(Photo: Andrew Mason/Denverbroncos.com)
In 1963, the writer George Plimpton (known to the younger ones among you as “that guy who keeps saying, ‘And a hot plate!’ during the spelling bee episode of The Simpsons) worked out with the Detroit Lions during their training camp. This experiment became the basis for his book Paper Lion, which was later made into a movie.
More than 40 years later, writer Stefan Fatsis (who covers sports for the Wall Street Journal, and also authored the definitive book about Scrabble, Word Freak) tried something similar: Last summer he worked out with the Denver Broncos as a placekicker in their minicamps and training camp. His book on the experience, tentatively entitled A Few Seconds of Panic, is slated to come out in the fall of 2008.
Stefan (who turns 44 this Sunday, continuing our recent birthday theme) is a longtime Uni Watch supporter, and I figured his little adventure might have entailed some interesting uni-related tidbits, so I gave him a call the other day to get the scoop.
Uni Watch: So how’d you decide on this particular concept for a book?
Stefan Fatsis: I needed something new to write about. It took two years to figure out what to do after Word Freak — I tried out a lot of ideas. And one day I was thinking, “It’s been 40 years since Paper Lion. I wonder (a) if the NFL will let me do it, and (b) if my editor and readers would be interested.”
UW: Did you have any placekicking experience? Like, did you do it in high school?
SF: No. I played soccer in high school, and as an adult. But I’d never learned how to kick a football. And I probably hadn’t actually kicked one since high school.
UW: And when you were coming up with this Paper Lion-esque idea, were you intending right from the start that you’d be a placekicker, or did you just think it’d be cool to work out with the team in any capacity?
SF: Y’know, I’m five-foot-eight, and when I started the book I weighed about 155 pounds, so placekicker was kind of the default. I actually thought about other sports, but I ultimately came to the conclusion that there was nothing else where an armchair weekend athlete, approaching middle age, with no college experience, could walk out on a field and not be completely humiliated. What else could I do, except maybe golf? Kicking was the one thing where I could be at least vaguely competent.
UW: So how did you set it up? Did you approach the NFL?
SF: Yes. They said, “If you can find a team to do it, go ahead.” It took me well over a year to find a team.
UW: How many teams did you approach?
SF: I initially approached the teams near where I live, which is Washington, DC. And I thought I had an agreement with one of them. But after the 2005 season, their plans changed, and that didn’t work out. So it was back to the drawing board.
UW: So then what?
SF: I used my contacts as a sports reporter. I called owners, GMs, and so on. And over the course of several months I finally got to Pat Bowlen, the owner of the Broncos. Most of the other people I’d contacted had said, “It’ll be a distraction, and it won’t help us win the Super Bowl.” But Bowlen’s response was, “That’s a pretty cool idea. Let me talk to Mike Shanahan and see if he’ll go for it.”
UW: And when was that?
SF: About a year ago — early last March. And then, about a month later, Shanahan gave his OK. So the plan was for me to come to the first minicamp in early June. And if it went well, I’d go to the next minicamp, and then training camp. And it went fine, and they invited me back for the whole summer — two minicamps plus the full camp.
UW: When you realized you’d be training with the Broncos, did you think to yourself, “Oh good, the thin air will help my distance”?
SF: In an ironic way, maybe. In reality, it doesn’t really help you much on 30-yard kicks.
UW: We’ll get to the uniform stuff in a sec, but here’s something I’ve been wondering: What did the “real kickers” think of you?
SF: Depends on which ones you mean.
UW: Well, what did Jason Elam think of you?
SF: Jason was great. He’s a terrific guy — he was helpful, he was funny, he was generous with his time.
UW: And of course he’s got the team made, so he can afford to be all of those things.
SF: Yeah, he’s a grown-up. But there were other kickers, too —
UW: Right, you’ve got guys who are actually fighting for a job. And here you are, sort of making light of the whole thing.
SF: Nobody really minded. Everybody was totally into the idea — they liked having me around, they thought it was funny. And some of the guys were incredibly generous with their time. There was one punter who didn’t make the team, and he’d routinely hang out with me for half an hour after practice, just working on technique to make me a better kicker.
UW: Were you coachable?
SF: Yeah, I was coachable. I first had the idea for the book in 2005, so I had spent a year with a personal trainer, getting into shape. I put on 10 to 15 pounds. I found a kicking coach who worked with me. So I went out there knowing some of the principles. I had a pretty good grounding in the basics of kicking. The problem is, as with any specialized skill — and kicking is one of the most specialized skills in all of sports — you need tens of thousands of repetitions to get the technique and muscle memory so that you don’t have to keep thinking how to do it. And I was thinking about how to do it the whole time. I’m not gonna tell you how well or poorly I did, because, well, you’ll have to read the book.
UW: Can you tell me your longest field goal?
SF: My longest was over 40.
UW: Really? That’s pretty good! What had your longest been when you went into camp?
SF: About the same. It’s hard to tell, because a lot of my practice was done on a baseball field. I think in the end — and the players would probably laugh if they heard me say this — I felt comfortable from inside 30, I felt OK between 30 and 35, and anything over 35 was a function of whether my groin was sore, or my hip flexor was killing me, or I had any confidence left. It was much more of a crapshoot.
UW: OK, now let’s talk uniforms and equipment. What kind of helmet did you have?
SF: Hold on, let me check…
UW: Do you actually have it right there?
SF: They sent me a helmet after I left, but it’s not my helmet. They ended up keeping and recycling the one I used, which I’m actually pissed off about. I’m gonna try to get it back.
UW: I assume it was a Riddell.
SF: Yeah. Basically, during my first day of minicamp, the very first thing they did was escort me into the equipment room. And the first guy I spent any serious time with was the Broncos’ equipment manager, Chris Valenti. He was great. Frankly, it was pretty simple — you have this image that the fitting process will be more complicated than it ended up being. Chris literally had a tape measure, and he measured my head. Then he went and got a plain helmet — no facemask, no decals, right out of the box — and had me try it on. And then it’s a question of fit. As you know, these helmets are fitted with air bladders. Chris would feel the snugness, and then he’d fill it up and check the fit.
SF: Then he gave me a tour of all the different helmets, and explained why the players avoid the Riddell Revolution —
UW: Yeah, that was my next question, whether you wore a Revolution.
SF: I tried on a Revolution. But I figured I was gonna take enough abuse as it was. And I was never gonna get hit, I hoped.
UW: So you didn’t wanna look extra-dorky.
SF: Yeah. And I’m already tiny — the last thing I needed was to have a helmet that looked like it was the size of the Goodyear blimp.
UW: Did they also measure you for everything else at that time — pads, pants, and so on?
SF: There are no pants in minicamp. As for the other things, the NFL equipment managers have done this so many times, they can just look at you and guess. They actually guessed too small on pants for me — they gave me 34, and I need 36, y’know, cuz I’ve got huge kicker legs.
UW: Of course. What about your facemask?
SF: I requested a single-bar, but they refused to give me one. I ended up with a Schutt RKOP — that stands for “reinforced kicker oral protection.” It’s a kicker’s facemask. Low drop, high visibility. I really wanted the single-bar, and they had a couple of them, but Chris was afraid that if I wore it, another kicker would want it. It was really disappointing — I was crushed. I begged. But he wouldn’t do it.
UW: What about shoulder pads?
SF: Again, he pretty much eyeballed me and asked if I wanted large or extra-large. And for the jersey, it’s pretty much one size for the lower-numbered players.
UW: What was your uniform number?
SF: I wore 9.
UW: And did you request that?
SF: I had a choice of 8 or 9. Everything else was taken.
UW: Did you check to see who had been the previous Bronco to wear No. 9?
SF: I did, and it was David Treadwell — another kicker. In fact, he’s the only Bronco ever to have worn No. 9.
UW: Well, except that lots of guys like you might have worn it in training camp.
SF: That’s true.
UW: Any interesting or surprising uniform- or equipment-related revelations?
SF: The socks. I never felt totally comfortable with the socks. In the NFL you have two choices: There’s a thick sock and a sort of sanitary sock, and there was nothing in between. A lot of kickers — and other players too, but especially kickers — will wear their own socks, to get their own comfortable fit. And then for games, many of the players — including me, because I dressed for preseason games —
UW: You did?
SF: Yes, they let me dress, and I got to get on the field during pregame warm-ups. But anyway, for games you’ll wear the shell that runs from the top of the shoe up to the calf, or higher, especially for wide receivers and defensive backs, who as you well know like to keep their pants up above their knees.
UW: So what did you end up wearing?
SF: I got used to wearing a thicker NFL-regulation base sock, which went all the way up to my knees.
UW: So basically a tube sock.
SF: Yeah. And then for games I would slip the shell on over that.
UW: Which is a sleeve, basically, or a leg-warmer.
SF: Right. You have the choice of actually getting the full sock with the team colors, but I chose to go with the base sock and the sleeve. Because y’know, I’m a kicker — sensitivity, what you’re used to, and so on, these are all sensitive issues. Jason [Elam] wore two pairs of socks, which I thought was interesting, because what you usually hear is that, as a kicker, you want to get your foot as close to ball as possible.
UW: So he’s actually building a barrier of sorts. Was that just about cushioning?
SF: I think it was just comfort. I think for most kickers, it’s what you’re used to. Jason’s been doing this since high school, so he does what makes him feel comfortable. During practice, when most guys had their practice shorts hanging down below their knees, because it’s cool, Jason’s shorts were above his knees, so he had no intrusion or impediment when he was kicking. But that was just him — the other kickers had the longer shorts. Jason was sort of the John Stockton of the kickers.
UW: Now, the Broncos wear white shoes, but kickers often wear black shoes anyway, even on white-shod teams. What did you do?
SF: Well, I had a Reebok contract.
UW [incredulous]: Really?
SF [laughing]: I did.
UW: You scored an endorsement contract just for the book?
SF: I did. They didn’t pay me anything, obviously, but they sent me kicking shoes, training shoes, and shower shoes.
UW: So did you go with white or black, for kicking?
SF: Oh, black. But the ones Reebok sent me were way too small, so I ended up using a pair of Adidas Copa Mundials, which have very thin leather and are great — a lot of NFL kickers had worn them for years. So for the purposes of the story and the book, I wanted to see what it was like to get a shoe deal, but I ended up telling the Reebok rep that just on the basis of comfort, I had to go back to the Adidas.
UW: So why did you choose black — because that’s what kickers wear?
SF: Actually, Jason wears white. But I’ve always had a problem with white shoes. When I see a World Cup soccer team wearing white shoes, I think they’re gonna lose — they’re just something psychological about it. It might have something to do with having grown up in the ’70s and Charley Finley and the A’s — the dawn of the garish white shoe. It just never sat well with me. It’s like there’s something imprinted on my brain that says, “Your footwear should be black.”
UW: Now, when you suited up for the preseason games, did you insert the thigh and knee pads into your pants?
SF: Oh, no. I was like everybody else on the team.
UW: Meaning, no pads.
SF: No pads. We’ve talked about that before [Stefan wrote a great article two winters ago about how more and more NFL players are going without pants pads. -- PL]. And the reality was, I wasn’t going to get hit.
UW: Right. But I was wondering if you wanted, y’know, the sort of gladiator feel of putting on the armor.
SF: Kickers don’t want armor — they go padless. I understand it with kickers. I don’t really understand it with other players. Like, is this pad the size of a coaster really going to be an impediment to your 250-pound frame? But because I wasn’t a “real” player, the pockets were still in my pants — they hadn’t been removed.
UW: Your pants had pockets?
SF: To insert the pads.
UW: Oh, the inner pockets.
SF: Right. And most players will have those removed, if they’re not wearing the pads. I didn’t feel I was in a position to ask for the pockets to be removed from my pants — particularly given that the Broncos didn’t practice much in pads.
UW: Did you wear the little Broncos logo sleeve over your belt buckle?
SF: Um… It was built in, yeah, so I did slide it over. Yes, my memory is that I did.
UW: What kind of shoulder pads did you have?
SF: I didn’t have completely tiny shoulder pads. Had I been a real player, I would have done what most kickers do — and what many other players do, frankly — which is to cut out the lower pad. There’s the larger top pad and then the smaller pad that goes against your shoulder, and they’ll usually cut that out. The equipment managers hate that, but they will doctor the pads to make them as small as possible.
UW: Any interesting quirks you noticed among other players? Like you’re sitting at your locker and you look across the room and you see someone doing something you’ve never seen before, like doctoring his equipment a certain way?
SF: Huh. Hmmmm, let me think about that for a second. Y’know, I’d have to go through all my notes. But off the top of my head, no.
UW: Now, obviously, for these preseason games you had a real jersey with a real nameplate.
UW: Had you ever worn a jersey with your name on it before?
UW: And, at the risk of bringing up a sensitive subject, you have a rather unusual last name.
UW: So while you were standing on the sidelines or whatever, did people call out your name?
SF: Usually fans yell out your number, but I did hear my name a few times, yeah.
UW: And were these derisive shouts, or shouts of encouragement?
SF: I think people figured out pretty quickly that I wasn’t, y’know — I mean, I wasn’t listed on the roster, so fans coming to training camp for the first week were like, “Who’s No. 9? Who’s that little guy? Why’s he out there? And he’s not very good — what’s going on?” And then word kind of filtered through the regulars that I was a writer and why I was there. And once they figured that out, I had a fan club, which was really cool. The regulars were totally on my side and would always shout encouragement, and I signed autographs — it was very cool.
UW: Anything else?
SF: You know, the thing that surprised me the most was how unobtrusive the uniform felt, particularly the shoulder pads. I mean, I hadn’t worn shoulder pads since I was 11 years old, but it didn’t feel as cumbersome as I thought it would.
UW: What about the helmet?
SF: That was harder to get used to. It weighs a lot, at least compared to what’s usually on your head, and you sweat. And if you haven’t spent your whole life doing it, it’s a weird sensation. But it does provide a degree of anonymity, which I found very comforting at times, believe me.
UW: Before this all happened, did you have strong feelings about the Broncos, either positively or negatively?
SF: No. They were just part of the pack. My strongest feelings about them, actually, were regarding the uniform.
UW: Well, that was my next question, since their uniform is among the more unusual ones.
SF: Yeah. I like them. I thought the old static “D” logo was kind of dull, and very dated. I remember the feeling when the new uniforms were introduced, like the team have been Nike’d, with the giant swooshes running up the sides of the uniform, but I feel like that’s been mitigated now that the league is all Reebok now.
UW: And of course you, as a kicker, you were never in a three-point stance.
SF: Right! So it didn’t feel quite as obvious anymore. And because of the way they’ve modified the uniforms, because they’re not Nike anymore, so I think you don’t get the sense that they’re just 11 giant swooshes running down the field.
UW: Wait, how have they modified them?
SF: Haven’t they? The stripes don’t feel as hook-y as they did.
UW: I don’t think they’ve changed at all. And I actually think it’s more insidious now that Reebok is the supplier, because they’re stuck manufacturing a design that’s basically a giant ad for their biggest rival.
SF: Are you sure? They didn’t change the design at all?
UW: I’m pretty sure, yeah.
SF: Hmmm, I was never really conscious of it. Maybe we’re just used to it now. But I guess it is kind of weird, now that you put it that way.
UW: Did you get any good stories from the equipment managers?
SF: What sorts of stories?
UW: I don’t know — just hanging around, watching them, talking with them. Like, did they have a sewing machine to do on-the-spot tailoring alterations?
SF: Oh, yeah, definitely. The equipment operation was truly amazing to me. Just the breadth of stuff available — it’s incredible.
UW: Like a single-bar facemask.
SF: Yeah, that they still had a few of those gathering dust at the top of a shelf. I mean, these guys are the ultimate service people. When you think about it, the diversity of equipment is so much greater in football than it is in basketball or baseball. Hockey’s probably the only sport that compares. But the equipment guys, their preparation level and how they cater to the players is just phenomenal. I mean, these dudes work just unbelievable hours. They’re the ones that are loading the trucks, unloading them. When you’re a player and you get to the stadium, everything’s waiting for you — your bag is unpacked, your helmet is hanging up, your pads, your jerseys, everything is perfect. These guys are the unsung heroes when it comes to taking care of the players.
Indeed they are — gotta get one of them for this interview series, instead of pantywaist journalists acting out their midlife crises on the gridiron…. Oops, just speaking hypothetically there, Stefan. Big thanks for the interview and the insights, and don’t stray too far from the phone — everyone knows placekickers don’t stay unemployed for long.
Uni Watch News Ticker: Meant to post this yesterday: Todd Krevanchi reports that the Lehigh Valley IronPigs have unveiled their new logo. Uniforms to follow, but the team name and logo are so good, I’m inclined to give them a free pass even if the uniforms suck. … Jason Norris was recently in Amsterdam, where he toured the Ajax museum (that’s the Amsterdam soccer team). “They had a case devoted to all of the ‘kits’ that Ajax has worn over the years,” he writes. “They’ve kept the basic red and white throughout their existence, only changing once from the candy striper look to the single vertical red stripe. And when it came time for them to put a sponsor’s logo on the jersey, I think they kept it clean and classy.” … Rare American uni update from Jeremy Brahm: “My home team, the Portland Trail Blazers, just announced that Kevin Pritchard would be their new GM. Here’s a photo of Pritchard getting a jersey with his name on it from Paul Allen, the owner. He is not going to wear this jersey ever, it just looks weird. Maybe they need to give him some office keys or something.” … Hall of Fame researcher and longtime Uni Watch pal Tom Shieber has come up with two additional pics of a cap with built-in flip-up sunglasses — look here and here. â€¦ Back in mid-February I linked to this Q&A page, in which it was revealed that Dodgers reliever Takashi Saito wears toe socks (for details, scroll down to the question asked by “bluebleeder1977,” midway down the page). Turns out Dice-K wears them, too — for more info, look at the third paragraph of this page (alertly spotted by Paul Beaulieu). … “I was at the Arizona vs. Arizona State baseball game Wednesday night and noticed that the shortstop for ASU was wearing green sleeves under his sleeveless grey road uniform,” writes Dan Pritchard. “None of the other ASU players had this undershirt. Very odd.” I’m pretty sure the green sleeves are a holdover from ASU’s St. Paddy’s Day game, but that still doesn’t explain why the shortstop was wearing them. … Teams in the NBA’s D-League will wear the uniforms of the NBA affiliate teams during a 13-day promo period. Details here. … Reprinted from last night’s comments: According to a small item on this page, “Andruw [Jones] took batting practice wearing a jersey with ‘Dos Cinco’ instead of his name above his No. 25″ last night. … Also from yesterday’s comments: Check out the “Captain” sock (or maybe it’s just a “Captain” armband being worn on the calf). … My deepest sympathies to all in the Granite State (especially Frank Marhefka, who brought this sad news to my attention).