Channeling George Plimpton, a sportswriter dons pads and becomes the first journalist in more than 40 years to take the field alongside an NFL team.
Attempting a modern take on the classic Paper Lion could very easily have backfired on Wall Street Journal reporter Fatsis (Word Freak: Heartbreak, Triumph, Genius, and Obsession in the World of Competitive Scrabble Players, 2001, etc.). He wins readers over, however, with his upfront acknowledgement of Plimpton’s feats and his engagingly self-deprecating prose. Despite being an aging weekend warrior with two bad knees and no organized football experience, the author began contacting NFL teams, seeking to join one as a kicker during training camp so that he could live and experience each day as a player. After considerable effort, he finally hooked on with the Denver Broncos, one of the league’s model franchises. Fatsis quickly found that his cursory understanding of how to kick was no match for the place-kicking expertise of the Broncos’s Jason Elam. Even more engrossing than his quest for proficiency, however, is the author’s insight into the modern NFL locker room. It’s a world of haves and have-nots: Bonus babies and superstars are the only ones who enjoy even a modicum of job security; fringe players fight through devastating injuries they don’t disclose for fear of losing their ever-tentative jobs. While it’s no secret that big-time sports are replete with homophobia, relentless hazing and testosterone both natural and artificial, the players’ fragile psyches and management’s everyone-is-replaceable mentality may surprise and unnerve even hardcore fans. It’s those revelations, and the author’s humanizing treatment of his larger-than-life teammates, that keep interest high—not the anticlimactic chronicle of his attempt to kick in a preseason game.
Less groundbreaking than Paper Lion, but more perceptive and almost as entertaining.