Future Football Stars: The NFL Is About To Destroy Your Life
Former Denver Bronco Nate Jackson has some words of warning for Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III on the day of the NFL Draft.
Dear Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III,
You have been mentioned in the same breath for the last several months. And soon you will go 1-2 in the draft. It's a testament to your fantastic talent that there's still uncertainty – although very little – about where you’ll end up. But once you get drafted and shake hands with Darth Vader, your lives will diverge and you will be immersed fully in the identity of your new employers.
Immediately following the draft, you will board a private jet to your new cities, where you will step off the plane as Hope. The first stage will be a media event. All stages, in fact, will be media events. Whether leading your teams to triumph or failing miserably, every breath will be a public affair. For better or worse, your privacy is gone.
After the necessary posing and hand shaking and I’m-excited-to-be-a-part-of-this-organization-isms, you’ll be escorted into the locker room and shown your new stoop. It will look identical to all other stoops. And until you retire, this will be the only room on the planet where you’re safe, and where your struggle is understood.
Your last name will be unceremoniously taped over your locker and you’ll be gripped once again with the feeling of uncertainty that comes with a new beginning. The NFL is a man’s world, and even when secure in the blossoming of one’s own manhood, the question is unavoidable: Am I man enough?
You’ll be issued your playbooks – if you haven’t already – and you will dive in headfirst. The fate of every professional football player is determined not only by his talent but by his circumstance. The offensive system is not up to the player. The plays that are called: he must run them. The blocking prowess of his lineman: he cannot affect it. The willingness of his coach to cater a rigid offensive system to his unique talents: he does not decide it. His defense: he does not control it. The mental health of the team at large, which will determine the efficiency of the work environment: he does not control that either. He is one man, and on his back the city jumps, expecting that his legs alone will deliver them.
And there will be failures. Andrew, there will be times during practice when you will be outplayed by free-agent camp bodies who will never play a down of pro football. And RG3, there will be times when you will look so shitty that anyone watching will declare you a bust, and the team’s hopes lost. Yet it is through these tunnels that all players must pass — the Hall of Famer and the Never Will Be. The knowledge of this common struggle will unite a team in defiance of the conventional wisdom that suggests otherwise. Remember for every interception thrown, there is an interceptor in triumph. For every touchdown thrown, there is a defense in defeat. Leadership requires an acceptance of this, and will not work without it. A leader who lacks this perspective will lead no one but himself.
Chances are, you both already know this. But it is a nuance that is lost on the media. Simply showing the game on television is not enough. It must be accompanied with an explanation for why it happens. And this is where they fail us. Media knowledge isn’t so much knowledge at all, but sensation, flashed across a screen to stir the unbalanced longings in the heart. Out in society, you will be forced to choose: Do I prop up the myth or do I speak the truth? Or more directly: Am I the character they have created or am I me?
If this paradigm weren’t enough on its own, you will have a bucket full of non-football things to think about. First, everyone who meets you will see dollar signs. Everyone will want to “help you out.” When someone wants to sell me something or persuade me, I want no part of them. Yet if either of you are dismissive of strangers, you risk damaging your image, which you have been taught to protect. Do not worry about this. If you give your ear to fools, they’ll chew it off.
After negotiating your contracts, you both will surely buy a house in an affluent suburb where no 22-year-old would be happy living. Your new neighbors will be rich as well, facelifted, lipo-sucked, Xanaxed and dripping in diamonds, simply delighted to welcome you to the neighborhood. You will commission an interior decorator, recommended by a neighbor, to furnish your home. This will guarantee it feels nothing like Home. And someday, when all of this is over, you'll walk through and gaze upon the marble columns and the embroidered drapes like artifacts in a museum, wondering why you ever listened to that woman.
And there’s more. You'll buy a few cars, attend charity events and autograph signings, do endorsement deals, film commercials, go to golf tournaments, meet local investors and owners and politicians and more rich people on more Xanax and the surreal will become the real. The game that you fell in love with as a child will seem lost; a thump on the floorboard of your new Mercedes, swerved at high speeds to avoid a shadow in the night. The sights and sounds and smells of football, sensual memories that stir the passions in the soul, will be reconceived and recategorized, buried behind newer, odorless versions.
With all of this pushing against you, the role of friends and family becomes very important. There are people in this world to whom you're just Andrew and Robert. Son, brother, lover, friend. You need to lean on these people when the Weirdos start to make sense. You need to run to the familiarity of genuine friendship. But even in this, there will be a loneliness, because, as a defense mechanism, you will have assumed a piece of your new identity, and your loved ones won’t understand it. Caught in between these two worlds you'll drift. You'll feast on the fruits of excess, and will only grow hungrier. You'll dine with familiar faces, and find you've lost the taste. And so you'll get in your Mercedes on your days off and drive to the facility and watch film. Ah yes. Football. That’s what this is all about.
And your ability to keep this all in perspective will determine how you perform on the field. Once the whistle blows on Sundays, you'll be released from captivity, and you'll be free for three hours to truly live your dreams on the grandest scale you can imagine, against the best athletes on the planet. You will win or you will lose, but then the football game will end. The NFL game never will. Godspeed, boys.
Nate Jackson played for the Denver Broncos for six years.