Monday, February 2, 2009

A Few Seconds with Stefan Fatsis, Author & Former Denver Bronco

Photo: Neenah Ellis

At the advanced age (in sports years) of 43, author Stefan Fatsis lived the dream of weekend warriors everywhere.

After embedding himself in the underworld of competitive Scrabble and scoring himself a NY Times best seller on his way to Scrabble Master status, Fatsis set his sites on the Holy Grail of American professional sports, the NFL.

In a Plimptonesque effort to tell of the trials and tribulations of the League and its players as one of their own, he was given the green light by the least likely of suitors, the Denver Broncos, then under the straight-laced, systematic and structured ways of head coach Mike Shanahan.

Released in July, A Few Seconds of Panic recounts Fatsis' effort to train, survive and succeed on the team, and ultimately become accepted by one of the tightest fraternities in sports. An avid soccer player, Fatsis sought not just to say that he was a Bronco, but to hone his craft and learn the ways of an NFL kicker and truly become part of the team and brotherhood.

To some people's dismay, there are no Boys Will Be Boys accounts of blatant sex, drugs and destruction as recounted by Jeff Pearlman in his look at the 1990s Cowboys. Rather, Fatsis relays the physical and emotional hardships players face, be they burnt-out veterans, prized rookies or practice squad dreamers. Instead of blowing the cover and delving into the personal lives of the deified Sunday gladiators, he brings us into their mindset and rationale as they work through camp, ponder their livelihood and beat themselves up. From the brutish pure-lovers of the game to the cerebral jocks who play because they can, Fatsis descriptively paints the spectrum of his teammates' worries, fears and inspiration. He is afforded a level of access and frankness by the team's coaches, players and executives alike, that is rarely seen in any sport.

In the wake of yesterday's Big Game, we catch up with the former Bronco to give us an outsider's inside take on his experience in the NFL.


With all that you've put into your last two books— Word Freak and this one, A Few Seconds of Panic—how do you perceive the integrity, or lack thereof, of athletes-turned-writers, who in many cases mail it in, or rely exclusively on ghost-writers? With the appreciation you have for what they do, do you feel they disrespect your profession?

High-minded writers of narrative nonfiction with literary pretensions have no more claim to the publishing marketplace than Dwayne or Keyshawn Johnson—or Big Daddy Drew, for that matter (he’s a former athlete, right?). Some athletes want the attention and money, ghost writers need the work and publishers need the sales. That’s just the way of the world. And some athletes have great stories to tell. I don’t think anyone begrudges Warrick Dunn or Bill Bradley or Jim Bouton their authorial turns. But, sure, you hope the market will recognize the effort and thought and care that goes into writing serious works of nonfiction, which I like to think my books are, and buy hundreds of thousands of copies. But if the good stuff drew the biggest audience, books about plucky cats wouldn’t top the New York Times bestseller list.

You describe Shanahan as "Coach For Life." I know you addressed his firing on your blog (and on KSK), but given how he is very much a central figure in the book, can you briefly touch on your reaction to the news?

Photo: LA Times

I was, like everyone else, surprised. Then I thought about it and realized that Pat Bowlen, the Broncos owner, was making a business decision. After 14 years with one coach—a coach who had been granted pretty much unlimited power—I think Bowlen recognized the need to create a model for the next 14 years. He needed to give fans something new to talk about, to give his business a new direction, and give his players and staff a new way of approaching their jobs every day. That the Broncos had gone 9-7, 7-9 and 8-8 the last three years was less a reason for the decision that the opportunity to make it.

Did you foresee something like this happening when they started making changes in the seasons following your tenure on the team?

I honestly didn’t, for two reasons. One, Mike and Pat were indeed very close. Bowlen described their relationship to me as a marriage and said he didn’t envision Shanahan leaving until the mutually decided it was time. Two, Bowlen owed the guy about $20 million. NFL teams move players and coaches around like pieces on a Risk board, but after I left Mike overhauled the roster and the coaching staff to a remarkable degree even by league standards.

The place definitely changed. My friends who are still with or around the Broncos say the roster is younger and more football-centric—fewer players with the broad thoughtfulness about the game that I encountered in guys like Kyle Johnson, Adam Meadows, Jake Plummer, Nate Jackson, Charlie Adams et al. Also, I think Plummer was right when he said this week that Shanahan’s style was falling flatter. Mike isn’t a rah-rah screamer type. But he also can be unapproachable and autocratic, and the league is turning toward younger coaches who are less distant and more open. Look at the two guys in the Super Bowl.

You seemed to take a liking to Plummer. He has often been viewed as a league enigma, and having to play under John Elway's immense shadow does little to dispel that. You didn't seem surprised by his decision to retire. What did you take out of your relationship with Jake and from his views on the game?

Some guys just get it. And by that I mean they may not have the best QB rating or win a shelf of MVP awards but as human beings they have something way more important, that also happens to be valuable in a locker room and on a field: perspective. I’ve never met an athlete who had more of it than Jake. Love him or hate him—and fans seemed capable of only one or the other—Jake was a pretty damn good quarterback, 40-18 as a starter for the Broncos (compared to 17-20 for his replacement). Sure, he could drive you crazy with left-handed passes and throws into triple coverage, but goddamn if at the end of the game his team didn’t have more points than the other team.

Denver fans focused on the wayward middle finger and the fender bender and the apparent lack of interest in sculpting what for him would have been a phony image. But all of that was the public stuff, the way outsiders view athletes. What matters to actual players is hidden. Jake’s teammates loved him. He was a great leader who commanded respect, knew when to get serious and when to cut a fart in the huddle. He cared deeply about his teammates, friends and family. He didn’t give a shit about money and endorsements and attention. He appreciated how lucky he was to be able to play pro football. But he never let his life become defined by it. When he was benched in 2006, I knew he’d retire. He wasn’t about showing up to collect a paycheck, was in good health and had other stuff he wanted to do.

Jake also was just fun to be around. Not many starting quarterbacks would welcome the idea of a reporter sitting two lockers away. Jake gave me shit from day one—which signaled to other players that having me around was no big deal, and in fact might be fun. Did that bias me toward Jake? Well, sure. He was a talented player and a good guy who had interesting things to say. (He also blew me off for weeks before we talked at length—because he just didn’t want to have to think about football in his downtime.) Most important, he treated me with respect, and that in turn won my respect.

Todd Sauerbrun. To the common fan his talent is overshadowed by his steroid involvement and DUI. As annoying and selfish as he seems to be, his ability is widely regarded by players and coaches as among the best ever, something unappreciated by the aforementioned fans. Having seen him perform, having gotten to know him as you have, how should he be perceived as a player?

Photo: Denver Post

He was (past tense) a great punter who could have been a Hall of Fame punter—and unless Ray Guy is getting elected as I type this, there still aren’t any in Canton—if not for his personality and temperament and work ethic. Todd is kind of a foil in the book—the meathead athlete who mocks me—but I didn’t dislike him. He was funny and caustic and often spoke the truth. It’s hard to feel sorry for a guy who squandered probably a few million dollars because he couldn’t figure out how to do a not-terribly-stressful job quietly and professionally. On the other hand, there’s always something sad about someone who is truly gifted (even at something as relatively inconsequential as kicking a football) who blows it. Todd blew it.

What has been the reaction from your colleagues in the sports media? Are you perceived now as being too close to players to be objective?

You’re the first person to ask that question. As a reporter the idea is to learn as much as possible about everyone and everything you write about. I don’t think that’s the case when it comes to covering athletes. So I don’t think I’m “too close” to players. I just think I might understand them a little bit better than most media members.

But if Simmons, Reilly, King, Patrick, Mike and Mike, Collinsworth, Madden, Costas and whoever else want to address this important question, I'm very available.

The NFL, for the most part, had you on a tight leash. Do you see them doing anything as groundbreaking as your experience was in the near future?

George Plimpton went to the Lions’ training camp in 1963. I went to the Broncos’ camp in 2006. I think 43 years is the perfect amount of time between participatory books about the NFL.

Does the fact that you weren't allowed to kick in a preseason game eat at you?

Nah. Ultimately it didn’t matter to the book itself. In fact, my friend Scott (S.L.) Price of Sports Illustrated told me he thought it actually made the story better. Kicking in a game would have been the conventional climax, and it would have been a distraction from the larger points I was trying to make about life in the NFL and my own very real attempts to do well. I didn’t want anyone to come away from the book thinking this was fantasy camp, because it obviously wasn’t.

But who’s kidding whom. Of course I wanted to trot out for an extra point or field goal in a (meaningless) preseason game. It would have made the highlight reel of my life. That the NFL was too hidebound to realize that the integrity of the league would not have been compromised is its problem.

You made many close associations during your time with the team, and still seem to maintain a relationship with some of your former teammates and Bronco associates. Who do you remain close with on a non-professional level?

Tight end Nate Jackson stayed with my family and me in D.C. for the inauguration. He’d volunteered for the Obama campaign and wound up scoring tickets for the swearing in. So he, my 6-year-old daughter and I went together. I talk pretty regularly to a bunch of guys—quarterback Preston Parsons, kicker Tyler Fredrickson, punter Paul Ernster, snapper Mike Leach, tight end Chad Mustard and a few others—and some of the coaches and front-office staff, too, like former GM Ted Sundquist, former kicking coach Jeff Hays, and former special-teams coaches Ronnie Bradford and Thomas McGaughey. The common thread: They all understood what I wanted to do, shared their lives and thoughts with me, and became friends. Most of them aren’t with the Broncos anymore, which may or may not say something.

With Parsons
Photo: Eric Lars Bakke/Rich Clarkson and Associates LLC

Did they let you keep your jersey?

Jerseys. Home and away. With my name on the back.

Do you still kick?

Only ass. In Scrabble.

You relay well the notion that fans' demands and perspectives about NFL players often ignore many of the harsh realities they face. Having seen the inner workings of the team and the players that comprise it, what is one bit of advice you'd offer fans who get so emotionally wrapped up over the outcomes on Sundays?

Drew believes that fans should get wrapped up—that athletes should be pixels, not people, that painting your face purple and cursing out a large stranger for dropping a thrown ball is a socially acceptable deterrent to rape, child abuse and drug dealing. I don’t disagree. I lost a lot of my rah-rah childhood obsessions long before writing this book—covering sports will do that, even for The Wall Street Journal, where I used to work—but having been able to get inside the skunk works, I think I appreciate sports more than ever, meaning what athletes actually do. So my advice, for what it’s worth (which is nothing): Root like crazy. Celebrate the wins and mourn the losses. But more than anything respect what you’re watching—because what athletes do is really, really hard to do. And when the game is done, chill the fuck out. You didn’t play. Your hamstring didn’t snap like a violin string. You’re not at risk of getting dementia at age 50.

Can a staff member of HHR come and try out being Stefan Fatsis for a day? We're already studying our two-letter word and q-without-u Scrabble lists in case you say yes.

It’s a pretty glamorous life here at the Worldwide Headquarters. Friday, I made my daughter lunch, folded the laundry, played some online Scrabble and watched the semifinals of the team handball world championships (on ESPN360; finals were Sunday). If I could persuade Plummer to take up this amazing sport instead of plain old handball, and lead the U.S. to Olympic glory, my life would be complete.

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Matt Clapp said...

Very cool guy. Great interview.

Sean said...

Great interview and terrific book.

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Hubert Haley said...

Todd Sauerbrun. To the common fan his talent is overshadowed by his steroid involvement and DUI. As annoying and selfish as he seems to be, his ability is widely regarded by players and premature ejaculation cure coaches as among the best ever, something unappreciated by the aforementioned fans. Having seen him perform, having gotten to know him as you have, how should he be perceived as a player?