NFL Veteran Recounts The Bruises And Breaks Of Life In The League

Sep 22, 2013
Originally published on August 7, 2014 5:05 pm

Each week, Weekend Edition Sunday host Rachel Martin brings listeners an unexpected side of the news by talking with someone personally affected by the stories making headlines.

Being a professional football player can be a brutal life. Nate Jackson spent six years in the NFL, mostly as a receiver with the Denver Broncos, and while he wasn't a star — or even a starter — he did carve out life in the rarefied air of professional sports, and he got just as banged up as any big-name player. But he learned to play through the pain.

Jackson recounts his playing days — from the glory of a touchdown pass to the meat grinder existence of life on the scrimmage line — in a new memoir, Slow Getting Up: A Story of NFL Survival from the Bottom of the Pile. "The human mind is really good at pushing pain down and away when you feel that there is a moment of glory up ahead waiting for you," he tells Weekend Edition Sunday host Rachel Martin. "In football we are always pulled along by that next game, that next play, and so I learned how to get through the next play. No matter how much pain I was in I was able to turn it off ... there's a switch that I can locate and flip that switch and I don't feel any pain."

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This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin.

NATE JACKSON: I shattered my pinky, broke it in half. I broke a rib. I broke my tibia. I tore my left groin. I tore my right hamstrings several times. I tore my MCL in my right knee. I had some toe issues. Neck, lower back soreness and just general pain...

MARTIN: Being a professional football player can be a brutal life. Just last month, in a proposed deal, the NFL agreed to pay hundreds of millions of dollars to former players who suffered brain injuries while playing the game. The voice you just heard was Nate Jackson listing just some of the injuries he sustained - including several concussions - during his six-year career as a tight end in the NFL, most of it spent with the Denver Broncos.

Jackson wasn't a star or even a starter, but he did carve out a life in the rarefied air of professional sports. Jackson has recounted those days - from the glory of the touchdown pass - to the meat grinder existence of life on the scrimmage line. His new memoir is called "Slow Getting Up: A Story of NFL Survival from the Bottom of the Pile." I started our interview by asking him how he could possibly get through all those injuries.

Nate Jackson is our Sunday Conversation.

JACKSON: The human mind is really good at pushing pain down and away when you feel that there is this moment of glory up ahead waiting for you. In football, we're always pulled along by that next game, that next play. And so I learned how to get through the next play. No matter how much pain I was in I was able to turn it off. There was a switch. I talk about it in the book. There's a switch where I can locate and flip that switch and I don't feel any pain.

MARTIN: You say, quote, "Writing this book was like pulling a huge splinter out of my body," which is a pretty descriptive sentence and kind of negative because it's not very pleasant to have a big splinter embedded in your body.


MARTIN: Is that really what it felt like?

JACKSON: It did. It was really, it was very, very cathartic. A football life is not an easy life. And it's not an emotionally honest life. It's a difficult life to express yourself, to be yourself, and so you have to keep them bottled up in that environment. And so, I felt like it was just this thing that was stuck in mean when I was done and I needed to confront it.

MARTIN: Can we take a big step back and kind of go back to - you're given a break and you're invited to try out and wear the jersey of the San Francisco 49er for a spell. Then ended pretty quickly. They told you that you were going to go play for the Denver Broncos. And you write about this in the book. This all happened really fast, right? Within a matter of hours, you were told you were no longer going to be with the 49ers and you need to go home and pack a bag, and you've got a flight booked to Denver.

JACKSON: That's one of the things about being a professional athlete. You don't really control much of those things. You are told when you're leaving and you leave. And so, I was - I had my helmet in my hand and I had my feet taped up and I was ready to go out for practice. It was in the middle of August and one of the 49er assistant guys told me that, hey, Bill wants to talk to you up in his office.

MARTIN: Bill Walsh.

JACKSON: Bill Walsh, correct, and he didn't waste much time telling me. He said: Nate, we traded you to Denver. He said: Your flight leaves in three hours. Go pack a bag. You got to go. Good luck.

MARTIN: So there you are in Denver, playing for the legendary Mike Shanahan, who's coaching at the time. You start out as a receiver. Then Shanahan kind of out of the blue kind of says he wants you to become a tight end, which is usually a position reserved for people who have a different body type than you had at the time - bigger guys.

JACKSON: Right, I always thought of myself as a pure receiver. I like playing right wide receiver. I like being out alone in space, catching the ball by myself. And I wasn't really enthusiastic about blocking those huge, behemoth men who weigh 300 pounds and are like snarling beasts coming and trying to attack the ball. These weren't things that I was excited about.


JACKSON: But I was excited about keeping my job.

MARTIN: How did it work out? I mean, did you get to get the ball, which is what she wanted to do?

JACKSON: No, unfortunately no. I caught 27 passes in my entire six-year career, which is not what I envisioned for myself. But I had a hard time staying healthy after I gained that weight. My body did not like the weight.

MARTIN: You write a lot about that feeling, almost I mean, really despair that would kind of take hold of you when yet another injury would happen. Something would get twisted. Something would fall out of the socket and get dislocated. And there you were again out in a clinic, unclear about whether or not you were going to get back on the field anytime soon.

JACKSON: The hard work you put in can be gone in an instant when something breaks or something snaps or something pops. And they would be back down in the depths of Hell trying to climb one rung at a time, back out into the light mentally and physically. And it was a dual process. It was the mind goes down there with the body. Because a football player isn't worth much if he's not playing football.

Society views a football player's worth based on what he's doing on the field. And so, a football player who can't play feels really, really bad about himself. And it takes some mental gymnastics to re-convince yourself after each injury that this mission is noble, it's worth doing this all over again and giving it another shot.

MARTIN: I don't want to belittle what you just said. But, of course, you know, Nate, there are these people out there who are thinking to themselves, yeah, but you're living the dream.


MARTIN: I mean, you're a professional football player.


MARTIN: You get to make a living doing something that a very small percentage of the American population gets to do.

JACKSON: Well, of course, there are great things about it too. I'm talking about the pain and the instability that comes with a body that's always hurt in one way the other - dealing with pain. Pain supersedes all boundaries. It goes above and beyond the dreams and the money and the women and all that. And the dream that you're talking about is the dream that we believe when we watch it on television and that we see. We see these guys playing on Sunday, 16 times a year. But 349 days of a year, there is a job, and it's professional football and it's not that dream.

MARTIN: So after six years with the Broncos, you're finally let go. Others in your shoes may have called it quits at that point. You did not, ultimately finished up your career playing for the UFL, which is a now defunct marginal pro league. Why did you keep going? Was it worth it to find that one last contract?

JACKSON: I was on autopilot at that point. I knew that once it was over, it was over for good. And I also had a lot of foolish pride and ego involved. I still believed that I was really, really good and I belonged on a football team, and that's when I went to the UFL. Then I really was only there for two weeks and then that same hamstring, that had been bad, just popped off the bone for good and that ended all.

MARTIN: How's your body after all those injuries?


MARTIN: Are there lasting effects you're still feeling today?

JACKSON: Sometimes. I try to exercise a lot. Actually, the exercise helps me feel good. If I don't exercise, then the little things will flair up. My lower back will hurt, my neck will hurt, knees and ankles and hips will hurt. But as long as I stay active I feel pretty good.

MARTIN: I mean we have to ask, you know, you write about so many injuries, chronicle in your story. But you didn't suffer from the injury that we hear most about these days, which is really bad concussion or head injury and the lasting repercussions of that.

JACKSON: I definitely had some times where I knew I had a concussion or two. It's just for me I didn't write about it because it's hard for me to assess it. I don't feel any cognitive symptoms necessarily. I know that a lot of these cognitive symptoms don't come till later, don't come till your 40s and your 50s. And I have talked to some of my friends who are in their 30s and are having memory problems and are extremely depressed. And it's sad but it's a product of the sport that we love.

MARTIN: As you mentioned, there's a lot of disappointment in this story in your book. But, you know, there are some very joyful moments that just capture a young man's enthusiasm for a game. So I wonder if you wouldn't just recount for us best football moment ever.

JACKSON: Oh, wow. That's real hard. To me, some of my best football moments were not in the NFL. They were an amateur football. So my favorite football memories were in college. In particular, it was a game that we played September 11, 2001. It was - we were the one of the only teams to be playing that week. Most of the games were canceled because of the attacks.

MARTIN: Mm-hmm.

JACKSON: And we were a very small school. We were Division III Menlo College and we went up to Humboldt State. And we went down 26-zero going into the end of the third quarter, and we came back and we won the game. And we tied the game on about a 70-yard touchdown with 30 seconds that I caught. And it was a really special, emotional, triumphant moment that only football in my mind can create. And that's what football was about to me, was that moment where time stops.

MARTIN: Former NFL tight end Nate Jackson. He is the author of "Slow Getting Up: A Story of NFL Survival from the Bottom of the Pile."

Nate, it was great to talk with you. Thanks so much.

JACKSON: Thank you very much. I appreciate it.

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