Stefan Fatsis is the bestselling author of Word Freak: Heartbreak, Triumph, Genius, and Obsession in the World of Competitive Scrabble Players and Wild and Outside: How a Renegade Minor League Revived the Spirit of Baseball in America's Heartland. He reported on sports for more than a decade for The Wall Street Journal and talks about sports every week on National Public Radio's All Things Considered. His work also has appeared on the websites Slate and Deadspin. Stefan lives in Washington, D.C., with his wife, Melissa Block, and their daughter, Chloe.
About Stefan Fatsis
An Interview with Stefan Fatsis
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For your last book, Word Freak, you took up competitive Scrabble. In A Few Seconds of Panic, you play in the NFL. It’s an interesting next step. Scrabble seems more in line with a writer’s skill set than professional football. What inspired you to take on this challenge?
With Scrabble, I’d tested my mind. This time, I wanted to test my body. At one point in Word Freak, I compared myself to George Plimpton—but with a distinction. In Paper Lion and his other groundbreaking works of participatory journalism, Plimpton’s conceit that he was the average guy imagining what it would be like to throw a touchdown pass in the NFL or sink a putt in the Masters. So he didn’t prepare very much for his ventures onto the playing field. I felt that, in the decades since Plimpton boxed and played football, baseball, basketball, and hockey, the incredible advances in the size and skill of athletes had created an unbridgeable gap between Pros and Joes. I wanted to see how much I could narrow that gap. The problem was that it would be impossible for a weekend athlete, someone who had never played a particular sport beyond high school, to get good enough in almost any of our mainstream games. Oddly enough, the only possibility for playing and looking credible was in football—the sport in which the players have grown the most. I couldn’t try to play quarterback, which Plimpton did, because these days anyone would no experience could be hurt badly trying. But I had played soccer for decades, and could kick a ball. A 5-foot-8 placekicker, I reasoned, wouldn’t even look out of place on an NFL field.
How did you get the Denver Broncos to take you on as a rookie kicker?
I asked! But it didn’t happen quickly. I’d covered the NFL for a decade as a reporter for The Wall Street Journal. So I had lots of contacts throughout the league. The NFL is a rigidly controlled and tightly closed world. Fortunately, my contacts at league headquarters trusted me enough to give me the go-ahead to find a willing team. Then I went franchise by franchise, starting with those close to my home in Washington, D.C., and moving West. Most organizations, predictably, instantly rejected the idea of allowing a reporter into uniform: My presence would be a “distraction” from the sacred task of trying to win a Super Bowl. After about twenty rejections over a full year, I called Broncos owner Pat Bowlen. Bowlen headed the owner’s broadcast committee, so I knew him pretty well from writing about the NFL’s multibillion-dollar television contracts. Bowlen, to his eternal credit, immediately understood what I was hoping to accomplish—to write about how a modern NFL franchise operates—and his head coach, Mike Shanahan, appreciated that the only way do that accurately was from inside the locker room. Shanahan told me he liked that I had the guts to want to play. And both men were secure in their place in the league, proud of what they considered a model NFL franchise, and trusting that their players wouldn’t embarrass them. Ultimately, they believed that the unusual presence of a writer in the locker room wouldn’t disrupt a thing, and actually could serve as a fun diversion during the miserable slog of training camp.
What was your prior football and kicking experience? Were you prepared for the physical and mental demands of playing in the NFL?
Prior experience? My elementary school touch-football team circa 1974. I had never played organized football. Growing up, I didn’t even weight enough to play youth tackle football. But I could kick a ball. I’d played soccer through high school and then in adult leagues in my thirties. But my playing career ended after I tore the ACL—anterior cruciate ligament—in both of my knees. That might seem like a disqualifier to joining an NFL team, but it wasn’t, as long as I was in shape. So I hired a personal trainer and spent a year getting into the best physical condition of my life; and I bulked up, too, growing from 160 to 172 pounds (through natural means). I also found a kicking coach, Paul Woodside, a former college standout who was my age and who never made it to the NFL. Paul taught me how to kick a football, which is very different from kicking a soccer ball, and his unflagging support and enthusiasm made me believe that I’d do fine on the field in Denver. So while I knew I couldn’t kick like the actual Broncos—the team’s placekicker at the time was 13-year veteran Jason Elam, who should be in the Hall of Fame one day—I hoped to at least kick well enough to blend in. Since the kickers aren’t banging heads, and I could lift only so much weight in the gym, the day-to-day physical workload was manageable. But as camp progressed, my legs started to wear down from the repetitive stress of kicking. And nothing—I mean nothing—prepared me for the mental demands of playing in the NFL. Not even Scrabble.
You sound like you’re joking. But maybe not. Any similarities in the two experiences?
I’m not joking. To succeed in Scrabble, you have to shut out all outside distractions and bear down and concentrate. And there are parallels in the two games, I discovered. The inches-thick playbook that NFL players master is equivalent to the tens of thousands of words that great Scrabble players learn. There’s the pressure of a clock ticking to zero in both games. And both are governed by what players call incomplete information—in Scrabble, not knowing what’s on your opponent’s rack, in football, not knowing what the other team will do on a particular play. But in Scrabble, if I make a bad play, maybe I lose a game and I’m angry with myself for failing. It’s all on me. The pressure of standing on a field, with my teammates watching, with the coaches watching, with fans watching is unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. It’s overwhelming—only the mentally fittest survive in the NFL.
What surprised you most from your inside-the-locker room vantage point? Did you find that there were aspects of the sport or players’ lives that were new to you?
The amount of pressure on the players was the most dramatic revelation—and the degree of ambivalence toward what they do for a living. The media and public naturally glamorize athletes. “What a job they have!” as one Bronco put it to me. The quotidian reality of the existence of the modern NFL player is rather joyless, especially but not exclusively during the summer. The players move from home (or hotel, for rookies like me) to the locker room to the field to the training room to the weight room to the lunchroom to the meeting room. They play under the constant threat of crippling injury. And they are reminded—constantly—that they are being scrutinized by a phalanx of coaches studying hours of video, that their jobs on are the line every second.
At the same time, they keep playing. Why?
As one player told me, they play for Sunday. The adrenaline rush of racing onto an NFL field, I can now attest, is fantastic. They love the camaraderie and the competition—the knowledge that they are among the very best to possess the very particular skills required to play pro football. The money is a motivation for some, but the more self-aware players know it’s an elusive goal. As we rookies were told in our orientation meeting, the average NFL career lasts just three years. Only a fraction of players will make the millions most fans associate with the NFL. Most won’t even make the team—just fifty or so of the hundred-odd players who passed through training camp while I was there. Some players persevere, certainly, in hopes their lottery ticket will turn up a winner. But most, I discovered, play simply because they can, because they love doing what they’re good at. In that way, I think they’re like any of us. But because a few of them make a ton of money, and because the media cycle never ends, their place in the larger culture is exaggerated. And I think most players would agree with that assessment. They think less of what they do than the public might believe.
As a sports reporter for The Wall Street Journal and a regular guest on NPR’s All Things Considered, you’ve been no stranger to the world of professional sports. How did reporting from inside the NFL differ from your usual reporting?
No at all and, at the same time, completely. My job as a reporter is unchanging, whether I’m writing a newspaper story or a book-length narrative: to find out as much as possible and tell a compelling story. But the essential ingredient to first-person journalism like Word Freak or A Few Seconds of Panic is something you don’t get in most daily journalism: honest-to-goodness total access. In today’s barrier-filled world of professional sports, with its athletes and coaches conditioned not to trust reporters, that’s an especially rare commodity. But I had complete run of the Broncos’ operation. Pat Bowlen and Mike Shanahan recognized that I’d have an easier time gaining the trust of the players if I were on their side of the divide between athlete and reporter. Their stamp of approval meant the players had to accept me as, at least, a part of the team. But it didn’t mean they had to talk to me. I still had to earn their trust. Wearing a uniform, showing up every morning at practice, lifting weights and stretching and running, suffering endless meetings, and getting hazed made that easier. Once they saw that I didn’t have an agenda, they opened up. NFL players believe strongly that their sport is misunderstood, both in its on-field complexity and its off-field pressures. Once I was accepted as just another kicker, the Broncos were willing to talk openly about their fears and frustrations, about what an NFL player experiences, hey wanted to explain their world to the rest of the world. That same willingness extended to the front office. I practiced and trained with the team downstairs and then walked upstairs and sat down with coaches and team executives who explained how an NFL franchise operates. Access is everything, but it’s what you do with it once it’s granted that matters.
You eventually became close to many of the players. How did you manage to break through that wall that separates athletes and the media?
One thing I’ve learned in my years as a sportswriter is that almost all players are eager and willing to discuss their craft. They actually like the opportunity to explain how they do what they do. After all, they’re experts in their field, and have worked painstakingly and obsessively to amass that expertise. What athletes hate are the mundane, how-did-it-feel, what-happened-on-this-play, what-do-you-think-of-your-opponent questions. Where there’s a divide between athletes and writers, it comes from the forced formality that defines their encounters. I’ve always tried to remember that athletes are no different from you and me—they just happen to be good at playing a sport rather than playing the violin or trading stocks or making a sandwich. I view “interviews” as “conversations”—and I think that precept was crucial when I was dropped in the alien environment of the locker room. Most NFL players are relatively anonymous. The Broncos roster when I was on the team wasn’t stocked with what the public might consider stars. But even those players were approachable and helpful.
Tell us about some of them. Were any of the players very different than you thought they would be?p>
The best example for me was quarterback Jack Plummer. He’d been portrayed in the Denver media as a standoffish iconoclast and a sometimes-jerk, largely because he never cared much about his image—and because he had been criticized throughout his career as never good enough. But Jake accepted me early in the locker room, which I think signaled other players to accept me, too, and he proved to be a generous, caring, honest, and down to earth, someone who cared more about how those close to him felt about him than how others did. I respected that. When Jake’s time in Denver was done, he didn’t talk to other reporters but he did talk to me about what he had been through. Jake was smart and thoughtful, and plenty of other players were, too. That didn’t surprise me—football is a very difficult game to play and master—but their introspection did. Fullback Kyle Johnson was thoroughly conflicted about his decision to play football. Backup quarterback Bradlee Van Pelt was so mentally tortured by football that he couldn’t sleep at night. Linebacker Ian Gold adopted a hard shell of embittered indifference to get himself through the season. I was as impressed by their willingness to reveal their inner struggles as by the struggles themselves.
Your journey as a kicker―learning what it means to think like a professional athlete―is also part of the story you tell. What was the most difficult part of the experience?
Frustration that I couldn’t will myself to be better—to be younger, stronger, more competent, more confident—to kick farther and more accurately. During training camp, I was around these supremely gifted athletes all day. After a while, I felt comfortable enough in the locker room and on the field that I sometimes forgot that I wasn’t actually there because I had been judged to be a good placekicker. So every time I shanked a 30-yarder, I suffered. And every time I couldn’t muster the sangfroid required to succeed at the NFL level, I felt worthless.
And the most rewarding part of the experience?
In the broadest sense, the whole thing. I got to turn myself into something resembling an athlete and then play for an elite professional sports franchise. I got to put on an NFL uniform with my name on the back of the jersey and run onto an NFL stadium with an NFL team and kick before thousands of NFL fans (during warm-ups in the preseason) and then be part of the team on the sideline during an NFL game. Every fan’s fantasy. And many writers’ fantasy, too. But in a narrower sense, those moments when I did manage to kick like a pro—or at least kick to the absolute best of my abilities, where a 40-yard field goal for me felt like the equivalent of a 60-yard field goal by Jason Elam—were intensely rewarding. For the players—for me, too—playing football well means summoning a series of precise athletic movements at specific moments. When that happened, I felt worthy.
What’s it like to go from reporting on coaches from afar to writing about them as one of their players? Did your understanding of the role and behavior of coaches shift at all?
NFL coaches—assistant coaches especially—aren’t that different from the players, inasmuch as they fear for their jobs all the time, too. One player described it to me as a trickle down. The head coach has to worry about the owner, the assistant coaches have to worry about the head coach, and the players have to worry about the assistants. The problem for the players, as my teammate said, is that they’re at the bottom of the trickle. But what I saw, at least in the Broncos organization, is coaches who walk on glass all the time. That has to do with Mike Shanahan’s full control over every aspect of the operation—there were times when I knew more about roster plans than my special-teams coaches did. But it’s also a universal part of the business. Most assistants see themselves as head coaches someday, so they act that way, to the detriment of the players. And though most assistants were players once, they repeat the same lines—about needing to play perfectly, about being scrutinized every second—that they detested when they wore a uniform.
What was your impression of legendary coach Mike Shanahan?
I respect Mike enormously. He’s like the CEO of a Fortune 500 company who has created a hugely successful organization according to exacting personal principles and a clear style. That means attention to the minutest of details, a slavish devotion to rules and punctuality, an intolerance of people who don’t work as hard as he does. Those standards can be tough to meet. And despite occasional dinners out with his players and an insistence on providing first-class amenities, Mike can still be a cipher. Communication can be poor, especially from coach to player and sometimes from coach to coach or coach to front office, and employees often feel like they’re on tenterhooks, and not especially valued. But I appreciated Mike’s football acumen and his organizational prowess. He handled the media forthrightly, he wasn’t a blowhard, and he treated me well. As one player said, he’s just a guy with a lot of power.
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