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—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.