Friday, December 12, 2008

Plimpton, Fatsis and 'A Few Seconds of Panic'

(NOTE: This review was edited at 4:00 p.m. EST to add two details I remembered overnight and also to respond to comments added by Mr. Fatsis. Please see the comments section for more information.)

If you've listened to NPR's Some Things Considered on a Friday, you've doubtless heard the wry sports insights of Stefan Fatsis. His soft-toned voice contrasts nicely against the aged Wednesday Morning Edition death-rattle of Sports Illustrated writer Frank Deford. Fatsis might not have the gravitas of someone like Deford, but his opinions, like his voice, usually offer a more soothing alternative. He reports stories outside the big three American sports, eagerly points out economic rationales for behavior and, unlike Deford, eschews saccharine sports "features" and nostalgic polemics.

His most recent book, A Few Seconds of Panic: A 5-Foot-8, 170-Pound, 43-Year-Old Sportswriter Plays in the NFL, presents the reader with a long-form version of everything that's great about his NPR commentaries but with a depth that allows for both the sweet story and the brutal realities of American football. In Panic, Fatsis attempts an update of George Plimpton's classic Paper Lion.*

* — You may remember Plimpton as the crooked host of the Spellympics who orders Lisa Simpson to take a dive, or as the homosexual psychoanalyst whom Will Hunting deliberately tweaks by admitting to being overcome by the beat of house music so much that he feels the urge to sleep with men. To sports fans, though, Plimpton is the Harvard-educated, prissy-speaking writer who was happy to get the stuffing knocked out of him to write fun and insightful books about what it's like for an average American to try to compete inside the sports world. He also wrote the greatest sports-related April Fool's Day prank ever, "The Curious Case of Sidd Finch," which is absolutely wonderful regardless of your sports fandom.

Fatsis' book works for much the same artistic reasons that updated classic Hollywood films work: the technology has changed so much that the originals seem like uncannily strange relics from another era. But while Hollywood's archaisms might be fundamentally still sound, if not technologically current, the football of Plimpton's day no longer exists. Everything has changed. The technology extends even to the players themselves.

The Detroit Lions that Plimpton played with were men who earned salaries only in the thousands or tens of thousands. In the off-season, they sold cars or aluminum siding or worked in carpeting stores or anything else similarly unglamorous. They drank and smoked. Physical conditioning was something they did in preseason scrimmages or during the first two games. Their pads were smaller, their helmets just a few years removed from functional nonexistence. Many players worked on offense and defense, a task made easier by the team's having maybe 30 total plays. The West Coast Offense didn't exist, and zone defenses barely did.

Today's player would be alien to them, but that's not hard to believe, because they seem like aliens to us. They make millions of dollars and treat their bodies like machines encased in state-of-the-art protection. They memorize films of other teams and binders four-inches thick, filled with diagrams. Their work requires talents and attentions so finely and uniquely specialized that there really isn't anything like the Citizen Player anymore. This presented Fatsis with a problem. Plimpton's question, as with most of his sports books, was, "Can the average American hang with the professionals?" Fatsis didn't even need to ask. Of course he can't.

Unless he's a placekicker.

Placekickers offer an annual supply of hilarity, anguish and rage for all fans. They're rarely in the game, and when they are, they can win or lose everything on one sweep of the leg. If they try to throw a tackle on a kick returner, they regularly knock themselves out and onto the injured reserve list, there to stay for weeks. One kicker, Bill Gramática, once famously tore his own ACL celebrating a kick by jumping. They are not a hardy bunch, and they're apt to look like children or disguised women when you see them on the field next to other players. Fatsis, a career journalist in his 40s, managed to convince the Denver Broncos to let him pose as a third-string placekicker during training camp. To fans watching practices, he blended right in.

To his credit, Fatsis trained very had to become a believable placekicker, and the reader shares in his sense of pride and average-Joe pluck in finally being able to nail thirty-yard field goals with some regularity. That's the first level of drama in the book: his everyman struggle to stay within a respectable distance of even the worst players.

One of the book's most frustrating scenes comes when Fatsis has shanked some easy kicks in practice, leading to a few jeers and exclamations of disbelief and disappointment from fans. When going to use a portable toilet near the sideline, he can hear their criticism, and the reader can sense the overwhelming temptation he must have felt to disclaim any pretensions to football excellence and admit he's just a journalist and doesn't belong there at all. (Really, who wants to be laughed at for their shortcomings in sports, especially in a setting that esteems athletic talent so much?)

However, doing so would have erected a wall between him and the players. It's his refusal to submit to easy double standards that gains him greater access to and empathy with them, and which provides the second (and better) level of drama in the book. Because while Fatsis tells his story frankly and entertainingly, the more potent emotion in the book comes from the career starters and would-be players.

At the beginning of a season, every NFL team is virtually split in two between those who will make the cut and those who will not play professionally that year. Failure is endemic to the system; training camp for most people doesn't involve mastering the offense or defense so much as proving less error prone than the person one step above them on the depth chart. Many of the people who will fail to do this know their fate ahead of time. Still, they persist, trying to curry favor with a necessarily distant autocrat, the head coach, whose position mandates adhering to numerical cruelty.

Despite NFL players' portrayal as overprivileged millionaires, most of these people persist because of a love for the game. Few of them will ever be destined for a massive contract. The back-ups will spend their careers making salaries in the hundreds of thousands; but in careers typically measuring under a decade in length, the numbers of health care bills and amount of orthopedic destruction that piles up over a subsequent lifetime typically dwarfs their earnings. These people will practice, play and retire in pain. The size of the paycheck seems infinitesimally small when looked back on, from a middle age spent on legs resembling an elderly man's.

To the serious football fan, though, these details hardly appear revelatory. The book's one real shortcoming is that a reader can't point to an explosive vignette that fans won't know about or offer a maudlin profile of the tragically suffering hero that one might expect from yet another syrupy Rick Reilly article. The reader meets a cast of characters. Some are incredibly successful; some will be. Others will achieve a little success; others are doomed to reconcile their dreams and their insufficient bodies. All are in pain. All find some small pure moments of joy in what they do. The story is not unexpected.

But it's still a very good book. Fatsis follows the other writer's path: the one that doesn't tell a good new story but rather tells a good old story anew and with the level of craft a knowledgeable reader demands from familiar material. He can't match the novelty of Plimpton's idea or his position as a quarterback for a team, but he can still observe everyone else's struggle at the center of attention and enumerate the ways in which the struggle has changed, deepened and grown more demanding. Fatsis gracefully details the anxieties of career players and career also-rans while confessing his own terror. The starting kicker, Jason Elam, might be a successful novelist, world traveler and record-holding placekicker, but he shares just as much as Fatsis a life of endless "hours and hours of boredom surrounded by a few seconds of panic."

Fatsis' best work comes in the details. First, as a Wall Street Journal writer, he has little difficulty condensing the financial details of general management: drafts, trades and the salary cap. This last number, along with the mandatory maximum number of players on the roster, is the hard and implacable number that terminates careers, cuts players or ships them elsewhere. Even hardcore fans have difficulty juggling salaries, bonuses and league minimums, but Fatsis gets the gist across without overwhelming or annoying the reader.

Another valuable economic breakdown comes over Fatsis' attempts to suit up even for a single snap of a preseason game. He's refused supposedly out of concern for his safety or because the NFL worries that the prestige of the Denver Broncos might be harmed but really because his presence on the field instantly shatters the polite fiction that preseason games matter to really anyone other than the league office.

Sure, to people on the cusp of a roster spot, they matter. They're the last shot to prove their worth. To the starters, they're often a headache. To GMs and fantasy football owners, they're hours and hours of incipient doom in the form of a season-ending injury. But, to fans, they mostly suck. After the thirty-minute thrill of realizing, "Football is back!" comes the next two hours of watching the second- and third-strings go through the motions, running simple plays that likely won't even be in the playbook on opening day.

But these games matter most of all to the league because season ticketholders are obligated to buy outrageously expensive tickets to them as part of the season ticket package. That the NFL is greedy and arrogant and that they make fans pay a ransom of preseason-ticket prices just for the right to buy regular season tickets is a long-registered complaint in bars, stadiums and internet chat boards. Fatsis is a five-foot eight-inch confirmation of it. The NFL can't allow him on the field because the games are already a joke. The price of the games is a sick joke. Having him kick a field goal in one would amount to the NFL's abandoning all pretense of their significance and resorting to outright fan-taunting.

Fatsis may nail the business details thanks to his day job, but he depicts the aches and anxieties of other players with faithful detail because of his determination not to separate himself from their concerns. When they're icing or swinging battered joints down into the whirlpool, he's there too because his middle-aged legs are taking a beating. If he wanted to, Fatsis could have pitched his writing project in such a way that he did the minimum amount of work. At times, coaches and personnel offer him little escape clauses, opportunities to skip the same workouts that his teammates endure. But by forsaking the easy route and taking his lumps like the rest of them, he opens the door to frankness and acceptance.

Too often, "My Year Embedded with the Team"-theme books read like an extended version of the stereotype of a limousine liberal slumming for a day as a trash collector or janitor. No matter how the writer tries to persuade the reader of his communion with his fellow workers, one can't help but feel that he is ineluctably "The Other." The embedded sportswriter shows up on the sideline fresh from his normal life. Instead, Fatsis tapes up his knees and makes 7:00 a.m. practice, runs sprints, does the workouts, ices down at the end of the day and spends his nights meeting curfew. True, he has to make periodic stops back in the "real world," but its importance recedes, over the course of the book, as the training camp exercises take on the sense of the real, daily grind.

As a result, his shared experiences produce a candor from fellow players uncommon to the average "team yearbook" text. They open up a little more because they can tell he gets it; that he's not there for the cheap quote that'll appear in tomorrow's column. A negative observation that might prove too risky to reveal to another sportswriter can be disclosed because he's gained the necessary perspective from suffering day in and day out. Today isn't about tomorrow's quote because today is about just getting to tomorrow and the day after and then past that first cut. Probably nothing testifies more to the trust Fatsis engendered than his anguish over missing a kick* and the players' response and subsequent willingness to stay friendly and in touch with him over a year and, in some cases, retirements later.

* — One afternoon, head coach Mike Shanahan tells the team that they can leave practice early that day if Fatsis can make a field goal under pressure. He misses it. But the sincerity of how crestfallen he is at letting everyone else down speaks to how committed he is to them as a group. Fatsis is clearly deeply disappointed, and the scene stands out as a catalyzing moment that establishes his sense of belonging. Later, Shanahan calls a phantom penalty on the kick, essentially giving Fatsis a do-over. I won't spoil that outcome.

It's easy to not pity ballplayers. It's easy to see the bully or the braggart in them and to give the same indistinct and unpleasant face to scores of intimidating and oversized men you likely will never meet. Fatsis, because he shares some of their fears and aches, taps into how each person's pain and worry is slightly but critically different. He even manages to humanize Todd Sauerbrun, perhaps the only man in history able to successfully be a punter and the biggest asshole on his team. The book might not tell any shocking new stories with salacious details, but it tells classic stories of the sports world with pleasant and good-humored attention to each human being in them. Many of the players in the book will go unremembered even in a decade's time. But the depth and fairness of their treatment here will make avatars of them recognizable in those still playing the game or desperately trying to.

A thoroughly enjoyable and readable book. Highly recommended for any sports fans, football especially. Recommended for Plimpton fans who would enjoy an update or for anyone who likes the concept of "embedded journalism." Absolutely recommended as a bathroom book. Not recommended for someone looking for first-time insight into football or the sports world. Fatsis' focus on kicking is too specialized and infrequent, in terms of in-game action, for it to provide a great introduction to a nuts-and-bolts of the game. While his coverage of other players and other positions is perfectly good, it might not break the elements down succinctly and simply enough for someone looking for a more basic education. Unfortunately, I can't think offhand of a football book that can be of help in this regard. Apologies.

Also, while I haven't read Paper Lion in ages, I'd tentatively give it a 4, just off memory alone.