Nate Jackson played eight seasons in the NFL, six of those spent with the Denver Broncos from 2003 to 2008. As the rigors of the game took their toll on his body, the tight end bounced around the league recovering from injuries and seeking a roster spot. His new memoir, Slow Getting Up (published by HarperCollins, available September 17), details that life in football.
Before the 2009 season, Jackson was signed by the Cleveland Browns. In this excerpt, Jackson explains how then-coach Eric Mangini killed the spirit of the Browns, setting the team back untold years in its rebuilding project. Printed with permission of the author and Harper-Collins; all rights reserved.
The Cleveland Browns call me three days later. Same story. They want me on a flight that night for a workout the next morning. But it's already evening when they call. So they put me on a red-eye. I'm picked up and taken directly to the facility, where I change with one other guy in the coach's locker room and we make our way to the indoor field for our workout. Also at the indoor field is half the Browns team, going through a stretching routine intended to flush the soreness and the gunk out of the beaten bodies of training camp. They are doing their stretches, but they are watching us. I know it's likely that somewhere among those nameless faces, some tight end sees us and knows that he is in trouble.
The workout is similar to the one in Philly, except for one addition: the forty-yard dash. I am prepared for it but quietly hoping like hell I don't have to do it. I haven't run the forty for time since I was coming out of college. It takes a good amount of technical training to be a good forty runner. And it's not football, either. Football is never a straight line out of a track start. And my hamstring is shit. I can mask its shittiness as long as I don't have to hit top-end speed, which is actually easy to avoid on a football field. Football players rarely hit fifth gear. But the forty-yard dash requires it. And I'm worried my entire pelvis will explode right there on that field, with scouts timing me and coaches evaluating me and players watching me. Kaput. Get him a body bag.
But my pelvis doesn't explode. I run a 4.6: plenty fast for my job description. The rest of the workout goes great. I catch everything. I even make a few improbable circus catches that I know no one else can make. After the workout, they bring me up to a coach's office area and ask me to wait for a while until I can do a physical and meet with the GM. They send the other guy home. I sit in the room for four hours watching daytime television. Finally I am brought downstairs for the physical. They poke and prod. I tell them I feel marvelous. Then I go back upstairs and meet with General Manager George Kokinis in his office. It overlooks the practice fields. He is wearing standard-issue Browns coaches gear: visor, team T-shirt tucked into mesh shorts, ankle socks, and tennis shoes, sitting at a huge mahogany desk, pictures of his family everywhere, a large television with practice film paused and a remote control on his desk.
—Well, Nate. I can tell you're a good player. You can play in this league. We just have to find a spot for you. You play special teams, right?
—Do you remember what games were your best games? So we can watch the tape and I can show it to our special teams coach. —Umm. Let me think. Uh, maybe the San Diego game. Uh . . .
—Yeah, you think about that one and get back to me.
—Okay, I will.
—So we're going to send you home today, but be ready. We could bring you back any day. It could be tomorrow, next week, whenever. If we can make it happen, we will. Make sense?
—Yeah, makes sense.
We shake hands and I am back in a van. Then at the airport. Then squeezing back into my middle seat and repeating my new mantra: What the fuck am I doing?
This is a side of the NFL I am not used to. I knew of it, certainly, but I didn't know what it felt like. And it feels damn awful. But five days later I get a call from George Kokinis. He found me a spot. Well I'll be a monkey's uncle. I hop on another red-eye flight and am picked up from the airport in the same van driven by the same dude from last week: déjà vroom, straight to the facility. I sign my contract, eat breakfast, get my gear, am issued my locker, and before I know it, I am wearing my number 85 Cleveland Browns jersey and jogging onto the practice field with my helmet in my hand.
Every team has its different routines. Often the most difficult part of being on a new team is getting adjusted to the way they do things. The team takes on the personality of its head coach, and every coach is different. In this case, it is Eric Mangini. I had heard a good deal about Coach Mangini from a few of my teammates in Denver. We would sit around the table in the cafeteria and talk shop, and several times I heard tales of Mangini's evil. New York, while he was coaching the Jets, was hell. No, not hell. Worse. Three-and- a- half- hour practices. Busted bodies. Jangled nerves. Cussing. Yelling. Tension. Belittling. Football, the game, was nearly unrecognizable under Mangini's demented eye. Hell was no match for it.
But surely the stories were overblown. Their color was more vibrant because of the contrast. They were being told in the peaceful valley of Shanahan: the heaven to Mangini's hell. Mike Shanahan knew how to run a team. That meant he knew how to treat the men on it. Being a head football coach is not about being a strategic genius.
Every coach in the NFL knows football strategy. It's about leading a group of grown men toward a tangible goal and treating them with the respect their sacrifice deserves. That's how you get them to play well. Many players, upon arriving in Denver, were flabbergasted by how well Shanahan treated them.
—You don't know how good we got it here, man.
I always heard it, but I never understood it. Coach Shanahan was all I really knew. He was the model of an NFL coach in my mind. I went through one camp with Steve Mariucci and one with Dennis Erickson, but these were back when I was a boy in the NFL, too consumed with my own performance to pay any attention to the performance of my coaches.
But by the time I arrive in Cleveland, the mystique of the NFL has vanished. My eyes and ears are open. From the blow of the morning practice's first air horn, I know I'm in a strange place. Warm-ups are usually very relaxed. They are designed to get the player's body warmed up, and everywhere I have ever played, the coaches have allowed us to warm up at our own pace, as long as we are ready to practice hard once warm-ups were over. But here in Cleveland, warm-ups are frantic and explosive. There are coaches barking orders and players are running through bags like Navy SEALs.
—Get your knees up!
—Keep that ball high and tight!
—Come on! Let's go! Let's go!
Oh, brother. This is not good.
As a veteran player gets on in age, he loses his patience for rah-rah rituals that he knows are worthless. Grown men with refined football skills do not need to be goaded and harangued. Football is brutal enough without someone yelling at you. And if you make it to the NFL, you're a self-starter. It isn't high school. You aren't dealing with children. Nobody told that to Mangina.
Practice is long and physical. I spend it standing next to my new tight end coach trying to pick up on the terminology. The Browns offense, led by another former Patriots coach/Brady jockstrap carrier, offensive coordinator Brian Daboll, is complicated and seems to have no rhyme or reason: arbitrary names for strange concepts. But I have been in the same west-coast offense since Menlo College. I am used to that language. And this system is an entirely different language, so of course it will sound like arbitrary names for strange concepts. But this is the end of training camp. People should know their shit by now. When I ask my new teammates to explain something to me, though, they just shrug.
—Shit, I don't know what to tell you, Nate.
If they don't know it, I'm in trouble.
I play some scout team offense and do okay. But I'm rusty. I was training hard in San Diego, but I wasn't playing football. My run-blocking technique has fallen to shit. I'm not a natural tight end, so for me to be a good blocker, I have to work on that technique every day. The only way to do that is to practice in pads. As horrible as it is strapping up every day and banging heads, it's the only way for a guy like me to have a chance at blocking three-hundred- pound athletes. I have to knock the rust off quickly.
Meanwhile, I'm catching some weird vibes around the building. Things feel off. I'm focused on learning the system as fast as I can, so I don't have a lot of time for psychoanalysis, but it's hard to miss. To a man, the entire Browns team seems to be deep in despair. There is a natural sluggishness that occurs during training camp, but this is something different. The men seem positively broken. They have no fight left in them. The locker room is quiet, so quiet. In Denver, even in the midst of training camp, the locker room was lively and social. Cleveland is a mausoleum. That night at my first team meeting, I learn why.
As I sit down in the emptiest seat I can find, I notice that players have handwritten notes scattered about their desks and their laps. They are reading over them nervously. Coach Mangini, a doughy thirty-eight- year- old frat boy with parted hair and a butt-chin, walks in and takes his place at the podium, a dip in his lip and a Styrofoam cup in his hand. He starts off by welcoming the two new men who were signed to the team that morning: me and some other dude.
—To show them how we do things around here, J.P., stand up. J.P. stands.
—There is a quote written above the door to the locker room; what does it say? —Uh, you must choose: the pain of discipline or the pain of regret.
—Very good. You can sit down. Clarence, stand up.
He says it under his breath. Muffled chuckles from the audience.
—We have six core values on this team; what are they?
—Damn. Okay, um, trust, communication . . . um, hard work . . . umm . . .
Someone whispers from behind him.
—That's right, Clarence, focus. Okay, two more. Silence. —Come on, Clarence . . . Can anyone help him out? From somewhere:
—Football is important to you.
—Good. Clarence, you gotta know these. And I'm going to keep calling on you until you do. Sit down. B.J., stand up. Tell me the name and number of every offensive lineman on our roster.
B.J. was a rookie defensive back and rattled them off like a pro.
—Okay, good. Very good.
Then Mangini presses play on the video system and footage of the morning's warm-ups come onto the screen. He had the warm-ups filmed and the tape cut up and cued up for the meeting. He launches into a biting critique of each player's warm-up performance, excoriating certain players for not having a sense of urgency during the drills, and referring again and again to the mantras that are written in big block letters around the facility. He preaches the importance of living by their words, and humiliates the most glaring examples of those who aren't.
—You must choose, the pain of discipline or the pain of regret.
—Every battle is won before it is ever fought.
—Don't sacrifice what you want most for what you want now.
And on the training room wall, "Durability is more important than Ability." As if the injured guys don't feel bad enough already. Might as well say, "If you're reading this, you're a pussy." That's what all the notes are. People are making sure they have these fucking mantras memorized. What the fuck is going on here? When the meeting breaks, I track down a fellow tight end.
—Is he serious?
—Yes, dude. Dead serious.
Aside from the food, which is delicious, Cleveland is hell. Practices are long and tense and confusing. Meetings are confusing. There are "voluntary" meeting sessions for rookies and new guys, called "Football School," which are also confusing. The players are depressed, myself included. Also my body feels awful. The first few days of practice were okay but by the third day I feel like I'll snap at any moment. My knee is bothering me for no reason. My hamstring and hips are tight. And to top it off, I have absolutely no idea what is going on in the offense. It is a completely foreign language. And no one is teaching it to me. My only chance is to get in good with the special teams coach, and he can't be bothered. It's strange that I'm even here.
Luckily, there's a game to prepare for that breaks the spell of practice hell. I had arrived on Monday morning, practiced all week, and by Friday night, am hoping maybe I'll get in the game the following evening. I don't know much, but I know enough to get by. And the quarterbacks are nice guys. They'll help me if I need it.
The night before the game, I check in to the hotel and go down to the meal room. Again, the food is amazing. I am blown away by it. There are artisan chefs stationed around the room creating made-to- order delicacies: everything you can imagine. Pastas, Mexican food, omelets, salads, a variety of roasts, meats, grains, fruits, breads, cookies and pies. It makes Denver's food selection look like the HealthSouth cafeteria. After dinner is our team meeting. And here comes Mangini again, same smarmy look on his face, same paranoia in the crowd. Only now I'm among them. I have notes scattered around my lap, too. My heart is racing. Please don't call on me please don't call on me. He calls on a few guys and has them stand and answer more arbitrary questions about the Titans' defensive tendencies and historical success running certain coverages and substitution packages and, holy shit! It's embarrassing. I breathe a sigh of relief when he concludes the question-and- answer portion of the show and moves on.
Then he motions to a young man in army fatigues standing in the corner of the room and introduces him as an Iraqi war veteran. Coach wants him to say a few words to us. The football-as- war metaphor is an old motivational tactic. I have heard it evoked many times in my life. But not like this.
The vet tells us his story. He lost three friends and both of his legs in a roadside bomb attack the previous year. You can hear a pin drop. He's an impressive man, an impressive kid, really. But like me, he seems confused as to why he is here, addressing a room full of professional football players the night before a preseason game. It soon becomes apparent why he was brought here. Mangini starts peppering him with leading questions intended to strengthen the validity of his own mantras, trying to draw an honest parallel between the bomb that killed his friends and the following evening's preseason game against the Tennessee Titans. The soldier sees what Mangini is doing and steers away from it, choosing instead to speak candidly about what he had learned, not what Mangini had hoped he learned.
After a few cringeworthy questions from the audience, class is dismissed. I make a beeline to my room, where I lock myself behind the double bolt and scribble furiously in my notebook. This is some outlandish shit. And I don't want to forget it.
The next night we play the Titans. I suit up in my number 85 game-day gear. I look at myself in the mirror before the game, wearing all brown. This color looks strange after years in blue and orange. But I'm in a uniform: I guess that's what matters. The game starts and I am ready but I never set foot on the field. It's just as well. I need another week of practice.
We have the next day off. I go into the facility for a workout, then back to my hotel room. I sit around the rest of the day. Outside is a heavy rain. I stare out the window and repeat my mantra.
The next morning I walk into the facility at around seven. As I open the door, I see the grim reaper leaning on the wall about fifty feet away. The grim reaper is the member of the staff in charge of telling players that the coach or the GM wants to see them upstairs. And bring your playbook. It's the end of the line. The grim reaper was that pear-shaped little penguin-man with the pronounced FUPA on HBO's Hard Knocks that the Cincinnati Bengals employed to rouse professional athletes out of their sleep before dawn and tell them they weren't good enough to play anymore. There is an art to being the grim reaper. The penguin was not an artist.
But this grim reaper is. And there he is, leaning on the wall, waiting for his target to walk through the glass double doors. Poor guy, I think. Not the reaper, but whoever he is waiting for. Easy come, easy go, right? As I clear the glass double doors and make my way down the hall, he perks up and pushes himself off the wall. No fucking way.
—Nate. George needs to see you upstairs.
Up the stairs we go to complete the filthy cycle.
I sit down once again in front of that stupid mahogany desk. George hands me a manila envelope with my walking papers in it.
—Well, Nate, I'm sorry about this. We thought you could come in and add a different dimension to the offense. But it's just too close to the start of the season to get a good look at you. I have no doubt you're a good player, but you'd be better off in a system that...
Blah blah blah and on and on he goes. I'm not paying any attention. I am busy bashing his skull against his big, beautiful desk while his family members look on through the foggy lens of forgotten picture frames. But I know it's not George's fault. I like George. He was the only reason I was there in the first place: him and my tight end coach. George went to bat for me and convinced Mangini and Daboll to give me a shot. It was those two who decided I was shit. George just had to be the one to tell me. Yes, this is all part of the business. Yes, it's what I signed up for. I should be happy that I got to be a part of it at all. Look at this! I was a Cleveland Brown! That's more than most people can say. I am a lucky man. I should be thankful.
But thankful for what? Thankful that I was given the talent to play the game I love? Yes, I'll buy that. Thankful to be subjected to the whims of the men who control the game I love? Hardly. There are thousands of George Kokinises and Eric Manginis in the football world, men who love the game but weren't good enough to play it, so they found a way to control those who are. They are trying their best to build a perfect football team, yet they're losing the perspective needed to do it. And they're polluting the stream that every football-loving child in America is drinking from. They've forgotten about the players. A coach is only as good as his team feels. And if he doesn't have their respect, what does any of it matter?