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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?