't know what to do about this. You just take her word for it and say "fuck that guy."
Nothing you can do. He's a dude just trying to get laid. (Laughs)
It sounds like you've been on a pretty substantial book tour for the last few months.
Yeah, it's been pretty tiring, I've been trying to push the book through the football season and once the season is over I'm going to try and relax, get out of the country and away from this phone and computer, which I've just been staring at every fucking day, all day. Recharge the battery a little bit and get back to work. I want to write. You're a writer so you know that when you're not writing, you're wasting time. You should be writing something. I've got all these ideas in my head, but I haven't been able to dive into them because I've been promoting the book. Once this is over I'm going to keep writing and see what comes of it.
Any project that is especially top of mind?
I don't want to be "nonfiction football writer Nate." I think fiction is the best way to do that—and possibly working on this book as a movie or television script. I've had some interest from Hollywood.
How long did it take you to write the book?
About two years. It was originally a one-year book deal, and I was supposed to have it done in March of 2012. I wasn't starting to hit my stride until the end of that year. I didn't figure out the narrative. I didn't know how personal to make it. It was very vague when it started off. It wasn't really anecdotal. I didn't tell the story like I did in the final version. They said, "Take another year and get it right, this is how you got to do it and keep going." So it took two years of solitary confinement, but it was definitely worth it.
It's just really well done. I'm impressed and slightly jealous.
(Laughs) Thank you, man. From a writer that's high praise. I really appreciate it. It's something that I fucking worked at. I put my blood into it. I think that's the way to do it as a writer. I wasn't schooled in writing necessarily, but I figure the best way to do it is dive down there and figure out what's down there. I'm glad it resonated with you.