As a football player, my life was mostly spent in captivity. I essentially lived at the facility and under the banner of my team. Often I didn’t go out on my own for days or weeks. To and fro I shuffled in sweats and a tee-shirt with my playbook in my hand. I didn’t speak with anyone who wasn’t affiliated with the team. I rarely saw a woman. I was in constant pain. And I was edgy. Every day I flipped the switch to summon my absolute best athletic performance. After practice I sat in a chair and listened to the reasons why it wasn’t good enough. Once a game was over, or a camp, or a season, they said: “Now don’t go out there and get yourself in trouble. Be smart. Represent yourself and your team. Don’t do anything stupid.”
Of course this is a form of “good parenting”. But like the well-intentioned admonitions of good parents and bad lovers everywhere, it often produces the event it was intended to prevent. Well, shit, if you think I should stay out of trouble, I should probably go find me some.
And I’d venture out to find it. But my life was narrow. My social skills were bad. I wasn’t equipped for normal interaction. When I went out, I felt awkward. What could these people possibly be talking about? The only thing that bridged the gap was alcohol. It brought me closer to the humans I had lost contact with as a pro athlete. It allowed me to let my guard down. And I desperately needed it.
The booze greased the squeaky wheel in my meathead brain. Pretty soon I was having actual conversations. And not just about football! Then people were handing me shots. Girls were grabbing me. The bartenders pulled us behind the bar and let us pour drinks. Everyone was singing and smiling and life was good. It was a great party. It was always a great party. Because there was so much pent up. But time got away from us. We were drunker than expected. Then the lights came on and the bar closed. So where to now? And how get there?
We were downtown, a 30-minute drive from the suburban family home I lived in alone. That’s the norm in the NFL: buy a place out in the burbs where rich people live. Players are encouraged to live in these areas and discouraged from living downtown with their peers. Too many distractions. But living in the burbs made it tougher for me to get home when I was drunk, and increased the likelihood that I’d end up driving. It’s no problem leaving your car downtown and taking a cab if its easy to come back and get it the next day. But when you’re 30 minutes from home with a meeting the next morning, well then, there’s a choice: Do I risk getting a DUI or risk being late for meetings? It seems easy. But If I wake up without my car, I may be late. Nearly an unforgivable mistake in the NFL.
One of my old teammates was driving home drunk and got pulled over. Instead of pulling right over, he took a few sharp turns, screeched the car to a halt, threw open the driver’s side door and jumped across the console into the passenger seat. When the cop ran up to the door, he told the officer that the friend who was driving him home jumped out and ran. And he got away with it. Twice. That’s a bravado you don’t learn in a cubicle. And it translates beautifully onto the football field. Coaches love that approach to life, as long as it doesn’t interfere with the football plan. And that starts with punctuality. If you’re early, you’re on time. If you’re on time, you’re late. And if you’re late, don’t even bother.
Guys are cut every day for not playing by the team’s rules. But DUIs? They don’t get cut for that. (Not unless they get multiple DUI’s and get game suspensions. Then it cuts into the football plan and they gotta go.) Low-level offenders go into the NFL’s substance abuse program where they can be monitored. DUIs, positive drug tests, arrests: all that stuff puts you on probation. 10 urinalysis tests a month. Two or three a week. All year long.
I was randomly selected for a steroid screening during my first off-season as a pro. The Pee Man came to my parent’s house in San Jose and stood in the bathroom while I urinated, my shirt off, my pants below the knees, making sure the pee was coming out of my actual penis, and not some prosthetic. When the Pee Man calls, the urethra must open. He comes to you wherever you are in the country and you have four hours to produce a sample. He’ll sit outside in his car and wait. And if you can’t produce, for any reason, it’s considered a fail. Dead battery on your phone? Fail. Go on vacation and don’t get approval for it? Fail. Drank responsibly the night before and got a ride home? Fail. Because once you get put in the program, you can’t test positive for alcohol either. But the DUI will make you a “better football player” because you’ll be more “accountable for your actions” and you’ll have fewer “distractions”. Whatever the digression: test his piss. Now test it again!
Somewhere Roger Goodell is furrowing his brow between Bountygate punishment hearings, considering his options in the wake of these DUI arrests. Ever the reformer, he’ll come up with something soon. (More piss!) But that won’t change much. Players will still be getting drunk. Just like everyone else in America. And trying to figure out how to get back home to the burbs. Now if they’ll only limit their reckless bravado to the field, where it’s a virtue.
Nate Jackson played for the Denver Broncos for six years and is currently writing a book about life in the NFL, to be published by Harper Collins.