SLOTBACK RHAPSODY

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(Excerpted from Chapter 4)

          Training camp begins with a tattoo contest. Offensive linemen peel up their t-shirts to reveal flaming skulls and Challenger II main battle tanks; linebackers display new sleeves of laser-shooting octopi, dynamite sticks, mushroom clouds and the requisite judgment day crucifixes; our #1 draft pick -- a cornerback out of Rutgers named Husseyn Norwell -- has the team logo across his shoulderblades, for which he's mocked mercilessly (nobody else is so callow to believe they'll spend their entire pro careers with the same franchise); someone has a hyper-detailed Resident Evil zombie on his calf; but the winner has to be a reserve tight end, Marcus Schenk, who on the back of his shaved skull has M.C. Escher's "Hand with Reflecting Sphere," a total screw-with-your-mind effect where the hand coming up out of Schenk's neck seems simultaneously to be holding the reflecting sphere and Schenk's head, and the reflected old man seems to be happily residing there in Schenk's brainpan.

          This contest happens in the facility's biggest meeting room, where eighty players and various staff sit in inclined rows while we wait for Coach Fond to enter below and address us. I'm not in the contest; I sit beside Townsel and watch, smiling. My only tattoo is on the inside of my right ankle: a tiny monochromatic Che Guevera acquired roaming the Vegas Strip the summer before college, in effort to appear deep. Truthfully, I'm kind of hazy on what Che Guevera actually did. Someone shouts, "Sugar Tits!" and star defensive end, mulleted Danny Shugarts, sits on my left after bumping potatoes with several other veterans. He offers to bump my fist, too.

          "I'm Dan," he says.

          "Hey there."

          "You're Morrison?"

          "Yup."

          He puts his gym bag on the floor between our chairs, rests his hamhock forearms on the desk. His ginger goatee sparkles with a just-finished shower, and his red nose is a fullback charging into the open field. "Well, I heard about you," he says. "Welcome to the Show." And I can't help it: I get goosebumps.

          At nine o'clock on the dot, Starling Fond steps into the room. His baseball cap is down tight over his face, his white shirt is pressed, and the tendons on his forearms and elbows stand out naturally, in the way of athletes entering their seventh decade of life. "I know you-all were disappointed with last season," he says in a soft baritone. It only takes a few seconds for the room to get intensely quiet. "Now, I was too. So what w'gonna do, w'gonna work you-all harder. There's a thing in this country they call the work ethic. I can tell you in my experience the team that works hardest wins ninety percent of the time." His feet are rooted to the blue carpet, and he gestures minimally. I can't see his eyes. "So we go' block. We go' tackle. We go' hit. What I want you-all thinking about is precision, men. Be precise. We go' work. Most important thing: we go' focus. We go' focus to the exclusion of all else. Some of you-all may have heard that my young son has contracted acute lymphoblastic leukemia. Well, he go' focus, too. Let's get out there this morning and focus." Coach Fond steps aside, and someone has turned on the overhead projector, which displays that single word in stark military lettering: FOCUS. When I look back down, coach has disappeared.

          The practice locker room is big but not luxurious, with an island of towel bins and two refrigerators of Gatorade, an electronic scale that in another life might've been used at a truck weigh station, and sickly fluorescent light. The close-together locker stalls are a bone of contention with some veterans, who loudly grouse to nobody in particular about not having enough room to get dressed. I was #89 in minicamp but now I find a #84 jersey waiting in my locker, the same number I tried to make Buffalo with two years ago. I've spent the last month visualizing myself as 89. It doesn't matter.

          We clack to the practice fields. I'm forever amazed the way it comes together: so many men -- millionaires, iconoclasts, gangsters, rednecks -- converging into the same space, the same clothing, to do the bidding of old men half their size. Maybe it shouldn't seem like such a miracle; there are teams in all walks of life. But here it somehow seems the equation should be different. Oh, sure, maybe football players are bodies looking for someone to tell them what to do. Still, you think so much about the stars on your team, the guys like Jim Shave and Desmond Johnson and Clancy Swift and Danny Shugarts, and they're so much bigger in your head, you can't imagine them all fitting in the same place at the same time.

          They fired the old coordinator, and the new guy, Brian Nugent, is regarded as a bright young mind in the game. He gathers the offense for a few minutes and says, "None of your jobs are safe. I watched film on every one of you shitheads from last year, and you should be ashamed. Listen to what your position coaches tell you. You have to want it. Do your job and worry about nothing else. That will be all I'll ever tell you. Do your job. Focus! Focus! Focus!"

          In the morning session, we do nothing but hit. It's a welcome development. It isn't always good for us, but most football players love contact. Match us up against someone roughly our size and let us smash one another. I remember thirsting for these drills at the lowest levels, in my Pop Warner days. I couldn't understand why all the kids didn't treasure these moments: lined up three yards away, three-point stance, cleats dug in, waiting for the whistle. Look at a man's belt, they teach you, but I couldn't help it: I always stared at his eyes, trying to find fear. On this team nobody fears the little man, but as I pound into running backs and wide receivers I aim to wipe the relieved confidence out of their expressions. I'm a blitzing corner bent on getting around a backfield block and by God I'll let them know I'm here; I'll use leverage and what strength I have, I'll get in their kitchens, I'll expend everything. Now I'm the blocker drawn in from my slot position and I'll deliver the blow before I receive it, I'll break fingers if I can, I'll make them toss me aside before I give ground. You hear that sound replicated a hundredfold: that click of helmets colliding, that meat-and-plastic percussion of pads giving and taking. Whistles screech all over the field, and you hear the requisite, "Hoo!" from onlooking players admiring a particularly vicious blow.

          They line us up for Oklahoma drills. One man on offense, one on defense, in a narrow space (confined by a corridor of blocking bags). One ball carrier, one tackler, get through the corridor. It's a first-day tradition in many camps; it "sets the tone." You can't hide in an Oklahoma drill. The proven veterans rarely partake, but everyone watches. Everyone roots. Some place wagers. It's a vicious, bloodthirsty practice. Nugent demonstrates for the rookies: he blows the whistle and goes half-speed, walking forward as everyone laughs because the man opposite him is Meleki Faafeu, a 350-pound defensive tackle. Faafeu puts his arms out wide and the offensive coordinator is engulfed by him in a pretend-throttle. Then they quickly put in Tommy Way, our young right guard, and they give him a ball and the whistle sounds and he runs screaming forward with no hint of evasion and Faafeu absolutely decks him: one shoulder, square to the chin and down goes Way. He gets up clapping and pats Faafeu on the butt, and as he stumbles off I hear him saying to himself, "Finer than frog hair split four ways."

          When my turn comes, I make a discovery. This is it for me. This is my last training camp. I'm 27, I've trained, I've studied. This is the last, because it's too hard on me. Break my bones, tear off my limbs, but everything between my ears is invested in this, and it's too much to give. I don't know why this revelation comes right now, especially after the past year I've had. But there it is. I take the dirt-smeared football from Nugent and tuck it under my arm with six points of pressure and wait with my eyes on Husseyn Norwell's belt and for the first time I can remember there's something else, something other than anticipation of the pure moment of athletic expression when I'll crush or be crushed: there's anxiety that investing so much emotional energy in something destined to end in heartbreak is truly damaging. You see, I know how this movie ends. I wind up cut, then despairing, then emotionally comatose.

          The whistle blows and I charge at the #7 overall pick in April's draft, I give him the slightest leg-drag hesitation to get his weight going the wrong way and then barrel into him -- he's got six inches and 30 pounds on me -- and he is (in the parlance) blown up and falls backwards as I streak past and I discover that I'm crying.

          Bow Wow brings the receivers into the end zone and we practice toe taps in the back corner. He throws fades and posts, intentionally too high and too far, and we go up and get the ball, and try to get both feet down in the field of play. Bow Wow screams at us: "You terrible! You terrible! What the fuck you think? You think every ball come in room-service? This is pro-fesh-shun-al football! They wanna kill yo' fucking quarterback! You gonna die for him? You gonna die for him?"

          Actually, maybe he's saying, 'You gonna dive for him?' I can't tell.

          "Watch this, little man," #88 says to me, and he runs a corner and stretches himself beautifully and the catch is good.

          "Nice," I say.

          "Go do it your own damn self," he says. I try, but Bow Wow's pass is too tall. "That's all right," says #88. "Good look. Good look."

          They record everything at every practice. There are cameras all over the two exterior practice fields, and the one field inside our practice bubble. The coaches spend hours digesting everything they see, even body language, and then show us highlights in meetings. I didn't know this my first camp. I'd laugh and joke with other guys, guys whose job I was nominally threatening. I'd go down on one knee to catch my breath. But what message does that send some poor assistant coach or assistant's assistant, who has to sit there and chart every moment of a half-dozen cameras' worth of video? He's working hard, and I'm not? I need that guy's approval. I can't give him a reason. So today it's all business. I have a plan for every instant out here.



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